The Cycle of Abuse

Lenore Walker

The origin of the cycle of abuse rests with the work of a woman named Lenore Walker in the 1970s. Her seminal work explained the pattern that she saw in abusive relationships.  While she focused on the patriarchal misuse of power, the pattern can be seen in other relationships – whether it be between man to wife, wife to husband, mother or father to their child or children, children to the mother or father, or homosexual relationships.  It can be seen in relationships in the workplace or between so-called “friends.”  I find the theory Walker developed is perceptive and very useful in seeing through the maze of the complexity of all types of relationships.

The First Phase she calls the Tension Building Phase.  It is characterized by poor communication, passive aggression, rising interpersonal tension and fear of causing outbursts in one’s partner.  The victim may try to modify his or her behavior to avoid triggering their partner’s outburst.

The Second Phase is identified as the Acting Out Phase.  It is characterized by outbursts of violent, abusive incidents.  The abuser attempts to dominate his or her partner with the underlying threat of violence.

The Third Phase called the Reconciliation or the Honeymoon Phase.  It is characterized by affection, apology or it could be actively ignoring the incident.  It marks the apparent end of violence, with assurances and promises that it will never happen again.  The abuser promises that he or she will change and often the abuser may express feelings of overwhelming remorse and sadness.Some abusers deny the situation happened but in some small way some sign of reconciliation or apology may emerge.  There may be a return to less noxious ways of communicating or behaving.  In situations that have built up to an intense level the abuser may use self-harm or threats of suicide in order to gain sympathy or to prevent the victim from leaving the relationship.  The abuser can be very convincing and the victim, having been worn down by long repetitive bouts of abuse, may hope against hope that the abuser will actually change.

This may make the problem even worse.  By behaving in a calmer or conciliatory way the victim may feel that it is harder to leave the relationship because she or he may then perceive that “The relationship isn’t all that bad.  There is some good in him/her.”

The Forth Phase is called the Calm Phase.  An extension of the honeymoon phase, this part of the cycle is relatively calm.  However, there will soon be signs of “trouble in paradise.”  Tension will inevitably arise, leading back to the tension building phase.  Here is a diagram used by many Domestic Violence Support groups based on Walker’s model:

The phases of this cycle can take a short or a long time, but the progression is from longer to shorter time frames.  In the worse case scenario the Calm and Reconciliation phases may virtually disappear.  Once established these relationships are characterized by a predictable repetitious pattern of abuse, whether it be emotional or physical, with psychological abuse nearly always preceding and accompanying physical abuse.  One of her most helpful concepts is that the cycle leads to learned helplessness and a battered person syndrome.

The concept of learned helplessness is enlightening.  It assists us in trying to understand why, against all rationality, the victim stays and perpetuates a condition of great pain.  This occurs when the victim has learned (or been taught)  to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for help. 

This is the most confounding aspect of victimization:  it is against self-interest and the basic survival instinct.  The apparent attachment to an unhealthy and hurtful situation mystifies those who see it from the outside, as well as in the victim him or herself.  Why do I stay?  Why can’t I say no to obvious disrespect and hurt?  The learned helplessness theory helps us understand that the victim perceives they are helpless – by training – and therefore is stuck or numbed into a static course.  The victim feels they are unable to control their fate and that lack of control leads to devastating self perception and paralysis.

It was her observation that the only way to stop the cycle was for the victim, turned survivor, to abandon the abusive relationship.

 Out of the Fog (

A different perspective on the abusive cycle is proposed by an organization called Out of the Fog designed to help those at the mercy of those identified as having Personality Disorders.  FOG stands for fear, obligation and guilt and was first coined by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier in their book “Emotional Blackmail.” 

 They classify the abusive cycle as an ongoing rotation between destructive and constructive behavior, which is typical of many dysfunctional relationships, and families.  It is a repeating pattern where both perpetrator and the victim of abuse contribute to the conditions which prolong the cycle.  Both Walker and Out of the Fog focus on the abuser, but also look at the ways in which the victim plays into the hands of the abuser.  They both understand there is a dance between the two. 

At the center of the cycle FOG identifies the First Phase: a process they call the Flashpoint Phase.  The Abuser has maximum power in this phase and the victim minimal power.  The emotional energy in the relationship increases dramatically and the “fight or flight” response kicks in for both.

They then identify the Second stage as the Retribution Phase.  After the offensive behavior the abuser begins to fear the consequences of their behavior while the victim may pull away emotionally or physically.  The abuser may “hoover” their victim (suck them back in) with affection, favors, gifts or promises to change.  Out of the Fog brilliantly identifies that the victim is in maximum power during this phase.  Lists may be drawn up as to the conditions that must be met for the abuser to win back his or her good graces.  The abuser may feverishly try to meet those demands and the victim’s morale is most high.

Out of the Fog identifies the next stage as The Reflection Phase.  Once things quiet down the victim’s walls come down and the abuser is less worried about losing the relationship.  The Abuser may reflect with resentment that too many restrictions and conditions have been levied.  The victim may also feel resentment at having “to play the role of prison guard.”

Out of the Fog identifies a Third Phase called The Regression Phase.  At this point both drift back to their original or default state.  Both parties become resigned about the nature of their relationship.  They are moving to their “normal.”

Like Walker, they both agree, “Abusers need a victim.”  They agree that the most effective strategy for eliminating abuse often begins and ends with the victim “taking action to protect themselves.” (Please go to for extensive articles and in-depth descriptions of personalities disorders, traits, guidelines and forums.)

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  1. Cynthia, we really ARE on the same page! This is a great post, and thanks for the link!

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