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What is the Cycle of Violence?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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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.

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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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Nov 07, 2014

@MrsPramm - I often wonder if these don't miss the point a little bit. I'm sure there are a small handful of people out there who simply don't know who to call or how to get information, but I suspect the large majority of people stuck in a cycle of violence are stuck there because they don't want to get out, for whatever reason.

What they need is education on what their rights are, rather than continual prompts to leave without necessarily giving them any information that they didn't already know.

If anything, I think a more successful advertising campaign would reach out to the people around the victim, who would perhaps be better placed to convince them to get help.

By MrsPramm — On Nov 06, 2014

@Fa5t3r - There are quite a few different ways I've seen domestic violence agencies try to get past the abusers without alerting them. There was an ingenious ad campaign a few years ago with billboards in a mall that were of normal looking children at adult height, but when viewed from a child's height they had a photo of a bruised child and a help number they could call. I've also seen Women's Refuge put ads up in female restrooms and other spaces where women were more likely to be by themselves.

By Fa5t3r — On Nov 05, 2014

One of the things that can make it incredibly difficult to get help when you are a victim of domestic violence, is the fact that aggressors tend to be paranoid as well and the victim often knows that they are constantly being monitored and is afraid to even look for help.

The internet makes this easier, but you still have to worry about your searches and history being recorded. If you want to look for help without having to worry about that, I know that Chrome has a mode you can switch to called incognito where it won't record anything that you do. Most websites on domestic violence are quite comprehensive and will offer services for almost any stage.

I know it's unfair that the victim is the one who has to go through so much stress and work to find help, but it's the only way to break the cycle of violence.

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