The cycle of abuse is a social cycle theory developed in the 1970s to explain patterns of behaviour in an abusive relationship. The fundamental idea of the theory is abusive relationships are characterized by a predictable repetitious pattern of emotional, psychological or physical abuse (Walker, 1979). The cycle usually goes in the following order and will continue on until the conflict is stopped, usually by the survivor entirely abandoning the relationship. The cycle can occur from a few hours to a year or more to complete. However, the length of the cycle usually reduces over time so that the “making up” and “calm” stages may disappear.
1. Tension Building Phase
This phase occurs before an abusive incident. It is characterized by passive aggression, poor communication, rising interpersonal tension and fear of causing outbursts in one’s partner. During this phase, the victims may attempt to modify his or her behaviour to avoid triggering their partner’s outburst.
2. Acting-out Phase
During this phase, outbursts of violent and abusive incidents may happen. The abuser usually attempts to dominate his/her partner with the use of domestic violence.
3. Reconciliation/ Honeymoon Phase
This phase marks an apparent end of violence, with the aggressive partner attempts to assure the victim that it will never happen again and that he/she will do his/her best to change. During this phase, the abuser feels overwhelming feelings of remorse and regret or at least pretends to. Some abusers try to win the victims over with apparent display of love and affection, or use self-harm and threats of suicide to gain sympathy and prevent the survivor from leaving the relationship. The dynamic that often occurs in this situation is that the abusers are often so convincing and the survivors eager for the relationship to improve. Eventually, the survivors are often worn down and confused by the previous abuse and the subsequent display of love by the abusers. Therefore, some survivors choose to stay in the relationship.
4. Calm Phase
During this phase, the relationship is relatively calm and peaceful. However, interpersonal conflicts and difficulties will inevitably arise and lead again to the tension building phase.
Sustained periods of living in such a cycle may lead to learned helplessness and battered person syndrome (Walker, 2000). A pattern of repeated abuse lead battered women to believe that they are powerless to change their situation. The original learned helplessness studies reported that the dogs in the studies that did not know when they would be shocked next, were powerless to control this punishment, and who ultimately failed to attempt to escape from escapable shocks (Overmeir & Seligman, 1967). In comparison, battered women who are abused repeatedly, unpredictably, and uncontrollably learn to become helpless and to assume that they have no control over their situation. Therefore, abuse leads to the development of learned helplessness, which in turn results in the syndrome of Battered Women Syndrome (Palker-Corell & Marcus, 2004).