Tag Archives: Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective

Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective: Understanding the cycle of abuse

By Leontyne Evans March 18, 2022

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.

Stephen Hateley/Unsplash.com


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 leontynesurvivorsrising@gmail.com.



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.

Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective: The unrecognized grief of IPV survivors

By Leontyne Evans February 3, 2022


This is the debut article of a monthly online column about working with survivors of intimate partner violence written by a counselor who is also a survivor of domestic violence.


In August 2021, I wrote an article for Counseling Today challenging counseling professionals to not ask survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) “Why didn’t you leave?” or to give the perceived notion that leaving would solve the problem. Doing so often causes confusion because most people believe that once someone leaves an abusive relationship, the problem is resolved.

So, let’s go with that for a second. Playing devil’s advocate to my own article, let’s say the protocol for assisting clients who have experienced IPV is to encourage them to leave. If they do leave, then what? What are the next steps? Where do they go from there? Is the problem solved? Will they no longer need the intervention of a professional?

As mental health professionals, we often believe we have all the solutions. We think our degrees, research, theoretical knowledge and certifications give us superpowers to fix people. But we often lack the real-life experience to understand the complicated layers of the situations our clients face.

If a client leaves their abuser, are you prepared to help them along their journey to recovery? Do you understand the journey? Do you understand the new set of problems that will arise after a survivor leaves?

Every counselor should not only be prepared to support their client in deciding how to safely exit an unhealthy situation (if that’s what the client wants to do) but also be adequately equipped to help the survivor prepare for what’s next.

You may be asking, “Well, if someone has removed themselves from an unhealthy environment, shouldn’t that be good enough?” Survivors often receive little to no support once the threat of abuse is gone because so many counseling professionals and organizations believe this very thing. It sounds easy enough: Leave your abuser and get back to living your life. Then all will be well, right? Wrong!

A survivor may experience unexpected issues after they leave their abuser that a clinician can help them to process and understand. As professionals, however, we must understand these issues first.

Each article of my column, “Counseling From a Survivor’s Perspective,” will focus on one specific issue survivors may face post-crisis. In this first column, I explore how counselors can help survivors work through their grief and loss.

Experiencing grief and loss

One of the most overlooked side-effects of leaving an abusive relationship is grief. It may be hard to believe, and maybe even hard for some to understand, but there can be a lot of grief associated with ending an abusive relationship. Even if it was unhealthy, it was still a relationship.

Grief happens after people experience loss. A survivor who leaves an abusive situation may grieve:

  • Loss of self
  • Loss of love
  • Loss of the life they expected to have
  • Loss of the idea of who they thought their partner was
  • Loss of friends and family because of isolation

These are just a few examples of the types of loss survivors may experience. These feelings of loss are further complicated by the fact that survivors of IPV may not think sadness is an appropriate response to leaving a toxic relationship. They may find it hard to understand their feelings of loneliness and sadness when others expect them to feel freedom and happiness.

I still remember the day my abuser was taken away in handcuffs. I had looked forward to that day for months. I knew that he would be sentenced to four years in prison and that I would finally have my life back. The irony of watching him being arrested — not for the crimes he committed against me but for something totally unrelated — left me with a sense of bitterness instead of the peace I craved. After seven long years of being on an emotional rollercoaster, the ride was finally over.

However, when the authorities handed me his valuables, placed the handcuffs on his wrist and escorted him away from the courthouse, tears began to roll down my face. My bitterness was replaced with sadness. My anger was replaced with remorse, and my joy was replaced with the fear of loneliness. I cried the entire drive home.

For months, I couldn’t sleep. The sound of the house settling at night caused me to awaken with anxiety. The stairs creaking at 3 a.m. reminded me of the nights when he would come home drunk and take his stress out on me.

I sank into depression, struggling to understand how my mind, heart and body didn’t seem to agree with the verdict. I became angry at myself for missing him, but I also knew I didn’t want him back. This whirlwind of confusing emotions made me feel out of control.

I didn’t understand what was happening then, but now I know this feeling was grief. Grief that I was too embarrassed to explain to anyone else. I was with my abuser for seven years. During that time, we woke up together, went to bed together, ate together, struggled together and celebrated together. It may be hard for some to understand, but I lost my friend. I lost a sense of familiarity. I lost what I thought was love.

Now as an expert in the field, I talk to other survivors every day who have had similar experiences. They are desperately trying to sort through their feelings and understand how they could miss something so toxic. I give my clients space to feel that loss, to grieve it. Similar to those who overcome addiction, survivors of IPV may go through withdrawals or even relapse. For these clients, having a counselor who understands that they are experiencing loss and is invested in helping them explore the journey back to themselves can be life changing.

What counselors must understand

No matter how much abuse was present in the relationship, it was still a relationship. At one point, two individuals loved each other. At one point, the survivor felt safe enough to allow their partner to get close to them to let their guard down. At some point, the survivor let their abuser in — not just into their home but into their heart. Because, let’s be honest, manipulation, gaslighting and the cycle of abuse would not be as effective if the abuser never gained the trust and love of their victim.

Imagine falling in love with someone, feeling a sense of closeness, and then one day waking up next to a stranger, feeling like you don’t know the person you’ve been sleeping with at all. Imagine that the person who once brought you immense joy is also the very person to cause you pain.

If you can’t imagine it, count your blessings to have never experienced something so psychologically damaging. This is indeed a loss. Grief comes in waves, and because the survivor is grieving multiple losses, they may find it hard to communicate or name their feelings.

The client’s mental conflict about ending the abusive relationship can easily be confused (by both the client and the counselor) with missing the abuser when, in reality, it’s often the uncomfortableness of being alone. Counselors can help clients process their feelings and learn to understand the difference between the two. They don’t miss their abuser; they miss themselves — the version of who they were before the abuse happened.

The client may have spent a lot of time and energy attempting to “fix” their partner, and now that they are alone, they may be faced with the idea of “fixing” themselves. Having to examine oneself closely is hard. A good counselor, however, can help clients realize that being in their own company is not necessarily a bad thing. 

How to be a supportive ally

You can be a supportive ally by putting a name to what the client is experiencing: disenfranchised grief (i.e., grief that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially validated or publicly supported). And you can remind them that grief is a normal response to any type of loss.

Give the client a sense of normalcy by explaining the cycle of abuse and why they may have these unexpected feelings. Become familiar with the power and control wheel, and help your client to understand it as well. Explain how manipulation and gaslighting play a part in the mixed emotions.

During sessions, you can also talk about various ways the client can rediscover themselves. Help them to sort their feelings and reconnect to the world in this new phase of their lives.

For example, they could join a club, find a new hobby or reconnect with a passion they had put aside because their former partner didn’t like it. As they grieve who they wanted to be, who they once were and the relationships that have been lost, encourage them to enjoy the journey of self-discovery and reconnection. It may be more manageable to help them acknowledge and work through each loss separately.

Now that you have a better understanding of one of the aftereffects survivors may face upon leaving an abusive relationship, you will be better equipped to serve as a professional and an ally.



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. She is 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 leontynesurvivorsrising@gmail.com.



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.