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The Cycle of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence may seem unpredictable; however, it does in fact follow a typical pattern no matter when it occurs or who is involved. The pattern, or cycle, repeats and can happen many times during a relationship. Each phase may last a different length of time and overtime the level of violence may increase. It is important to remember that not all domestic violence relationships fit the cycle nor are everyone’s experiences the same.

In 1979, psychologist Lenore Walker found that many violent relationships follow a common pattern or cycle. The entire cycle may happen in one day or it may take weeks or months. It is different for every relationship and not all relationships follow the cycle—many report a constant state of siege with little relief.

This cycle has three parts:

  1. Tension building phase—Abuser is argumentative, angry. Tension builds over common domestic issues like money, children or jobs. Verbal abuse begins. The victim tries to control the situation by pleasing the abuser, giving in or avoiding the abuse. None of these will stop the violence. Eventually, the tension reaches a boiling point and physical abuse begins.
  2. Crisis phase/Acute battering episode—When the tension peaks, the physical violence begins. It is usually triggered by the presence of an external event or by the abuser’s emotional state—but not by the victim’s behavior. This means the start of the battering episode is unpredictable and beyond the victim’s control. However, some experts believe that in some cases victims may unconsciously provoke the abuse so they can release the tension, and move on to the honeymoon phase. Abuse can be physical, sexual, and/or emotional.
  3. The honeymoon phase—First, the abuser is ashamed of his behavior. He expresses remorse, tries to minimize the abuse and might even blame it on the partner. He may then exhibit loving, kind behavior followed by apologies, generosity and helpfulness. He will genuinely attempt to convince the partner that the abuse will not happen again. This loving and contrite behavior strengthens the bond between the partners and will probably convince the victim, once again, that leaving the relationship is not necessary.This cycle continues over and over, and may help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships. The abuse may be terrible, but the promises and generosity of the honeymoon phase give the victim the false belief that everything will be all right.

Each phase my be followed by periods of calm. Each phase may last a different amount of time. Not all domestic violence relationships fit the cycle. Not everyone’s experience is the same.

Adapted from Lenore Walker, The Battered Woman, Harper and Row, 1979