The Cycle of Domestic Violence
Written by Victoria Marion
The Dynamics of Domestic Violence
Domestic violence does not discriminate and can occur in heterosexual relationships, same-sex relationships, marital, and dating relationships, to siblings, with family members, and in all occupations, populations, and cultures. The consequences can be devastating, and it is the leading cause of injury among women (NIH, 2009).
What is Domestic Violence?
As mentioned earlier in the book, and worth mentioning again, first and foremost, domestic violence is a crime, a crime where so many lack understanding of the dynamics and nature of the crime. It is often dismissed as a family matter and society is often socialized to believe it is a private matter, even after thirty years of awareness and advocacy on the subject. One definition of domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors used to gain or maintain control of an intimate partner or family member According to the USDOJ Officer on Violence Against Women, "domestic violence can be defined as a pattern of abusive behaviors in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone" (USDOJ OVW 2009). There are other types of abuse that I would like to add including religious and animal abuse to this list.
The Cycle of Violence in Intimate Partner Abuse
Domestic violence may seem unpredictable, but the cycle of violence does follow a typical pattern. The cycle repeats itself and may last different lengths of time with each episode. There are three phases to this cycle; the honeymoon phase, the escalation phase, and the battering phase. Twenty years ago, I worked as a victim’s advocate for domestic and sexual assault survivors. During our training, we learned that the first phase of abuse is the escalation phase, followed by the battering phase, and then the honeymoon phase. It was written in the literature this way. However, it is the honeymoon phase that is the first phase in an abusive relationship.
Think about it, when we first meet someone, everything is good. Everyone is on their best behavior. There is harmony. Flowers are sent, gifts are given, compliments are said, and so on. It is like a honeymoon. A honeymoon is a period of harmony following marriage or the establishment of a new relationship. In an abusive relationship, the honeymoon phase is more like love bombing. What is love bombing? This is when the abuser showers the victim with suffocating attention, affection, gifts, or they may tell you that they love you right away. Things move quickly, too much too soon. This overwhelming amount of positive attention feels good and the victim falls in love with a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Love bombing is the first tool used in the abuser’s toolbox. The abuser will barrage you with text messages and phone calls. They give suffocating attention, and they have a constant need to be with you. Love bombing can be described as the practice of overwhelming someone with signs of adoration, attention, and attraction. Examples include constant flattering comments, love notes left on your car, flowers delivered, and texting little hearts to you all day. For example, texts that increase in frequency, and with romantic excitement. It is surprise appearances designed to manipulate you into spending more time with the abuser, less time with others, or on your own, and grooming you for future abuse.
The unsuspecting partner, aka the future victim, feels good. She’s giddy, floating on air. It feels like a dream, a fairytale, or the love story she never had. She’s not thinking clearly because she is consumed in all the attention, and the fun, new excitement of the relationship. That is the goal of love bombing. It is a manipulation tactic used to gain trust, adoration, and affection. It is used to gain narcissistic supply for the abuser. It is also used to build a bond with the victim.
The love bombing will cease immediately without notice, typically within the first six weeks. The victim will go from receiving twenty-five texts and phone calls in one day, to maybe one later in the evening. The victim is left confused. The victim may ask if everything is alright, and the calculating partner may say something like “yea, why?” and nothing more as if everything is as it was before. The gifts stop. Everything ceases. The victim wonders what happened, questioning everything that occurred over the past six weeks. She wonders if the relationship is over. She was caught up in the dopamine rush that the love-bombing created, creating an addiction feeling.
All abusers have some characteristics of or some type of personality disorder. Narcissistic, anti-social, borderline, personality disorders are examples. All the personality disorders contain characteristics of manipulation. Narcissistic abusers move quickly. They get bored very easily. They are always looking for new and exciting supply. Much like the victim who was consumed with the dopamine rush created by the love bombing, the abuser also feels that same dopamine rush and is addicted to this lifestyle. At the beginning of the relationship the victim was the perfect supply. They were a new mind and body for the abuser to explore. If she stays in the relationship at this point, this will be the beginning of a very dangerous ride. The trauma bond is being built. Victims believe they are in love, but in reality, she is in love with what she thought he was. This tactic is used to divert the victim’s attention away from who he really is.
If the survivor has been in the battering relationship for some time, they may recognize what phase of abuse they are in but may not be able to identify the name for that phase; however, they do recognize the pattern that the abuse almost always follows. Next is the tension building phase.
The Tension Building Phase
The tension-building phase is also known as the escalation or build-up phase. During this phase, there is an increase in, anger, blaming and arguing in the relationship. This phase may last days, weeks, or months. This phase typically becomes more frequent as the cycle is repeated. During this time the batterer may increase in verbal and minor physical assaults, such as berating the victim, especially in front of others; calling the victim names; putting down the victim’s friends and family; the batterer may throw things, threaten, and use other actions to frighten the victim into submission.
Victim’s state that you can feel this phase. It’s out of the blue and felt in the air. It is like a dark cloud that is looming over the household. It may begin with the slightest misunderstanding or miscommunication, from nothing at all. The abuser becomes argumentative. He is on edge, tense, moody, irritable. He walks around with an authoritarian attitude both in his body language, and words. He will use dominating and controlling language. He will reject or withhold any response. This action gets the victim to react since she feels ignored. He will state a problem, she will attempt to communicate to resolve the problem in a calm and loving way, and then he will give her the silent treatment or deny any fault and of course blame the victim. It goes around and around, and there is no resolution with this type of abusive communication. He will hurl accusations and blame the victim for the situation and tell them “I’m this way because of you. I act like this because of you” (or because of what you did). They take no responsibility for anything. The abuser is extremely critical of anything and everything that the victim does or says. He may bring up random or trivial things from the past to light your fire to get you to argue back and defend yourself.
The victim feels as if they are walking on eggshells. The victim feels the stress and anxiety building. Victims may feel apprehensive and fearful. The victim realizes the consequences if they do not comply. The victim will begin pleasing and appeasing the abuser in order to restore balance or harmony within the household. She will become extra nurturing, submissive, obedient, and agree with everything the abuser does or says. She feels very controlled but doesn’t reveal this in fear of retaliation from the abuser. She will do whatever she can to keep the peace and calm in the relationship. It is a frightening experience for the victim and their children all the while the abuser remains agitated and continues to tell the victim its all their fault. The crazy-making leads to the battering phase aka the explosive phase.
During this phase, there may be physical and or psychological battering. This may include hitting, slapping, kicking, strangling, using objects or weapons; sexual abuse; psychological abuse, and verbal threats. The batterer learns that this type of action helps to "relieve stress" also known as the stress from the tension that had been building up, and this phase changes behavior in the victim. It should be noted we are not saying that battering is a healthy stress relief. It is tension relief that is seen in the tension building phase that finally erupts. The explosive phase is like the storm that finally presents itself. The victim knew a storm was coming by the warning signs of the dark looming clouds she had seen before the storm began.
Honeymoon Phase/Reconciliation Phase
This next phase is the calm after the storm. The sun starts to come out. Everything is flowers and sunshine. He apologizes and swears it will never happen again. The abuser will be kind and generous. He will declare his love and commitment to her. He may say “I could never live without you. I’ll kill myself if I lose you. You’re too good for me. It will never happen again. I was drunk. I’m stressed at work. I should have never taken it out on you.”
This manipulative stage is filled with false and empty promises that the victim holds onto, hoping that he really means it this time. The abuser may begin to help around the house when before he didn’t. He will buy gifts, flowers, and tell her how much he loves her. He puts on a good show to reveal that things are “really going to change.” He may even agree to go to therapy during this phase. The key here is “agree “to go. It doesn’t mean he will go. When it comes right down to it, the abuser will not go once the appointment is scheduled. In fact, the appointment may trigger another episode of abuse to avoid going to the appointment. Remember abusers do not take responsibility for their actions. If he does go to therapy, he will attempt to blame the victim for everything. He will attempt to manipulate the therapy session. A skilled therapist will pick up on this, some therapists do not, and may agree with the abuser, further debilitating the victim. It is suggested that couples in abusive relationships attend therapy individually first in order to prevent power imbalance within the therapy session.
During the reconciliation phase, the victim may feel confused, hurt, betrayed, and relieved all at the same time. This will create cognitive dissonance. The inconsistency in her feelings has her off balance. During this phase, the victim and the abuser will forget all about what happened. The abuser may say “It wasn’t as bad as you say” minimizing it, and his good behavior makes her believe and question herself and think “yeah, maybe it wasn’t all that bad. Besides he is different now. I think he really is sorry.” His minimizing the abuse, along with gaslighting her into thinking she is overreacting, strengthens the bond, and potential for future abuse. Both victim and abuser will go on and act as if everything is fine, and like nothing happened at all. They fall back into a false sense of security that the relationship is fine. There is massive denial going on. This occurs deliberately by the abuser, and the victim does not know how to articulate what just happened. Her brain is filled with cognitive dissonance (inconsistency) that she relents to denial as a defense and coping mechanism.
During this phase the apologies, the kind words, roses, gifts, generosity, false promises, psychological tactics (that she is unaware of), have the victim believing that this calm, harmonious phase is real. All she cares about is that peace is restored with her family. The abuser is on his best behavior and he appears to be the man who she fell in love with, and it is. It is the same manipulative man she fell in love with and he is using the same tactics that he did when he met her. He is filling her with the fake him, and the dopamine rush like actions and behaviors. She then buries and suppresses the pain and convinces herself that he has changed and maybe it “wasn’t as bad as it seemed.”
Do you seen the biopsychosocial impact that this domino effect has created? It begins with love bombing which created a dopamine rush that felt good. The brain remembers this feeling and the behavior that created it. The honeymoon phase is like the “drug” that the drug addict is so addicted to. It provides a reward. In the case of abuse, the reward is a dopamine rush of feeling love, peace, harmonious, and calm. In a way, the victim is duped into believing that he really loves her. She feels that the same biological dopamine rush when he is being loving, so it must be love right? Besides, deep down she knows that he controls the money, her friendships, and all that she does. She can’t escape. Learned helplessness begins until she gets a reality check from the outside world or does research on her own and seeks help.
The reconciliation phase aka the honeymoon phase really is the first phase in the battering relationship. Notice how it was both the first and the last phase? It has now come full circle increasing and enforcing the trauma bond made between victim and batterer. The cycle of abuse is filled with the abuser behaving both loving and abusive towards the victim to create confusion, helplessness, desperation, emotional numbness, and fear to create a bond. This bond is one reason why victims don’t leave. It is a tactic and it works. Abusive, violent, aggressive behavior is a deliberate choice meant to control the victim.