Sanctuary for the Abused

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

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The Cycle of Abuse

Leonora Walker in 1979 described a cycle of violence that appears to be a hallmark of domestic violence. This cycle involves three phases. In Phase One, the tension building phase, minor battering incidents occur, but the abuser is able to exert some control. There is considerable verbal abuse during this phase. The abuser becomes increasingly critical and controlling. As the tension builds, control is harder and harder to maintain. The victim's ability to cope also breaks down.

Eventually, there is an uncontrolled discharge of the tensions that have been building. This is the acute battering* incident or Phase Two. Characteristically, this event is seen by both parties as unpredictable and not under anyone's control. The victim becomes more and more fearful. In some cases, the victim, perceiving the build up of tension, may provoke the acute battering. This may be a way to end the fear of when the next episode of violence will occur. This is not to say, however, that the victim causes the abuse: rather he or she is trying to have at least a sort of control by determining when the abuse occurs. But the victim is not responsible for whether or not the abuse occurs at all. That is totally the responsibility of the abuser, despite what the abuser may say.

(battering is now considered to constitute VERBAL, EMOTIONAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL or PHYSICAL abuse)

Following the acute violent incident, there follows a period of kindness and contrite, loving behavior: Phase Three. The abuser tries to make up for the battering incident and insists, "it will never happen again." While some victims seek help during this phase, it is also the phase that allows the victim to remain in the situation. The belief and hope that the abuse will stop is reinforced by the abuser's apologetic and loving behavior. It is also this phase that leads many victims of abuse to describe the abuser as a "Doctor Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde." During this phase the abuser appears to be the ideal partner. At the same time, however, the abuser will continue to insist that the abuse is the victim's fault.

This cycle of abuse typically happens again and again. Over time, the phases become shorter and shorter and thus the frequency of abuse increases. I addition, it is common for the abuse to become more and more severe over time. The hope that the abuse will stop on its own is unfounded.

Characteristics of the Abusive Relationship
The primary issue in an abusive relationship is power/control. The abuser needs to feel in control of the victim and uses violence and the threat of violence as a method of control. While physical violence is a particularly potent means of exerting control, it is not the only one used by the abuser. Verbal and emotional abuse are common and probably more characteristic of these relationships than even the physical violence.

Jealousy is a hallmark of most abusive relationships. The abuser continually accuses the victim of having sexual interest in someone else. If the victim is late returning home from shopping, he or she is accused of meeting a lover. This jealousy, however, also extends to other, non-sexual relationships. The abuser distrusts any relationships the victim has outside their relationship. Often, these other relationships are destroyed by the abuser through critical comments, intrusive behavior, and refusing to allow the victim to see anyone else. If the victim wishes to see a friend the abuser often will insist on accompanying the victim. Or the abuser will have only negative things to say about the friend (or family member). Restrictions on time also make it difficult to have a relationship with anyone other than the abuser. The victim of abuse is not allowed to meet a friend for coffee or lunch. This isolation from others makes it difficult for the victim to see the relationship in realistic terms since there is only a limited ability to "reality check" what the abuser says. Over time, the victim's reality becomes what the abuser says. This makes it increasingly difficult for the victim to leave the relationship.

Control of finances is also very common. The victim is allowed little money which makes it even more difficult to leave. Every cent must be accounted for. In many cases, the victim is not allowed to hold a job, which would provide an independent source of money and thus help the victim leave.

The abuser also uses verbal assaults on self-esteem to keep the victim under control. "You'll never find anyone else to love you," is a common remark. "You're stupid, who would ever hire you?" "You can't do anything right." "You need me or you'd end up on the street." Since the victim is usually isolated from others, counteracting these comments is difficult. Over time, the victim comes to believe what the abuser has said. When a victim believes that he or she is worthless, unlovable and incapable, leaving is no longer a real option.

References:
Chance, C.A. (1989). Psychological, Demographic and Social Support Factors Predicting Follow-Up with Therapy Referral among Abused Women. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Auburn University.

Walker, L. E. 1979. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper & Row.

Cathy A. Chance, Ph.D. 9/30/00

shared by Barbara at 5:01 AM


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