Domestic Violence - More Common Than You Think (and more dangerous) cover image

Domestic Violence - More Common Than You Think (and more dangerous)

Dorian Minors • March 25, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

A persistent pattern occurs in relationships in which abuse occurs. Whether it's between partners or parents and their children, this pattern appears to have held relatively constant over time. This is a pretty big deal because it was proposed in the 1970's by one Dr Lenore Walker. This is particularly interesting because Dr Walker developed the model from anecdotal evidence and forty years later it's still shown to be the norm in abusive relationships. Why is that interesting? Well, it means it's a somewhat intuitive cycle to recognise and understand. Hopefully by the time this article is through, you'll be able to recognise domestic abuse in your relationships and those around you by using this simple, easy to understand model. So lets dig in.

It's like you're trying to be invisible for fear of upsetting them. Photo courtesy of Becky Vu (Flickr). It's like you're trying to be invisible for fear of upsetting them. Photo courtesy of Becky Vu (Flickr).

Usually, the pattern begins with what Dr Walker describes as the 'tension building' phase. It's typified by passive aggressive acts and poor communication which combines to create a sense of tension in the relationship. This will increase over time, which can span hours, days or even months. In this phase, victims often talk about a feeling of 'walking on eggshells', which is especially true after this pattern has occurred in the past. Basically, the abuser is becoming more aggressive and the victim is trying their damndest to keep the abuser happy. After a variable amount of time, this pattern will shift into what Dr Walker calls the 'acting-out phase'. This can be broken down into two parts. It begins with what can be thought of as a 'standover' portion, where the abuser will begin to become more aggressive, with more overt displays of abuse. Be it physical or verbal, the abuser has discarded the more passive aggressive stuff for more obvious domination behaviours. The goal of the abuser here is (whether they are aware or not, although they usually are) to build a lopsided power division and to promote fear and submission in the victim. This will become more and more severe until some kind of explosion of abuse occurs; the second portion of the phase. A severe incident will occur; a violent beating or a flood of abuse that is shocking in intensity. Then we move into the 'reconciliation phase' or the 'honeymoon period'. The abuser is so gosh damn sorry that happened and by golly will it never happen again. Or maybe the incident is just ignored, like it didn't happen at all. More often though, the abuser will show guilt or remorse, although the legitimacy of this is sometimes questionable. They'll usually go on to pour love and affection onto the survivor (at this point, victims are survivors as you'll see in the stats at the bottom) and sometimes threaten to injure or kill themselves (although that's more common in the pursuit phase as you'll see). Basically, the survivor is lured back in and often confused, thinking the relationship isn't all bad and they'll try to make it work again. The abuse is justified, minimised and then eventually denied ('it wasn't that bad, you see? We're in love after all'). The survivor begins to cling again to the hope it won't happen anymore. The survivor begins to think that everything that happened was their fault and if they can just manage their 'mis-behaviour', it won't happen again.

“Domestic violence is an ever continuing cycle: build-up of tension, relatively minor acting-out, then an explosion of violence or aggression followed by a reconciliation and a honeymoon period. Then it all begins again.”
Finally we have the 'calm phase', the quiet before the storm. But inevitably, something will go wrong and the pattern starts all over again at the 'build-up phase'. Unfortunately, abusers are very rarely able to limit abuse to a single incident. As you can see, the pattern is a cycle. Once it begins it often continues indefinitely, until the survivor leaves (one way or the other...). If the survivor does leave of their own volition, the abuser often begins pursuit behaviours. They will try buyback (promises or gifts, often with the chance at a 'fresh start' and frequently a plan to move to a new town or city). They might try violence or threats, the goal being to terrify the survivor into staying because of what will happen if they don't. Or the abusers might go for the helplessness tactic, behaving as though they can't manage without the victim (I can't eat/sleep/go to work without you). This is often where you see threats of suicide or self-harm. Basically making the survivor feel responsible for the abuser and guilting them for the hurt of leaving, feeding into that guilt to survivor already feels about those (non-existant) mis-behaviours that seem to cause all the abuse in the first place! Unfortunately, leaving this cycle is hard. Usually an abuser will isolate the survivor from the outside world and make it very difficult to leave (often through threats of violence). In addition, the survivor almost constantly feel guilty, like some part (or all) of what's happening is their fault, if only they could stop messing up. In fact, lets look at some statistics to show you just how hard it can be to leave as well as how dangerous and common this situation is. How does that taste? Awful right? And I've only linked Australian stuff there, but google it and you'll see those statistics repeated over and over and over. So hopefully, now you're aware of the cycle of violence you'll be able to recognise it for what it is; a manipulative, abusive and too often fatal situation that will often happen again and again until the survivor escapes with or without their life. Now that you've read it do any of you recognise it in your relationships or those around you? I'd love to hear from some survivors in the comments below. If this article interested you, stay tuned because this is the beginning of a mini-series on domestic abuse. In the mean time, check out our article on how to stop negative emotions in their tracks so YOU can avoid potentially dangerous situations with your partner. Or better yet, call the Police. Or perhaps you'd like something less morbid - like why do people speak in tonguesGiving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology. Thumbnail image courtesy of Rowland Bishop (Flickr).

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.