The Cycle of Domestic Abuse

I have found myself reading a few blogs that discuss spousal behaviors wherein a spouse engages in good behavior after being abusive.  One could try to understand and list a plethora of reasons in an attempt to explain this behavior, but I would rather start here:

The Cycle of Domestic Abuse

  1. Tension building phase—Tension builds over common domestic issues like money, children or jobs. Verbal abuse begins. The victim tries to control the situation by pleasing the abuser, giving in or avoiding the abuse. None of these will stop the violence. Eventually, the tension reaches a boiling point and physical abuse begins.
  2. Acute battering/abuse episode—When the tension peaks, the physical violence begins. It is usually triggered by the presence of an external event or by the abuser’s emotional state—but not by the victim’s behavior. This means the start of the battering episode is unpredictable and beyond the victim’s control. However, some experts believe that in some cases victims may unconsciously provoke the abuse so they can release the tension, and move on to the honeymoon phase.
  3. The honeymoon phase—First, the abuser is ashamed of his behavior. He expresses remorse, tries to minimize the abuse and might even blame it on the partner. He may then exhibit loving, kind behavior followed by apologies, generosity and helpfulness. He will genuinely attempt to convince the partner that the abuse will not happen again. This loving and contrite behavior strengthens the bond between the partners and will probably convince the victim, once again, that leaving the relationship is not necessary.

This cycle continues over and over and may help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships. The abuse may be terrible, but the promises and generosity of the honeymoon phase give the victim the false belief that everything will be all right (Lenore Walker).

Lenore Walker’s cycle was used to describe physically abusive relationships, but it applies to relationships wherein there is a pattern of emotional and verbal abuse as well.  Abuse is abuse.  Whether a person is living with an abusive passive-aggressive spouse or a sexually abusive spouse, this seems to be the cycle.  This is the cycle in my marriage.  I am currently in the Honeymoon Phase.

What is the Honeymoon Phase like? Well, I get to watch my husband try to be Mr. Awesome.  He is trying to project his much hoped for self-image onto all of us.  “Look at me! See what I’m doing? Aren’t I great? Look at me help.  Look at me participate.  I am generous.  I care.  I am here for everyone.  I can listen and respond to needs.”  I’ve been in this for nineteen years, and I didn’t always understand what was happening to me.  I am, therefore, very good at observing him.  I know the pattern.  He will eventually grow very weary of attempting to be someone who he is not.  He will fail at some point.  He will make a mistake, and he will generalize this mistake to his entire effort.  I will be accused of something like “picking on him”, and the tension will start to build.

I will then enter the Tension Building Phase.  This is when he becomes bored and restless.  He will do one of two things.  He will either externalize his emotions by becoming highly passive-aggressive towards the entire family, or he will internalize everything and disappear.  He will become a recluse and almost never emerge from our bedroom.  He will begin to experience somatic complaints like stomach aches and headaches.  Often, it is a combination of both.  He is nearly impossible to engage when he is like this.  He will also be entitled.  His entitlement is easiest to observe in the Honeymoon Phase, but it’s still present here.  The atmosphere of the house is edgy and oppressive.  He will claim not to understand why we are jumpy and tell us that we are ‘being weird’.  He has no insight into the fact that his behavior affects others.  We have the problem.  Never him.

The Acute Abuse Episode is short-lived most of the time.  If he’s violent, then it’s an outburst of rage.  I am the one he focuses that rage on.  He has come at me with a large knife before.  I’ve been thrown up against a wall.  These two incidents have both involved alcohol.  When he increases his alcohol intake, that is my cue.  I know that we are headed for some kind of “emotional expression”, and it will most likely be directed at me in some way.  At the same time, I find myself wondering if “this time” it will be different.  It never is.  Most of his abuse is sexual and psychosexual.  Were I to tell him this, he would never accept it.  He simply does not see himself as an abuser.  I don’t know what would happen if my perception of reality were to confront his.

Because my perception of him differs so greatly from his self-perception, he engages in gaslighting.  There is a lot of gaslighting here.  He may act confused when I try to ask questions of his behavior.  He may be outright confrontational.  He will blame me or use my past against me claiming that I am a “broken woman” who doesn’t know better.  If there’s a card to be played, then he will play it even if it decimates my personhood.

What is the “Get Out of Jail Free” Card? “I don’t remember that.”  He claims not to remember any of the physical abuse or expressions of anger and rage.  This is when he has been most abusive.  This is also gaslighting.  I am told that “it didn’t go down like that” as are the children.  He does not have to take any responsibility for anything because, in his mind, it never happened.  I can guarantee that you will start to feel crazy after nineteen years of “I don’t recall.”

And, after the tension is broken and abusive events have passed, he is sweet, generous, and kind.  The cycle starts again.

In my case, the cycle is drawn out.  The tension-building phase is the longest.  It can last for months and months.  We don’t go round and round with each other.  He will just be an “asshole” for a long time, and I’ll be lulled into this sense of familiarity: “Wow, I married an asshole.”  This is how it has always been, and then POW! Something happens.  There is some trigger.  The abusive behavior ramps up, and I’m always taken by surprise.  Every damn time.  It’s as if I’ve believed that he is someone he is not, or perhaps I’ve believed that it really will be different this time.

The last time he was physically abusive was in August of 2012, and, for us, it was really bad.  Everything changed for me when he did what he did.  He remained in some kind of limbo between the abusive phase and the tension building phase for over two years.  This is when I started to become ill.  I now have Lupus.  Something clicked in him, and he suddenly switched to the honeymoon phase.  He is starting to internalize something and complain of stress again.  We are on our way to the tension building phase again.

I’m sure that someone would ask me why I married someone like this.  Well, I did not.  I married a different person.  Ask a lot of women in relationships like this who they married, and they will tell you that they married a kind, charming, generous, and wonderful man.  He was everything that they had ever wanted.  This is the nature of abusive people.  They are manipulative.  If they are narcissists, then it’s even worse.  If they are a male with borderline personality disorder, then…oh boy.  You’ll have a Casanova on your hands (The Male Borderline).  The point is you quite literally don’t know what hit you the first time the abuse starts.  If you have a very wide Resiliency Spectrum as I do, then maybe it seems relatively normal or even “not so bad”.  You don’t realize just how bad it is until there’s been enough time to see a pattern.

After nineteen years, I can finally see a pattern.  My friends see a pattern.  My daughters are talking about him, and I finally went to therapy solely to address this.  These are complex situations, and mine is but an example of just how complicated they can be.  They do, however, follow a pattern that is similar to Lenore Walker’s template.  Seeing the pattern might be the first step in doing something about the abuse.  Recognizing that it is as far from normal and healthy as the North Pole is from the South might be the second.


click image for link


4 Comments on “The Cycle of Domestic Abuse

  1. As an occasional reader here I’m sad to learn this and for the difficult situation you’re in. My prayers and hopes go out to you first, your husband second, and your marriage third (which is ultimately a byproduct of the first two). Thank you for telling your truth.

    • Thanks for you well wishes, DH. I am doing well despite bloggy appearances. I’m in process…as always.

  2. I’m glad you and your daughters have an opportunity to speak your truth with a trusted therapist as you make progress through all of this. It will be quite a process but my impression is that you are very capable of seeing it through…and it will be so worthwhile for everyone involved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: