The Cycle of Abuse: What Is It and How Can You Escape It?

Anyone can be a victim or perpetrator of abuse.  Unlike certain issues that may only impact certain individuals, there is no prerequisite necessary in the form of age, sexual orientation, gender, race, or religion. There is no discrimination for who can be affected by abuse. The various forms of domestic violence and relationship abuse can impact people across all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. Abuse is most common when one partner uses a pattern of behavior in order to maintain their power and control over their partner. 

Contrary to popular belief, abuse doesn’t always have to be physical, as emotional abuse may be more common in an abusive relationship. There are plenty of signs that can indicate that a person is experiencing abuse in some form or another. It’s just a matter of whether or not they see them and if the issue is part of a larger cycle of abusive behavior or not.

What Is the Cycle of Abuse? 

The cycle of abuse, also known as the cycle of violence, helps to illustrate the common patterns of abusive behavior in relationships. It also serves to help provide clues toward a deeper understanding of why people that experience abuse can often find it so difficult to escape it. The cycle is defined by the various ways that an abusive partner will keep their victim in the relationship and spans from their more subtle behaviors to the more physical and visible acts of violence. 

An easy way to describe what transpires in an abusive relationship is known as the Power and Control Wheel. This tool breaks down the cycle of abuse into four distinct phases:

1. Tensions Build
Abusive partners have the tendency to often lash out at their partners in response to external stressors. Some of the most common life events that fuel their tension include familial issues, problems at work, physical illness, and fatigue. Their frustrations and dissatisfaction will intensify over a period of time and create feelings of powerlessness, injustice, anger, and paranoia. This can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks and often will cause the victim to feel like they have to walk on eggshells and live with anxiety and fear. The victim will have become familiar with the cycle and fear that even a tiny mistake will set their partner off. However, despite their best efforts to prevent upsetting their partner, eventually, something will happen, and a very difficult situation will be created.

2. Incident of Abuse or Violence
Eventually, the abuser will view something their victim has said or done as upsetting, and they will attempt to dominate their victim through verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. The tensions that have been building up inside the abuser will be unleashed and they will attempt to regain their power by establishing control. Some of the common abuses include:

  • Verbal insults or name-calling
  • Threatening physical harm or destruction of property
  • Attempting to control the behavior of others
  • Sexual or physical violence
  • Emotional manipulation

One of the most common manipulation tactics that are used during the incident phase is that the abuser will accuse their victim of making them mad and blame them for the relationship problems and the incident. Victims will often keep the incident a secret and rarely speak to others about the incident. Despite sometimes ending up hospitalized, it’s not uncommon for a victim to lie to the medical professionals about the origin of their injuries. 

3. Reconciliation
As tensions begin to gradually fade, abusers will often use kindness, gifts, and loving gestures in an attempt to move past the abuse. The abuser may be feeling remorse or fear and try to repair the damage with various acts. This stage may include buying flowers, taking the victim out to dinner, or going on a nice vacation, and it tends to create a sort of “honeymoon” stage. These acts of devotion and love can trigger the release of oxytocin and dopamine in the victim’s brain, helping them to feel an even closer bond to their abuser and tricking them into believing they have their “real” partner back. Despite feeling the pain, humiliation, disrespect, and fear brought on by their abuser, victims are often manipulated into staying quiet about the incident and may even blame themselves for it.

4. Calm
In order to maintain this newfound peace and harmony, both parties will usually come up with explanations and justification for the incident of abuse. Some of these excuses may be:

  • Apologizing while blaming others for the incident
  • Pointing toward outside factors that justify the behavior
  • Minimizing the abuse or outright denying that it happened
  • Accusing the victim of provoking them

The abuser is typically kind, calm, and interested in or open to counseling and may even ask for forgiveness. The victim will often believe that their abuser has changed, that this time was the last time, and they will accept the apology. The victim will begin to accept their excuses and may even doubt their memory of the abuse. They begin to feel certain that whatever upset them and triggered the incident of abuse has passed and will never happen again. Over time the abuser will begin to find tiny flaws or behaviors that they will criticize in passive-aggressive ways, and their apologies become less and less sincere. Little by little, the same behaviors will begin to return, and the tensions will start to build again, thereby renewing the cycle and starting it over once again.

How To End the Cycle Of Abuse 

Sometimes a person trapped in a cycle of abuse may not be aware of it. An abuser may be very adept at disguising their toxic behavior or character in the early stages of a relationship. Controlling and possessing behaviors do not normally appear until after the bonds of a relationship have formed and grown to be tight. Sometimes it can be very difficult to notice that a cycle of abuse is beginning to form. The abusive partner will slowly take action in order to gain more power and control over their partner and this may not be apparent. 

By understanding the Power and Control Wheel and how the cycle of abuse works, a person will be able to better determine if they are caught in an abusive relationship. Community resources and seeking guidance from a mental health professional are additional ways to escape an abusive relationship. The best way to end a cycle of abuse is with education. Not just education about their abusive relationship but education is way to help rebuild their life without their partner involved.

Universal Signs of Abuse 

While the Power and Control Wheel can offer a more nuanced picture of an abusive relationship, it still has its limitations. Although it effectively illustrates the power dynamics and imbalances that characterize relationships involving men abusing women, it fails to address the various dynamics present in other scenarios. It can be difficult to use the wheel as a way to account for abuse experienced by men or for people in homosexual relationships. Since abuse can happen in a large variety of ways, people may not recognize it immediately, and not all abusers use the same tactics. 

Abusive partners will often use the following maneuvers in order to maintain power:

  • Making all or a large majority of the decisions
  • Controlling their partner’s words and behaviors
  • Preventing their partner from going to work, spending time with friends or loved ones, or seeing healthcare providers
  • Make threats to children or pets
  • Destroy their partner’s belongings
  • Blame their partner for their own toxic behavior
  • Taking or controlling their partner’s money
  • Pressuring their partner to have sex
  • Going through the personal belongings of their partner, such as journal, phone, or computer

If your partner does anything listed above, then you should seek a therapist or domestic abuse advocacy group. Especially if they commit these acts and, as a result you:

  • Generally feel uneasy or unsafe
  • Find yourself changing your own behavior in order to keep them happy and calm
  • Believe that they may harm you in the event that you don’t do what they say

The Takeaway 

It can be very difficult to acknowledge that your relationship is abusive. These cycles of abuse can take long periods of time to repeat and are perpetrated by someone you may be certain that you love and are sure they love you back. Accepting that your relationship is abusive and escaping it can be very difficult but is the best decision in order to live a happier and healthier life

No one wants to believe that the person they feel like they love the most is an abusive and cruel person. Even though their words may sometimes be sweet and loving, their actions will speak much louder. If your partner has committed any of the behaviors listed above then it may be a good idea to seek the help of a mental health professional.

 Undertaking couples therapy could be a way to repair the relationship and help prevent the cycle of abuse from continuing. However, if the abuse is bad enough, it may be time to consider leaving your abuser behind and moving on with your life. There are plenty of options available that will provide assistance for anyone looking to escape the cycle of abuse. 


  1. The Power and Control Wheel (
  2. Cycle of Abuse: Understanding the 4 Parts (
  3. Get Help (
  4. National Hotlines ( 
author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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