The Cycle of Violence: Signs You Are in a Toxic Relationship

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By Dr. Ramona Probasco


Do you remember riding the merry-go-round as a kid, oblivious to the fact (and even enjoying) that you were just going around in circles? Between trying to spot your waving parent and holding on for dear life so you didn’t slip off the well-shellacked horse, you were having the time of your life! As an adult, however, merry-go-rounds don’t always elicit the same warm, fuzzy feelings — some types of merry-go-rounds can even make you sick.

The Cycle of Violence is such a merry-go-round. This social cycle theory, developed in 1979 by psychologist Lenore E. Walker, explains patterns of behavior in abusive relationships. For her book “The Battered Woman”, Walker interviewed 1,500 women who had been victims of domestic violence, and she found that there was a distinct behavioral pattern in abusive relationships. To this day, Walker’s research continues to identify this domestic violence pattern. Below is a brief description of the three phases in the Cycle of Violence.

Phase One: Tension Building

Phase one is marked by minor violent incidents, which may include pushing, shoving, verbal abuse and arguments. The victim usually attempts to manage the abuser in a variety of ways. The victim may attempt to calm the abuser by becoming nurturing or compliant. They may also acknowledge the abusive behavior, but believe that conciliatory overtures will prevent the anger and abuse from escalating. As tensions escalate, the victim’s coping mechanisms diminish, along with the ability to deal with the abuse and keep quiet.

Phase Two: The Explosion

Tension that builds in phase one sets the stage for the acute battering incident in phase two, or the explosion. This phase is identified by the uncontrolled release of tension through either emotional, verbal, and/or physical violence. The rage is so great at this point that the abuser appears to lose control over their behavior.

The abuser may want to “teach a lesson,” then stop when they feel the point has been made clear. Unfortunately, by this time the victim has often been physically, verbally, and/or emotionally battered.

During acute battering incidents, the abuser often justifies their behavior by reciting many petty annoyances that occurred during phase one. The actual attack is usually followed by shock, disbelief, and denial on behalf of the abuser and the victim. Both may attempt to rationalize the extreme seriousness of the incident, and often, if there is physical injury, they will minimize it.

Phase Three: The Honeymoon

During phase three, the victimization is solidified. Just as brutality marks the explosion of phase two, in the honeymoon phase, the abuser displays extremely loving, kind and remorseful behaviors. They often beg for forgiveness and promise that it will never happen again. The abuser typically reinforces apologies with gifts, and vows to give up any and all behaviors that contribute to the tension-building phase (drinking, affairs, working long hours, and/or any other stressful factors), which both parties would like to believe caused the explosion.

The most disheartening part of the honeymoon phase is the false hope that it fosters. The victim gets a glimpse of what they thought — and still hope — they had in a partner. The abuser’s kind behavior reinforces the hope that the situation can truly be better, if only the stressors were removed.

During phase three, the victim often senses that the abuser is desperate, lonely, and alienated, and they feel responsible to be a bridge to the abuser’s well-being.

Many victims who previously sought professional help often abandon their support groups, stop going to counseling, drop abuse charges, or discontinue divorce or separation proceedings. The victim falsely believes that the situation has reversed itself.

It is important to note that this Cycle of Violence will repeat itself over and over again, and it usually escalates over time. If you identify with the information above, I strongly encourage you to seek out professional help from a trained mental health provider who is educated on the subject of domestic violence. Please visit the Resources page for a list of helpful and informative organizations that support victims of domestic violence.


Online editor for Hers magazine.

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