Domestic violence is an ever-growing problem that affects men, women and children all around the globe. Domestic violence manifests itself in various ways and is vastly different for each individual. Not all abuse is physical; there are other forms of violence such as sexual abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse and controlling/manipulative behavior. However, there are some commonalities in the pattern of behavior that occurs in domestic abuse. Lenore Walker, a psychologist looking to understand and prevent domestic violence, studied battered womens’ testimonies and found that domestic violence often follows a patterned cycle of behavior. In 1979, she published her theory of the cycle of abuse, which consists of three distinct stages: tension-building phase, acute violence, and reconciliation phase. These stages of domestic violence may help us understand the dynamic of domestic violence and help find ways to prevent it in the future.
The first stage of the cycle is the tension-building phase. As the name suggests, tension builds due to pressures of daily life and small interpersonal conflicts. These conflicts may include marital problems, financial problems, problems at work or health problems. These conflicts cause an increase in the frequency of early signs of abuse. For instance, the batterer shows increased irritability, impatience, sudden mood swings and emotional outbursts. As a response, the victim will often exhibit increased anxiety about the impending abuse and try to diffuse the situation. The victim will try to calm the batterer down and be more compliant to the aggressor in order to avoid an abusive situation. However, this will only further aggravate the batterer.
The second stage of the cycle is the acute violence stage. In this stage, the tension built from the first stage escalates to acts of violence and abuse. The aggressor often has lack of control over his behavior and the victim may feel helpless in stopping the abuse, for which reason the battered person will not immediately seek help. These acts of violence may include sexual violence, threats, insults, manipulation and humiliation. These acts of violence typically increase in intensity and duration each time and negatively impact the family dynamic, especially on the children.
The last stage of the cycle is the reconciliation stage. In this stage, the tension and violence from the first two stages have dissipated. The batterer will try to reconcile his acts of violence by apologizing to the victim and promising it will never happen again. The batterer may do this because he/she actually feels remorse, or as a manipulative measure to get the victim to not leave or call the cops. In many cases, the victim will be convinced of the aggressor’s attempt at reconciliation and stay in the relationship, further reinforcing the aggressor’s violent behavior. The victim is convinced this is a one-time thing and that it won’t happen again. Then, the cycle restarts when tension starts to build again.
It is easier said than done to leave an abusive relationship. It may be hard for a victim of abuse to leave a relationship or take action against the violence due to fear of things getting worse, financial dependency on the aggressor, and concern for the well-being of the child. Even when victims are aware of this vicious cycle and have left the relationship, they are unable to seek professional help due to several barriers.
In a qualitative study on domestic violence, Silva et al. (2022) found some of these barriers on both an individual level and a socio-cultural level. On an individual level, a common barrier preventing seeking professional help was lack of knowledge or confidence in healthcare professionals. Many women also reported they did not trust the confidentiality in healthcare settings and feared the perpetrator or others will find out. Another common barrier was that victims did not have a negative attitude toward domestic violence. Many abused women still had loyalty towards the perpetrator because they felt the abuse was not that severe or they were manipulated to believe so by the perpetrator. The last major barrier was socio-cultural expectations of the role of women. The social stigma around domestic violence prevented women from seeking help out of fear that they will be judged in society.
As shown in Silva’s study, a major barrier to receiving professional help is our general conception of domestic violence and the stigma that follows it. Much of this is due simply to the lack of knowledge of the general public about domestic violence. Therefore the value of establishing a cycle of domestic violence is that the general population be more aware of the reality of domestic violence in our society. The hope is that such knowledge may help prevent some of the victim-shaming/blaming that we see in our society today. The fight against domestic violence should not just be the responsibility of the victims; we, as a society, must make an effort to reduce the stigma around domestic violence and put an end to domestic violence.
If you need help with any form of domestic violence: