In Abuse

Understanding the Cycle of Violence

cycle of violence

The cycle of violence is a term applied to the pattern of violent behaviors exhibited in abusive relationships. The behaviors, actions or events are repeated over and over with similar beginnings and endings and often increase in intensity over time. Victims often believe that they have done something to deserve the abuse or have said something to provoke the abuser.

The cycle is most commonly associated with domestic violence but cycles of abuse are also found in the workplace, classroom or any environment where an abuser has power or authority over another person. Abuse occurs when one person in an intimate relationship seeks to gain power or control over the other person.

Who Are the Victims of Violence and Abuse?

Domestic violence has no race or age restrictions. It can happen to anyone regardless of geography or gender, social or economic background, educational level, family history or religion. It occurs in marriages, dating relationships, family relationships. It can happen in the home or anyplace where an abuser is in a close relationship with another person.

Women and children represent the highest number of physical abuse victims but men are also victims of physical and other types of abuse. As the population grows older incidents of domestic violence against the elderly has notably increased. Abuse and violence of elderly living in nursing homes or short term care facilities is also on the rise.

A cycle of violence is difficult to break and is very often passed from one generation to the next.

Types of Abuse

Recognizing the types of abuse is the first step toward understanding what happens during the cycle of abuse. Abuse comes in many forms including physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse. All or one plays a part in completing the cycle of violence or abuse.

Physical Abuse: Physical acts like hitting, punching, pushing, hair pulling, pinching, severe beatings or any physical act or advance toward another person with the intention of hurting or injuring.

Sexual Abuse: Includes but is not limited to marital rape, forced sex, abuse of sexual body parts. Acts are committed against adults and children alike. Sexual abuse includes forced or unconsented performance of sexual acts as well as attempts to coerce sexual contact or behavior.

Emotional and Verbal Abuse: This type of abuse is classified as “non-physical”. Behaviors include but are not limited to screaming, yelling, threatening, name calling, “in your face” verbal intimidation, public embarrassment, verbal harassment.

Threats, monitoring activity, stalking, ordering the victim to do things, controlling who they see, what they wear, controlling spending, making them feel guilty about lack of sex, affection or attention are also examples of emotional abuse.

The Cycle of Violence Has Three Phases

The cycle of violence “social cycle theory” was developed and documented in the ‘70s by Lenore E. Walker, Founder of the Domestic Violence Institute. It explains patterns of behavior in an abusive relationship.

According to Walker there are three phases that occur during a cycle of violence/abuse that form a pattern with a specific beginning and end. The pattern repeats again and again, thus described as a cycle. Each phase is distinctly separate and begins with violent, dangerous or abusive acts that may intensify over time.

Walker’s theory is explained fully in her book “The Battered Woman Syndrome”. Below is a summary of the key points.

Phase I: Tension Phase

The tension phase can last for days, weeks or months. During this phase the abuser may verbally abuse the victim and minor incidents of violence sometimes occur. The most commonly expressed feeling by victims is of “walking on eggshells” waiting for something to happen or for the abuser’s mood to change.

Phase II: Acute or Crisis Phase

After a period in which tension builds, the tension finally erupts into severe abuse or violence lasting up to 72 hours. During this time the abused victim is in survival mode and takes one or more courses of action including submission, hiding, or escape. The abuse may result in serious injury, even death.

Phase III: Calm or Honeymoon Phase

The victim wants to believe that the abuser is telling the truth and that the abuse won’t happen again. Children, family members, or others close to the victim also want to believe that it won’t happen again. ‘

But it does… again and again, sometimes with changes in the length of each phase. The “calm” phase may become shorter, violence may increase and in some cases the abuser never fully reaches the “calm” phase other than exhibiting a decrease in tension before the cycle starts again.

Walker’s theory is well described in an adaption by The 1736 Family Crisis Center of Los Angeles, CA

Abuse Is a Learned Behavior

Domestic violence affects the abused and everyone associated with the victim. It has a negative impact on family, friends and those who witness the abuse. Those most seriously affected are children who typically end up with emotional problems or conditions and who then continue the cycle of violence (intergenerational cycle of violence/abuse).

“Intergenerational cycle of violence” is a is a term applied to abuse behaviors passed from parent to child, sibling to sibling, uncles or aunts to nieces and nephews or any family member to another. It is a learned behavior that starts when a child is very young and may be confined to immediate family or may be widespread across layers of relatives and generations.

When a child grows up in an abusive environment he or she quickly learns that violence or abusive treatment is a regular part of relationships. Even though the child may not be the direct victim of the abuser, the witnessed behaviors become subconsciously ingrained into the child’s emotional development and destined to become part of the child’s own adult behavior.

The cycle is difficult to break but by using available resources younger family members can stop the violence from being passed to the next generation.

Domestic Violence Statistics

Domestic violence and abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and around the world. The number of unreported incidents is staggering and the number of injuries and deaths caused by domestic violence is shocking. Allstate Insurance reported that 2 million injuries and 1,300 deaths are caused each year as a result of domestic violence.

According to reported statistics:

  • domestic violence primarily impacts women.
  • In the United States, every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten.
  • Globally, one in three women has been beaten or sexually abused at some level.
  • The leading cause of injury to women is domestic violence.
  • Every year up to 10 million children witness domestic violence in some form.
  • One in five teenage girls 1 in 5 teenage girls have been threated in a violent manner.
  • In the United States, two to three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day.
  • Victims of domestic violence lose close to eight million work days each year in the U.S.
  • Globally, 55 to 95 percent of women who experienced physical domestic abuse have never reached out to any authority or organization for help.
  • Boys who witness parental domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse wives/girlfriends than those who were raised in nonviolent families.
  • Almost every child exposed to violence or abuse will develop emotional problems, personality disorders, and/or exhibit violent or abusive behaviors as an adult.

Where to Get Help

Breaking the cycle of violence is far more complex than just “getting out of the relationship”. It may take months or years to break the cycle but help is readily available. Contacting a professional for guidance is usually the first step and counseling can help a victim break loose from a cycle of violence.

If counseling is not an option victims of abuse or violence can also find help through local agencies, abuse center crisis counselors, clergy, through shelters for abuse victims, and local abuse support groups. Assistance and guidance is also available through online resources and national hotlines.

Do not hesitate to reach out for help if you are a victim of domestic violence or know of someone in need of assistance. No person should ever feel that they deserve to be abused in any way and no child should be subjected to violence or abuse of any kind.

Below is a suggested list of resources that offer help or advice to victims of domestic violence and abuse. There are many more.

National Domestic Hotline 1-800-799-7233

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence Organizations

Women Helping Women

Family and Youth Services Bureau

Help Guide 

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