The Cycle of Domestic Violence
Battering often occurs in the context of something that we call the Cycle of Violence. We have found that even though every relationship is unique, abusive relationships often follow similar cycles.
In 1979, Lenore Walker interviewed 1500 battered women. She found that woman after woman described the same kind of cycle in her relationship. She identified this cycle of violence.
- TENSION: We start the cycle in this relationship at the “okay” stage. The couple is basically okay, interactions are positive or close. Then, as “real life” sets in, tensions start building. We call this the tension building stage. These tensions may be anything from a bad day to major life changes like pregnancies or job loss. It’s good to note here that all relationships have periods of tension. In healthy relationships, the couple may disagree or argue, but both have equal power in the relationship. In battering relationships, the abuser’s need for power and control underlies anger and blaming. The tension continues to escalate. Survivors often describe feeling like they’re “walking on eggshells” during this time.
- EXPLOSION: Ultimately, there is an explosion or battering incident. Abusers may hit, attack, verbally assault, threaten or scream at their partners. Many people feel battering incidents occur because someone is so angry or so drunk that they loose control of themselves. We hear comments like, “if she hadn’t kept nagging me I wouldn’t have lost my temper, or “I was so out of it, I didn’t know what I was doing.” Abusers actually TAKE CONTROL when they batter. They take control of the immediate situation, their partner, their physical space and usually the outcome of the situation. Domestic violence is a crime of POWER AND CONTROL not passion out of control.
- LOVING & CONTRITE: After the explosion comes the honeymoon or loving and contrite stage. The batterer is likely to have actually experienced a physiological release of tension. The batterer is frequently sorry, feeling guilty and willing to try anything to make up. There may be flowers or gifts, dates and romance as in the beginning of the relationship. The couple may even make love in an attempt to reestablish intimacy and security after the explosion. The batterer will also be blaming her for “having to hit her” and will minimize what just happened. She will be in shock, upset and possibly hurt. She will be confused and may feel guilty that somehow she may have caused it. She will want to believe his promises. Both partners deny how bad the abuse was and that it could happen again. We point out here that no woman wants a relationship to end, she wants the battering to end. In this loving and contrite stage, the increased intimacy and promises to get help or never do it again give her hope that things might change.
After a while, the loving stage fades again and we start around the circle once more. They both may believe that it will never happen again, that it was a one-time occurrence. The couple convinces themselves that each incident is isolated and unrelated to the next. There are two things we know about the cycle:
- Without intervention, this cycle does not get better; it actually becomes more frequent. The violence escalates over time.
- Without intervention, the abuse gets worse, and the loving and contrite stages are less apologetic. Eventually, the loving and contrite stage drops out entirely. When crisis callers describe a cycle of violence with no loving and contrite stage, we know she is probably in a great deal of danger.
Key Elements of Domestic Violence
- Conduct perpetrated by adults or adolescents against their intimate partners in current or former dating, married or co-habitating relationships of heterosexuals, gay men and lesbians.
- A pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors, including physical, sexual and psychological attacks as well economic coercion.
- A pattern of behaviors including a variety of tactics – some physically injurious and some not, some criminal and some not – carried out in multiple, sometimes daily episodes.
- A combination of physical attacks, terrorist acts and controlling tactics used by perpetrators that result in fear as well as physical harm to victims and their children.
- A pattern of purposeful behavior, directed at achieving compliance from or control over the victim.
Forms of Abuse
- Physical Assaults
- Sexual Assaults (Pressured, coerced, or forced sex)
- Threats of violence against victim, others, or self
- Attacks against property/pets; other intimidating acts
- Emotional abuse, humiliation, degradation
- Isolation of victim
- Use of children against victim
- Economic coercion
Any deliberate harm done to the body by another person or neglecting the physical needs of another person.
Any deliberate harm done that hurts a person’s self-esteem or makes fun of another’s feelings. Neglect of the emotional needs of another or ignoring another’s feelings.
A deliberate sexual act performed against the will of someone else, or without the other’s knowledge or consent.
THREATS AND INTIMIDATION:
A deliberate use of threats or intimidation to control a person or get them to do what you want. A misuse of trust or friendship and/or a break in confidence.
Using putdowns or name calling to make a person feel or look bad in order to control them. Attacking the nature and abilities of the partner. Can be overt, angry outbursts and name calling, or more subtle, such as manipulative and controlling speech, insidious, disrespectful, disregarding and devaluing the person.
Discounting your sense of right or wrong. Denying, minimizing, ridiculing your spiritual beliefs. Questioning your sense of reality. Refusing to allow you access to worship communities or support groups.
Causes of Domestic Violence
- learned through observation
- learned through experience and reinforcement
- learned in culture
- learned in family
- learned in communities; schools, peer groups, etc.
Not Caused By:
- alcohol and drugs
- out-of-control behavior
- behavior of the victim or problems in the relationship
Effects of Domestic Violence on Children
- Research studies report the co-occurrence of spousal abuse and child abuse among 40-60% of families.
- Research indicates that children exposed to domestic violence demonstrate:
- Higher levels of aggression
- Lower social and academic competence
- Elevated levels of traumatic symptoms
- Children who witness violence at home display emotional and behavioral disturbances such as:
- Low self-esteem
- Aggression against peers, family members, property
- Over 3 million children are at-risk of exposure to parental violence each year.
- In a national survey of more than 6,000 families, 50% of the men who frequently assaulted their wives also frequently abused their children.
- Approximately one in five high school girls reported being abused by a boyfriend.
- According to the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect, “children in violent homes face three risks”:
- Risk of observing traumatic events
- Risk of being abused themselves
- Risk of being neglected
Impact on Children
- Learn to accept violence as a way to resolve conflicts
- Learn to maintain control of others by using threats of violence
- Often feel guilty for the violence between their parents
- Feel angry toward one or both parents
- Experience anxiety and fear
- Often “protect” the abuser in the face of outside intervention
- Have sleep disturbances such as:
- Bed wetting problems
- Have difficulties in school:
- Staying awake in class
- Concentrating on work
- Playing/interacting with peers
- Have poor appetites
- Often confuse love and violence
- Learn unhealthy sex-role stereotypes from parents
- Grow up to be abusers of their own mates or children; or become victims
- May use violence to problem-solve in school, with peers and with family
- Frequently maim or kill animals or hurt siblings
Children and the Cycle of Abuse
- Children are sometimes used as a weapon against the victim.
- Children may be used to interrogate the victim’s activities.
- Children may be held hostage or abducted in efforts to punish or gain victim’s compliance.
Children can be accidentally injured when the batterer is assaulting the victim.
Why Do Victims Stay?
- Perpetrator’s behavior; Escalating violence, stalking, harassment, hostage taking, threats against children; promises he will change
- Lack of safe options; Housing, jobs, healthcare, schooling, information, etc.
- Lack of community support for victim; Pressures to stay in relationship, religious/cultural values, family/children, victim blaming attitudes of community
- Victim overwhelmed by the immediate Physical and psychological trauma
- Victim ambivalence; Hope, love, attachment to positive qualities of relationship.
Why Victims Stay
Prepared by Anne L. Ganley, Ph.D. for the Family Violence Prevention Fund
FearFear dominates the lives of most battered women who daily live with uncertainty about their life and safety. The battered woman knows that any circumstances or small incident could trigger the abuser’s violence. This tremendous fear and anxiety paralyzes the woman, subjecting her to further domination and dependence. The overwhelming tension and uncertainty often permeates other areas of her life, whereby she becomes insecure in daily tasks. She does not leave the batterer because she is paralyzed by fear and anxiety.
AngerAll victims experience anger at some level about the situation they are subjected to. Some women will be able to locate the source of their anger, expressing it directly at the assailant. Others, however, internalize the anger, allowing it to turn inward, which results in guilt and self-blame. Repression of anger often leads to depression in which the woman feels a loss of control over her own emotions.
GuiltMany battered women internalize the traditional sex-roles that hold women responsible for the nurturance, well-being and harmony of the family or relationship. Blame is directed at the woman for all family conflicts and “marital problems.” She eventually believes the abuse or battering is a result of her own inadequacy as wife, mother, or lover. Women are taught that the violence is a result of their failure to meet the man’s emotional needs. Women, thus, feel responsible for the abuse and violence and, consequently, search for ways to change their behaviors and responses to reduce the frequency of violence. Women may not consider the possibility that, no matter what they do or how they try to change, the abuse will continue.
IsolationMost battered women are isolated from friends, family members and sources of support. These women isolate themselves because they are too ashamed to admit they have been battered. They are forced to sever their friendships to avoid the daily disguise of their injuries and emotions. In addition, many batterers actively maintain the woman in an isolated state to ensure his domination and control. More than often, the batterer will not allow his wife to work, visit friends or keep family ties. He may threaten to harm family and friends if she goes to them for help or tells anyone about the abuse. As a result, the more isolated a woman becomes in her own home, the more dependent she is upon the man.
Acceptance of the violenceMany women have been socialized to accept the attitude that men hold the right to use physical violence against their wives or lovers as a means of punishment, discipline or merely to demonstrate superiority. Societal religious messages teach women to passively accept the violence as part of one’s role and duty in a relationship. Many women have witnessed abuse against their own mothers who tolerated violence all their lives. Other battered women experienced physical abuse by their fathers. Hence, they learn that violence is socially acceptable inside the home (reinforced by television, police responses, laws, etc.). In addition, the man’s family frequently justifies his abusive behavior, relating it to job stress, anxiety or alcohol. His family and friends attempt to hold the relationship together, pointing to the violence as evidence of his need for nurturance and care. Also, alcohol has been consistently used as an excuse for violent behavior, shifting the blame for violence from the man to the effects of alcohol.
Emotional dependenceOften women remain in a battering relationship for a long time because they are emotionally dependent. Traditional women’s roles confine sources of self-respect and identity to “appropriate” performances of traditional sex-role prescriptions. Hence, the husband remains the exclusive source of approval and emotional support. Women’s identities are established on pleasing and nurturing others (especially men), while denying their own need for self-nurturing and assertiveness. In addition, batterers establish this dependence by the fear, isolation, and depression he inflicts on her through the abuse.
Economic dependenceEconomic dependence traps many women in abusive relationships. Many battered women who do not hold a paying job perceive themselves as incapable of living independently. Often in violent marriages, the husband controls all the finances and secures the family property in his name only. He keeps his wife ignorant of the family income, merely allotting her a weekly allowance. Many believe that, regardless of the woman’s emotional state, the degree to which she is economically dependent ultimately determines whether or not she will attempt to break the relationship and establish an independent existence.
False Assumptions About Domestic Violence
- They enjoy being abused.
- They could leave if they wanted to.
- They provoke the abuse by nagging.
- If they defended themselves, the violence would stop.
- If they leave or file for divorce, the abuse will stop.
- They are all minorities.
- They are all crazy.
- The police can protect them.
- Pregnant women are not battered.
- Once battered, they will seek other abusive relationships.
False Assumptions About Batterers
- They are always provoked.
- They would stop abusing if they were financially secure.
- They are always drunk/on drugs when they batter.
- They will stop battering if they are arrested.
- Religious man/women do not batter.
- If they are violent in the home, they are violent to everyone.
- The violence will stop once they are married.
- Batters have learned that violence is an appropriate way to deal with anger and an appropriate way to problem-solve.
Domestic Violence and Rape Risk Factors
- Often portrayed as jealous, domineering.
- Feel a sense of entitlement to have sex with “their property.”
- Pregnancy places women at higher risk for physical and sexual abuse.
- Being ill or recently discharged from the hospital are also risk factors.
- Women are at higher risk of being physically/sexually abused when they attempt to leave.
- 2/3 of women were sexually assaulted at the end of a relationship.
- Women who are separated/divorced from partners at high risk for sexual abuse.
Things That Don’t Work
- You can’t change your partner’s behavior. You cannot stop your partner’s violence toward you. Your partner is in control of his/her actions, just as you are in control of yours.
- You can’t stay in an abusive relationship and be safe. Without intervention, family violence becomes more frequent and severe.
- You can’t “do the right thing” to please the abuser. It’s not about you. The choice to abuse lies with the abuser.
- You can’t save the relationship by yourself. You can go to counseling, you can “be” whatever you think it takes to make things better – but it takes two people to make a relationship work.
- Don’t blame yourself for your own victimization. It’s not your fault.
- You can’t forgive and forget. It only gives the abuser license to strike again. If the abuser suffers no consequences, he/she has no reason to stop the abuse.
- You can’t shield your partner from the consequences of abusive behavior. “My partner didn’t really mean it … this time, officer!” If the abuser doesn’t want to change the behavior, it doesn’t matter how much he pleads or threatens in order not to face jail. The abuser will promise anything to avoid consequences. Don’t risk your life to help someone who is hurting you.
- You shouldn’t respond to violence with violence. Violence is not an appropriate or helpful response to another person’s actions or words. But remember, if you are in extreme fear for your life, you have the right to defend yourself.
Remember: If domestic violence has made you angry, that is good. Your well-directed anger at this mistreatment is an acknowledgment of your self worth. Healthy anger will make you strong – and that’s vital aspect of getting yourself out of an abusive relationship and into a safe environment.
*Reprinted with permission from Kaiser Permanente Health Plan Communications Planning for Health, 1994 Issue 2, Women in Focus