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What Are The Main Cycles Of An Abusive Relationship?

* I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don't think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not be a woman in that same role.

While it may not always happen in the same way, abusive relationships often follow a certain cycle, one that is repeated throughout each instance of abuse.

Abuse does not look the same in every relationship, and even within the same relationship, these abusive behaviors can change from time to time.

What Are The Main Cycles Of An AbusiveRelationship

In some instances, the abuse may disappear before reappearing again, making it even more confusing and painful.

This article is going to discuss the cycle that abusive relationships tend to follow.

However, it is important to note that not all abusive relationships follow this particular cycle, and while it has been useful as a reference for mental health professionals, it is not meant to account for all instances of abuse.

The 4 Cycles Of Abuse

The 4 cycles of abuse were first documented by Lenore E. Walker, a psychologist in the 1970s.

He discovered the 4 stages of the cycle of abuse by carrying out interviews with women who had experienced domestic violence and abuse.

In these interviews, he was able to identify some recurring patterns such as tension building, incidents of violence, reconciliation, and calm.

As mentioned above, these stages do not appear the same for everyone. They also may not happen in the same order, and some stages may not happen at all.

Tension Building

The tension-building stage is normally the first stage in the 4 cycles of abuse.

It normally involves the abuser displaying tense behaviors and signs of abuse, but not actually doing anything to physically or emotionally hurt their victim.

These behaviors are normally caused by external stressors, such as financial issues, work problems, health challenges, etc.

The behaviors displayed during this phase can be things such as impatience, irritability, emotional outbursts, and shortness of temper.

They may come about as a result of a loss of control, so they turn to the relationship in order to try and feel more in control of their life.

These behaviors are likely to make the victim feel anxious like they are walking on eggshells around their partner.

The Incident Of Abuse

What Are TheMainCycles Of An AbusiveRelationship

This next stage is when the abuser finally releases their tension, resulting in an incident of abuse.

The kind of abuse experienced will differ from relationship to relationship, but it could include physical violence, sexual violence, intimidation, threats, breaking objects at home, name-calling/insults, shaming, and manipulation.

In some cases, this stage may escalate in each cycle. For example, perhaps the abuser intimidates and threatens their victim during the first cycle, before physically assaulting them in the next one.


After the incident of abuse has happened, the tension will start to fade. During this phase, the abuser will start to attempt to make amends for their actions.

They may appear to be genuinely sorry for their actions, and will likely try to shower their partner with affection and gifts and make promises that it will never happen again.

During this time, the victim is likely to believe that their abuser is sorry, and won’t hurt them again, therefore, resulting in them giving them another chance.

Some abusers are very good at making their partners believe they are sorry for their actions during this phase.


The calm phase is when no abuse happens. The abuser may continue to be attentive and affectionate, appearing sorry for their actions.

However, there is likely to be a shift towards them excusing their actions. They may apologize for the abuse, while blaming others for their actions, and in some cases, they may blame their victims.

They may mention outside factors in order to justify their behavior, and they may even deny that the abuse ever happened. In some cases, abusers may accuse their victims of provoking that behavior.

This can lead to victims doubting themselves and lessening the actions of their abuser.

During this stage, victims can feel very confused, as the previous stage involved the abuser making amends, but during the calm phase, there appears to be a tone of dismissal whenever the abuse gets brought up.

The Cycle Repeats

What Are The Main Cycles Of An Abusive Relationship

After some time in the calm phase, the victim may notice signs of tension from their abuser, and this is when the cycle repeats itself. It can appear in a different order and the kind of abuse may vary.

It may escalate to physical violence if it hasn’t done so already, and it can just be in the form of verbal abuse.

Ending This Cycle Of Abuse

It can be very difficult to remove yourself from an abusive situation. Some victims fear for their life, as well as the life of their children, and even their pets.

Others may not have the resources available to leave the situation, and it is some of these reasons that abuse partners use to their advantage in order to keep their victims around.

Occasionally, if the abuse is solely emotional, victims may not realize they are being abused.

Below are some ways in which someone can begin to end this abusive cycle.

Confide In Someone You Trust

Confiding in someone you trust may help you acknowledge these patterns of behavior.

They can also help you figure out an escape plan, and help you cope with the situation, as it is likely to bring on a lot of anxiety.

This someone can be a trusted friend or a close family member. They may be able to help you remove yourself from the situation, and will be able to provide you with a safe place to go.

Professional Help

Speaking to a mental health professional in this field is also a good way of starting to end the cycle of abuse.

They can help you identify signs and patterns of abuse you may have missed, and will also be able to help you find some coping mechanisms.

These professionals can also guide you through figuring out an exit strategy and will be able to lead you to some resources and safety plans in order to remove yourself from the abusive situation.

Rebuilding Yourself

It is very normal for your self-confidence to be affected by this relationship, and it may take time to build yourself back up.

However, slowly but surely, there are a few things you can do in order to feel like yourself again. Try going back to the things you used to enjoy, perhaps taking up old hobbies, or visiting places you used to love.

Reconnecting with your loved ones is also a good step in the right direction, as having a support system is crucial during this time.

You should also get external support if you are experiencing anxiety or depression after leaving the abusive situation, and try learning some relaxation techniques to help you manage it.

Final Thoughts

In summary, Lenore Walker discovered 4 cycles of abuse after carrying out interviews with various women who had been involved in abusive relationships.

He found that there were 4 recurring cycles: Tension, incident, reconciliation, and calm.

While this is a useful framework on which mental health professionals base their understanding, it is not applicable to every case of abuse.

We hope this article has provided you with useful insight into the cycles of abuse.

Read More about Narcissist Abuse and Domestic Violence

Emergency Numbers

Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) is the nation’s largest organization fighting sexual violence: (800) 656-HOPE / (800) 810-7440 (TTY)

988 Mental Health Emergency Hotline: Calling 988 will connect you to a crisis counselor regardless of where you are in the United States.

911 Emergency

The National Runaway Safeline: 800-RUNAWAY (800-786-2929)

Self Abuse Finally Ends (S.A.F.E)

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Trauma & Child Abuse Resource Center

Domestic Violence Shelters & Resources

Futures Without Violence

National Center for Victims of Crime

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Network to End Domestic Violence

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Prevent Child Abuse America

Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine: 1-800-950-NAMI, or text “HELPLINE” to 62640. Both services are available between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. ET, Monday–Friday

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255); www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgOr, just dial 988

Suicide Prevention, Awareness, and Support: www.suicide.org

Crisis Text Line: Text REASON to 741741 (free, confidential and 24/7). In English and Spanish

Self-Harm Hotline: 1-800-DONT CUT (1-800-366-8288)

Family Violence Helpline: 1-800-996-6228

American Association of Poison Control Centers: 1-800-222-1222

National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependency: 1-800-622-2255

LGBTQ Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

National Maternal Mental Health Hotline: 1-833-TLC-MAMA (1-833-852-6262)

The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 678678. Standard text messaging rates apply. Available 24/7/365. (Provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning—LGBTQ—young people under 25.)

The SAGE LGBT Elder Hotline connects LGBT older people and caretakers with friendly responders. 1-877-360-LGBT (5428)

The Trans Lifeline is staffed by transgender people for transgender people:
1-877-565-8860 (United States)
1-877-330-6366 (Canada)

Veterans Crisis Line: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net

International Suicide Prevention Directory: findahelpline.com

The StrongHearts Native Helpline is a confidential and anonymous culturally appropriate domestic violence and dating violence helpline for Native Americans, available every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT. Call 1-844-762-8483.

‘Find a Therapist’ Online Directories


UK & Republic of Ireland

  • Emergency: 112 or 999
  • Hotline: +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 (UK – local rate)
  • Hotline: +44 (0) 8457 90 91 92 (UK minicom)
  • Hotline: 1850 60 90 90 (ROI – local rate)
  • Hotline: 1850 60 90 91 (ROI minicom)
  • YourLifeCounts.org: https://yourlifecounts.org/find-help/

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