Recently, I was facilitating a conversation around supporting survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) in the workplace, and a clinician approached me afterward and said, “Hey, this was a great presentation. I now know how to better support survivors in the workplace and signs to pay attention to, but I’m not sure I understand intimate partner violence as a whole.” This was an eye-opening moment for me. I consistently go out and speak on this topic, but I never start at the beginning.
We first have to understand the cycle of abuse, a concept that originated with psychologist Lenore Walker in the 1970s, to better support survivors of IPV. It’s not enough to be aware of the cycle or have a diagram printed out; there has to be an understanding of what it is and how someone may find themselves in the cycle. When we seek to understand, it creates an opportunity for empathy to grow and biases to shrink. So, let’s break this down so we can be more impactful when serving survivors.
The cycle of abuse, also known as the cycle of violence, refers to common patterns of abusive behaviors, which are often associated with high emotions and periods of reckoning or revenge. The pattern, or cycle, repeats itself and can occur multiple times during a relationship.
This cycle is broken up into different stages (discussed more in the next section). But these stages don’t all happen at once, and the cycle will look different for every person. In some instances, the complete cycle can happen within a couple of hours, while other times, it may take up to a year to complete.
In short, the cycle of abuse is unpredictable and follows no rules.
The best way to conceptualize it is to think about the first time you went on a roller coaster ride: You feel the rush of excitement while waiting in line, but, as you get closer, a little anxiety creeps in. Then suddenly, it’s your turn! Your excitement, anxiety and fear all come together creating a beautiful storm of emotions.
The person operating the ride locks the safety bar in place, signaling your last chance to change your mind. You could back out now, but you’ve been waiting for this moment for so long you have to see it through. As the ride starts, your anxiety lessens. Everything feels good as the roller coaster ascends to the peak position. Even though you’re nervous, it still feels safe.
Then, all of a sudden, it drops! It all happens so fast. The ride descends rapidly, along with your stomach. Your heart rate speeds up as you are jerked side to side and up and down, and no matter how scared you are, you can’t get off. You’re stuck. No one can see you crying; no matter how loud you scream, there isn’t anything you can do except wait until it’s over.
The next thing you know, you’re on the straightaway: The ride slows down and you think you’ve survived the worst part. You start to feel safe; you can breathe again. But as soon as you take a breath and get comfortable, the ride takes another dive and the cycle starts all over again.
Survivors of intimate partner violence also experience periods of happiness, thrill and excitement in their relationships, so it’s not as easy as one may think to “get off the ride.”
The five stages
In an abusive relationship, the abuse starts way before it ever becomes physical. It is well-known that the cycle of abuse includes four stages (tension, incident, reconciliation and calm), but from my experience, I argue there are actually five stages:
1) Trust building. This stage, similar to any other relationship, is where someone establishes an emotional connection, and may even fall in love. In unhealthy relationships, this typically happens extremely fast. Two people meet, create a trauma bond and become the center of one another’s lives within days or weeks. Like the first time someone rides a roller coaster, it’s new and exciting. Even though they may be nervous, the anticipation of seeing where things will go outweighs the concern. (The initial excitement of the ride.)
2) Tension building. This is when the impending victim begins to notice a change in their partner. Some abusers may become clingier, whereas others may be more distant. They may become angered or irritated with small things that typically wouldn’t upset them. This change isn’t connected to any particular life event. This is what causes the victim to feel confused. One minute things are going so well, causing the victim to wonder what they could have done to cause someone to go from being the nicest/sweetest person to being mean, cold or dismissive. (The ride ascends as tension builds.)
3) Incident of abuse. The abuser releases the tension and engages in abusive behaviors. These behaviors may not be physical; they can be emotional, mental, financial or even spiritual. This may show up as insults or irresponsible behaviors such as spending money that was designated for the household bills. Maybe the abuser stays out all night or hides the car keys. The victim may believe they are responsible for the abuser’s actions and that this abusive behavior stems from something they did to cause the tension or change. (The ride descends rapidly.)
4) Reconciliation. During this stage, the abuser expresses remorse and what appears to be genuine regret for their behavior. They may even make the victim feel guilty for “causing the behavior.” The victim, who is still questioning their emotions and processing what happened, may feel a sense of relief that things are going back to “normal.” (The straightaway.)
5) Calm. After reconciliation, there is usually a sense of calm after the storm. This period of time could last for several weeks or months, depending on the abuser. The extra love and kindness from the abusive partner trigger a reaction in the victim’s brain that releases feel-good and love hormones known as dopamine and oxytocin. This release of hormones makes them feel closer to their partner and as if things are back to normal. (The ride slows down.)
However, right when the victim starts to heal and believes it won’t happen again, the ride starts to ascend, tension begins to build, and the cycle starts again.
What counselors must understand
When I host workshops on IPV, I often say, “Put yourself in their shoes; meet the survivor where they are.” And without fail, there is always a professional in the room who responds, “I couldn’t even imagine.” But the truth is we have all been abused and misused by individuals to some degree — maybe not to the same extent as IPV — but the emotional dilemma that weighs on you is similar. We’ve all been on our own emotional roller coaster.
Maybe you had a friend whose behavior made you question whether you were really friends. Some days they were really nice, but other days they made you wonder if they liked you at all. Maybe there was a family member that you just wanted to feel loved by, but no matter how hard you tried, you never got the love you desired. What about that person you wanted to make proud, but they always made you feel like your efforts weren’t good enough? Maybe you have experienced the heartbreak of having a family member or friend only want you around when it benefited them.
When I tell people this, they say, “But I wasn’t in an intimate relationship with the person who mistreated me.” I would like to challenge that as well. Intimacy is defined as a feeling of closeness. Because intimacy is involved in all relationships (even work relationships), we have all had an experience of being mistreated — to some degree — by someone we have been intimate with or felt close to. When working with survivors, remember what it felt like for you to have this experience with someone you loved.
I am sure you are wondering, “As professionals working with this population, how do we help clients get off this roller coaster ride?” I am so glad you asked! As mentioned earlier in this article, the first step is understanding the cycle. If someone is on this roller coaster ride, they can’t just get off. It’s too dangerous.
But we can help them prepare for the ride until they are ready to get off. Safety planning is essential. We can help the client to identify signs of each phase and ways they can remain as safe as possible. Introducing the client to the cycle, helping them understand the current stage they are in and identifying strategies to stay safe during every phase lessens the shock and helps the client feel more prepared. Similar to how counselor help clients manage their anxiety triggers, we can help the client prepare for what’s coming, so it doesn’t pose as much of a threat. The more they know, the more prepared they will be to exit the cycle when it is safe for them to do so.
How to be a supportive ally
Become knowledgeable about the cycle of abuse so you can identify which stage the client is in. Then you are in a better position to help them to become more aware of this cycle so they can learn to identify the stages on their own.
And continue to educate yourself. Remember the more you seek to understand, the more helpful you can be.
Leontyne Evans works as the survivor engagement specialist for Survivors Rising, where she helps to empower and uplift survivors by providing education and resources that encourage survivor voice and self-sufficiency. Her monthly Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective column for CT Online aims to help clinicians better understand and serve people who have experienced interpersonal violence. She is also a published author of two books, Princeton Pike Road and Relationships, Friendships and Situationships: 90 Days of Inspiration to Keep Your Ships From Sinking, both of which support her mission of ending the cycle of unhealthy relationships. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.