How To Break The Cycle Of Abusive Relationships

I’ve been a victim’s advocate in the fields of domestic violence and sexual assault for nearly four years now.

By Gwen Farrell5 min read
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While I’ve sat through my fair share of trainings and workshops, for me, the most experience I’ve gained in this work is actually assisting victims and survivors. I’ve encountered nearly every race, age, and socioeconomic status, which speaks to the first incontrovertible truth we have to acknowledge about abuse: intimate partner violence (IPV) does not discriminate.

The second truth is that leaving an abusive relationship is nearly impossible for the majority of victims, though looking at the situation from the outside, we only ask “Why does she stay?” instead of “How can I help her leave?” 

But in the years I’ve done this work, I have seen victims leave their abusers and their relationships, and not only that, be successful in it. Here’s how to break the cycle of an abusive relationship. 

Recognizing the Cycle

The cycle of abuse as we know it today was pioneered by psychologist Dr. Lenore Walker, founder of the Domestic Violence Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While Dr. Walker’s studies into IPV and abuse were considered revolutionary and unprecedented for their time in the 1970s, they laid the fundamental groundwork for how we measure and investigate this field today. 

Dr. Walker’s cycle can be illustrated by three to four key phases: a period of increased tensions and escalation, a peak, explosion phase characterized by a violent incident, and a de-escalating stage. From the de-escalating stage, the cycle begins again.

The first stage of escalating tensions is where the abuser lays the groundwork and, in many ways, is seeing how much violence he or she can get away with. This stage is reinforced by actions like using threats or intimidation to get what the abuser wants, using verbal or emotional abuse, and other actions on the part of the abuser to test the waters, so to speak.

The second stage, where a violent episode takes place, may be preceded in part by some action by the victim. However, the victim is never at fault for the abuse of their boyfriend or husband – the abuser is only using the action as an excuse to escalate the violence. The violent episode stage may be characterized by physical abuse against the victim, or even by damaging property or lashing out in other violent ways which may not directly target the victim but certainly affect them in some way.

The third stage is often known as the apology stage, which segues into a “honeymoon” stage. The abuser may offer profuse apologies or ask for sympathy, or they may even not address the incident and move on as if nothing happened. During the honeymoon stage, they might buy the victim gifts or lavish them with compliments and affection to gain their trust back. In one particularly memorable case I had, an abuser bought her husband a $70,000 car as an apology – which she later (purposefully) damaged. 

Though we think abuse may be about sex or money, they’re only the tools an abuser uses to wield power and control.

The apology and honeymoon periods exist to lead the victim into a false sense of security. The abuser may even promise that they’ll never harm the victim or be violent again, and all is well for the time being. But tragically, it’s only a matter of time before that cycle starts again.

It’s important to note the ways in which an abuser exacts harm against the victim. Abuse can really take any form, though we most often think of it as physical. But domestic abuse can be verbal, emotional, psychological, mental, and even spiritual. The abuser’s actions may be influenced by traits like narcissism or insecurity, or even mental illness. Though we think abuse may be about things like sex or money, these are only the tools an abuser uses against the victim to wield power and control. Whatever the cause and whatever the actions, these actions are never acceptable, and never the fault of the victim though they might believe them to be. 

Taking Action

So, how do we break the cycle? How do we leave when an abuser pays the mortgage, the car note, and the phone bill? How do we leave when all of our friends and family believe our husband to be a great guy? How do we leave with no job and no money, or when we have children to look after? How do we leave when we think he’s the best thing to ever happen to us, or when he tells us that no one will ever love us like he does? How do we leave when there are firearms in the house, and when we know the most dangerous time in a victim’s life is when she decides to make her escape? How do we leave when no one believes that he’s hurting us, or when the police won’t listen? How do we leave when he threatens our children, or threatens to hurt himself? How do we leave and fight the urge to go back to him? How do we leave and make it permanent?

Believe it or not, I have encountered each and every one of these scenarios, sometimes all of them at once. The common denominator in the success stories I’ve seen, and indeed the first step to taking action, is to fully and completely realize the gravity of the situation. The first step is to realize that your life is potentially in danger and you’re going to do something about it. Only when we refuse to rationalize, excuse, or dismiss the violence against us can we realistically begin to grasp the gravity of the situation. Reject denial and accept the truth, even if it’s painful.

The second step is constructing an escape plan. Know your advantages. If he’s out every day from 9am to 5pm, leave during that time. Take only a small bag of things with you, including important documents (like driver’s license, social security card, and any cash you may have on hand). If you can’t leave for the time being, look into getting a firearm. Some women might be uncomfortable with this, but it’s saved the lives of more people than I can count. 

Research the resources in your area. Whether it’s a church, shelter, family justice center, or other social service, look into what they can offer you as far as legal assistance if you need it and emergency housing. You can also get connected to local resources through The National Domestic Violence Hotline. These days, many websites have quick escape options that allow you to quickly exit to a different page if the abuser is monitoring your internet activity. 

You don’t have to plan years into the future. Once you know when and how you’re leaving, focus on getting out safely, and worry about the rest later. If you’re committed to staying in your residence, look into a protection order and possible legal action. 

Above all, protect yourself first and foremost. You don’t have to tell the abuser when you’re leaving, and you certainly don’t have to have contact with them once you leave. The comfort, the familiarity, and the pull of this person and their significance in your life as well as the uncertainty of what lies ahead will be the most tempting reasons to go back. They may even tell you that you won’t be able to survive without them. They’re wrong. 

Healing and Moving On

What’s tragic about leaving an abusive situation – aside from the fact that, on average, it may take a victim seven times to completely leave, and she is liable to lose her life at any one of those times – is that having been in an abusive relationship may make an individual even more susceptible to further abuse. Even after we leave and the abuse has ended, we are naturally attracted to traits we recognize from former relationships in people we may date in the future, which has the potential to further put us in harm’s way. This only furthers the cycle, but being aware of this tendency can help us ascertain what’s healthy for us and what isn’t.

Once we’re aware of this, it may become easier to navigate our future. It’s also crucial to recognize that safety and security, whatever that looks like, should be our objective in all things. This could include cutting ties with certain people related to our previous relationship, moving to a new place, or starting a new job. It should also (based on my personal recommendation) include some form of mental health treatment like counseling.

On average, it may take a victim seven times to completely leave an abusive situation.

It’s natural to grieve any relationship that’s ended, even an abusive one, and that may be odd to some. But blaming ourselves or focusing constantly on the past is not the way to move forward. Someone else, even someone we love, using violence against us is never excusable or our own fault. 

Whether the relationship lasted 10 months or 10 years, we will have trauma to grapple with, and that heavy burden will influence how we move forward, for better or for worse. Breaking the cycle once and for all takes strength and courage, but it can be done.

If someone you love, like a family member or friend, is in an abusive relationship, you should know this: No matter how much you care for them, you cannot force someone to do what’s in their own best interest. As much as we wish we could, we cannot force someone to leave their abuser. This is by far the most frustrating part of this work. For as many success stories and victims I’ve seen choose to leave for good, I’ve had just as many who choose to stay. In these situations, you don’t have to overly involve yourself in their life. But you can have a list of resources and ways to help in your back pocket if and when they do choose to leave. Reserve judgment for who deserves it – the abuser – and support your loved one.

Closing Thoughts

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship and looking to leave, you can find support by visiting, calling, or texting The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. 

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