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What Is the Cycle of Violence?

People who feel trapped in a cycle of violence may escalate things in an attempt to escape.
A man yelling at his wife.
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  • Written By: Tara Barnett
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 17 August 2014
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The cycle of violence is typically thought of as a representation and explanation of ongoing violence within a relationship. Relations between the participants go through identifiable stages that repeat themselves until at least one participant physically and emotionally withdraws from the interaction with the intention of abstaining from interaction permanently. While this model is usually applied to abusive behavior in domestic relationships, it can be applied to any prolonged personal relationship.

Abuse that occurs cyclically may be physical, sexual, or psychological in nature, and is not confined to gendered roles. When people learn abusive behavior as children through experience or observation, repetition of this behavior as adults towards children can be considered a larger, lifelong cycle of violence.

The cycle of violence has its roots in a social theory attributed to Lenore Walker, which was intended to explain patterns of male-initiated abuse of women during relationships. Walker's evidence of this cycle was based solely on heterosexual relationships and relied on the testimony of a small number of women suffering abuse. The basic structure of this explanation was adopted by many organizations working against domestic violence, where the isolation of stages of violence rang true to a large number of people in abusive relationships. While these organizations acknowledge that this model may not apply to every case of domestic abuse, the ability to identify, explain, and understand the process involved in abuse is helpful to many victims and gives them enough clarity to break the cycle.

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An unbroken circle is typically used to represent the cycle of violence, with arrows moving continuously between stages. Different phases of the cycle are described in many different ways, but they all have certain features in common. Some victims do not have experiences that resonate with this model, but most can identify with some of the feelings mentioned in the descriptions.

During the first stage, tension builds and the victim can usually intuit that violence is about to occur. The victim may attempt to pacify the abuser in order to avoid reaching the next stage. This stage is usually described as a breakdown in communication, and knowing that abuse is coming can make the victim break down before overt abuse has started.

The second stage involves overt abuse, be it physical, sexual, or psychological. If the abuse is psychological, then this stage may be difficult to distinguish from the tension stage. Physical and sexual abuse will evolve out of the tension stage when the breakdown in communication becomes too much. This stage is sometimes called the crisis phase.

After the outburst of overt violence has passed, the third stage in the cycle of violence commences. This is the stage that does the most work to keep the cycle going. The abuser becomes affectionate, apologetic, or otherwise pacifies the victim with promises and regrets. In some severe cases, the abuser may convince the victim that no abuse has occurred at all. Often called the honeymoon phase, the attempts to gain sympathy and keep the victim locked in the cycle of violence must succeed in order for the relationship to continue.

Once the relationship has been solidified by the honeymoon phase, the relationship enters a period of calm and normal activities are resumed. This period may last for any length of time, though it is generally longer than any of the other phases. The longer the period of calm, the harder it can be for a victim to recognize that he or she is in a cycle, and that the incidents of violence are related.

Showing victims a representation of the patterns of violence they are experiencing can often help to identify ways in which those patterns could be modified. Sometimes, abusers who are faced with representations of his or her behaviors have the presence of mind to seek treatment, particularly if the abuse is related to substances. Even though the research strategies used to create the original Walker model were flawed by modern standards, having a tool that can be used to initiate the end of cycles of violence is valuable to all organizations that aim to end interpersonal abuse.

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