According to statistics, it takes a victim of an abusive relationship an average of SEVEN times of leaving their abuser before staying away for good. Seven times is a mind-boggling number. Seven times of attempting to exit a relationship. And these same statistics show that this is the most unsafe time for the victim. Their abuser senses they are losing power and control and can become volatile, threatening, and often times dangerous.
Nearly all abusive situations contain the formula of the “Cycle of Abuse”. This pattern was first theorized in 1979 by Dr. Lenore Walker after she interviewed roughly 1,500 women who were survivors of domestic violence (now sometimes referred to as intimate partner terrorism).
There are 4 main stages to the abuse cycle:
- Tensions Building
All relationships contain conflict. The stark difference from a healthy relationship to this cycle is that the conflicts are never resolved. This is mainly due to the channels of communication being closed by the abuser effectively putting the victim into a state of confusion. The abuser acts in a passive aggressive manner and the victim begins to pull back knowing something is amiss but unable to figure out why or what. The victim becomes clumsy, nervous, and quite literally begins to walk on eggshells. The tensions begin to rise as the victim racks their brain for what they could have done wrong and the abuser slowly stalks the victim with off-hand comments, silent treatment, demands, gaslighting, and more.
Tensions rising lead to an outburst where an “incident of abuse” occurs. This can be anywhere from something as “small” as a verbal attack or as large as physical violence. It takes time for an abuser to cultivate their victim into a place where they know they have control over them and can be assured of their compliance and inability to leave. In the early stages, it will start out as criticisms (sometimes with yelling/anger or other times with feigned concern) with the intent of breaking down self-esteem and creating small insecurities. Abusers do not accept wrongdoing and so the victim will be blamed for the tensions and their misbehaviors (the victim caused them to behave the way they did). They will plague the victim with “circular conversations”, intimidation, and/or accusations in the guise of a logical discussion/fight but it is never logical with abusers. They will not be satisfied until they feel they have gained full control.
This is the point in the cycle where the victim holds the most power but is usually completely unaware of it. And if not, this is the moment they take to attempt to get out. The abuser is fearful of the consequences of the abuse incident and fakes remorse or regret. However, this stage is rife with manipulations as well. The abuser will say they are sorry for what occurred but with back-handed comments. Blame shifting will begin and the magnitude of the event will be minimized. The victim feels confused, hurt, and responsible. Often times the victim suffers from low self-esteem (caused by the abuser but sometimes outside sources as well) and falls victim to the wooing of the abuser. Hoovering (accurately named after the vaccum cleaner) begins and the abuser sucks the victim back in with false promises and proclamations of love.
Very closely tied in with the Reconciliation Phase, this stage is often called “The Honeymoon Phase”. Just as the abuser promised, the victim is assured that the abuse incident or anything like it will never happen again and the abuser has gone back to their charming ways. Sadly, this is perhaps the most manipulative stage because the abuser is going to great lengths to paint the picture of a loving and devoted partner. It really is only the honeymoon stage for one – the victim. The abuser is well aware of what is occurring. Two things happen within this stage:
- The enjoyment of the calm. The abuser has won over the victims trust again and knows it. The victim is hopeful and believes things will now be better.
- Self-blaming. The victim is internalizing the events leading up to the calm. Falling prey to the accusations/criticisms and owning the blame that it is indeed their fault for the actions of the abuser.
To hold on to the tenuous peace, the victim then begins “giving back” to the abuser by doing things they know the abuser likes and avoiding the things they do not. Sadly, this is just the victim adapting while the abuser remains the same and gets away with it.
One of the saddest things I hear all too often are the onlookers asking questions such as, “Why don’t you just leave?” or “Why didn’t you just tell someone what was happening?” or even “Is it really that bad?”. If I’ve learned nothing else, I have learned that all too often the victim is victimized again and again by not just their significant other but by society, onlookers, and even the court systems.
But my goodness, these are the wrong questions to be asking altogether. No matter how you go about it, it still places blame on the victim. Blame they should never have to carry. And removes all blame from their abuser. As if without the victims presence, the abuser would cease to be an abuser at all. No, questions such as these should be axed altogether and yet they will not be. And we victimize again…
There are countless reasons as to why a victim doesn’t “just leave” or “just tell someone”. Reasons ranging from little to no support system to fall back on. Reasons like the legal system will favor the abuser and leave the abused with little to nothing. Reasons like the victim is so gaslighted and beaten down that they cannot see which way is up. Reasons like the abuser is in a position of power and authority and has all the money and credibility. Reasons like they are paralyzed by the belief that the threats of their abusers are real should they leave (and they usually are). Reasons like lack of money, family pressure, culture/race, fear, believing the abuse is normal, believing it is a problem with themselves, low self-esteem, embarrassment/shame, love.
Let us empower these people and no longer ask the demeaning questions of why but rather applaud them for the when. Hold up the moment when they saw the safest exit and took a leap of faith. For most of them suffered for it whether they were successful in their attempt to leave or not. Their freedom wasn’t gained without tears, loss, pain, defeat, and so much more. And many of them never become free and lose themselves mentally, physically, or are even killed by their abuser. These people deserve our applause and not our condemnation. Our love and not our judgment. They deserve so much more than they’ve been given. I see you. I’m one of you. Let me be a voice for us all.