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In her 1979 book, The Battered Woman, psychologist Lenore Walker identified a pattern of behavior that abusers and abused persons often follow. She called it the "Cycle Theory of Violence." This domestic violence cycle follows three basic phases: the building up of tension, followed by the eruption of physical violence, ending with heartfelt remorse. Once the cycle is complete, it repeats itself again and again. The cycle can unfold rapidly in as little as one day or build gradually over a period of weeks or months. Not every domestic violence relationship follows this cycle, but most do. Families caught up in domestic violence relationships see their lives begin to revolve around managing the violence. In the beginning, they live in fear of the coming eruption. When it occurs, life becomes about surviving the episode. Once it's over, the family's energies are directed toward recovering from what has happened. It is a cycle that feeds on and destroys the vitality and the sanctity of these families. Only intervention to break the pattern, healing, and restoration can change this. Recognizing domestic violence is the start of breaking the cycle. Whether you recognize it in your own relationship or in someone else's, it's important to take action to break the cycle.
The Domestic Violence Cycle
Let's look briefly at each phase of the cycle. Tension-building phase—This first phase generally takes the forms of emotional abuse and threats. The abuser constantly picks fights about everything: the kids, money, the job he or she hates. The abuser criticizes constantly. Dinner wasn't good enough. The house is too dirty. The kids are too loud. Nothing is ever right. He becomes increasingly demanding and controlling, wanting to know where she is at all times and with whom. He becomes verbally abusive. He screams. He destroys her clothing so she can't go out, even to work. He belittles any successes she has had, and makes sure she understands that without him she'd be on the streets. He calls her names. Alcohol or drugs may be part of the picture, making things much worse. Life for the victim becomes about managing the chaos, trying to keep the lid on the volcano she knows will blow at any time. She lives in a state of constant anxiety, worried for herself and her children. Eventually, he finds the excuse he needs to explode, and the battering begins. Acute-battering episode—there’s usually a trigger. The batterer has baited the situation long enough, verbally sprayed around enough starter fluid, and suddenly, there it is–—the trigger he or she has been waiting for. Experts believe that sometimes the abused person will push that triggering incident just to get the battering over with and release the tension in the household. At this point, the abuse escalates into physical and other sexual abuse. He punches. He kicks. He chokes. He bites. He burns. He breaks bones. He rapes. Sometimes, he does all of this in front of the children. Sometimes, he doesn't stop with their mother. The honeymoon phase—"I'm so sorry." At first, when he sees how much damage he has done, he's frightened, remorseful, and ashamed. Later, he starts trying to rationalize his behavior. He asks her to share the responsibility: "If only you had not . . . ." Still, he reassures her that this is the last time this will ever happen. But there's always that suggestion that she needs to be sure not to push his buttons again. This is often called the honeymoon phase, because during his remorse, he courts his intimate partner again. He wants her to stay, so he buys gifts. He says the right things. He's kind and gentle again. He reminds her of the man she fell in love with. She can allow herself to believe that he means it; this will never happen again. And it doesn't, until the next time. Only next time, it doesn't take as long for the tension-building phase to begin. Domestic violence is a cycle of behavior that will be repeated again and again, unless someone breaks the cycle.
Recognize the Signs of the Start of the Cycle
If you recognize any of the following, you may be witnessing the Tension-Building Phase of a domestic violence cycle that can turn quickly into Acute Battering:
One intimate partner threatens the other constantly, especially threats of violence.
One intimate partner frequently calls the other names and belittles his or her accomplishments.
One intimate partner prevents the other from seeing family, friends, and even neighbors.
One intimate partner must report his or her whereabouts to the other frequently.
One intimate partner controls all the money and demands a close accounting of how the other spends any of it.
One intimate partner withholds vital resources, such as grocery money, medication, or the rent, to get his or her way.
One intimate partner controls what the other one wears.
One intimate partner constantly blames the other for his or her problems.
One intimate partner ridicules the other's faith and tries to prevent him or her from practicing it.
One intimate partner constantly, irrationally, accuses the other of cheating.
One intimate partner abuses alcohol or drugs and becomes confrontational when under the influence.
One intimate partner manhandles the children or pets in the relationship.
One intimate partner insists on nonconsensual sex.
One intimate partner pushes, shoves, screams, slaps, throws things, wields weapons, or threatens to do any of these when upset.
One intimate partner blames the other for his or her loss of control.
The operative word in most of these signs is "control." When one intimate partner insists on controlling every aspect of the other's life, a cycle of abuse is developing that can or may have already turned violent.
What Can I Do to Break the Cycle of Domestic Violence?
If you're living in a cycle of domestic violence, seek help immediately. Call us at 909 529-3373 or 911 if you're in imminent danger. If you recognize the signs of the domestic violence cycle in someone else's relationship, try to speak to the victimized person alone to confirm your suspicions. Then, seek help for the individual. Contact us at 877-356-SAFE. She may need shelter, protection, and medical services. Speak to your church or community organization about getting your leaders and members trained to recognize and intervene safely in domestic violence relationships. Silence is an abuser's best friend. The more knowledgeable we become about abuse, the better we are able to form networks of protection for its victims and hold perpetrators accountable. Contact us to learn about getting your church, school, or local community leaders trained in recognizing and breaking the cycle of domestic violence.
Need Help: National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-7233 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or 9-1-1