Six Ways To End The Cycle Of Abuse

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated November 23, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Abuse can take many forms and can affect a person both physically and emotionally. A person can experience emotional, verbal, financial, physical, and sexual abuse. One thing that most types of abuse have in common is that it usually takes effort to end the cycle of abuse. Below, we’ll discuss what constitutes abuse in a relationship and look at six steps to end the cycle of abuse and leave an abusive relationship.

No One Deserves Abuse. You Can Get Out

What You Can Do: Six Steps To End The Cycle Of Abuse

There is never an excuse for domestic violence. If you are in an abusive relationship, know that you are not alone, and it is possible to break the cycle of abuse. Creating a plan specific to your needs and implementing it may help you break the cycle and take back control of your life.

To end the cycle of abuse, consider taking the following six steps before leaving an abusive relationship: 

  1. Plan how you can safely leave when the abuser is absent, where you can go, and how to get out fast if needed.
  2. If possible, keep evidence of the abuse, such as photos of injuries, hospital bills, and damaged clothing and possessions. Keep these items where the abuser cannot find them.
  3. Prepare a bag of essential possessions you need to leave quickly, including spare car keys and house keys, your driver’s license and other important documents, medications, a change of clothing, and valuable personal items like family photos. If possible, leave this bag with a trusted friend or family member.
  4. Set aside money whenever you can to support yourself once you leave, and keep these funds where the abuser cannot find them.
  5. Consider talking to an attorney specializing in domestic abuse cases, especially if you have children.
  6. Contact a domestic violence organization in your area for support and help to leave.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also text the word “START” to 88788 or use the hotline’s online chat feature.

Recognizing What Constitutes Domestic Violence

According to the Office on Violence Against Women, domestic violence is “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, psychological, or technological actions or threats of actions or other patterns of coercive behavior that influence another person within an intimate partner relationship.”

However, domestic violence can occur between anyone living in the same household, not just between intimate partners. 

Domestic violence can also include stalking, cyberstalking, and threats of harm, and it can happen to people of any age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or financial or social status.


Understanding Different Types Of Domestic Violence

Physical abuse may be the type of abuse most people think of when they hear the word abuse. It involves any type of assault, such as pinching, pushing, hitting, choking, shooting, or stabbing. In addition, it can include anything that could cause physical harm, such as threateningly invading someone’s personal space, driving recklessly, or creating fear of injury.

Sexual abuse can include physical and non-physical components. Sexual abuse may involve rape or other forced sexual violence or acts, but abusers may also use sex to devalue or judge their victims. It can sometimes be related to technological abuse, such as threats to reveal intimate pictures of another individual.

Financial abuse can involve controlling household finances and not allowing the targeted person to their bank accounts or money. In addition, abusers may apply for credit, creating debt in the other person’s name, thus keeping control over the victimized person through poor credit ratings. Abuse of credit can affect the person’s ability to get an apartment, car, or other necessities that would make leaving the abusive relationship possible.

Emotional abuse may be more challenging to identify because the wounds tend to be mental and not physical. This type of abuse may involve talking in a demeaning way, such as telling a person they are stupid, worthless, ugly, or undesirable. Emotional abuse may also occur when an abuser manipulates a person, leaving them to question their sanity—a form of abuse called gaslighting. For example, the abuser may deliberately move something so that the victim cannot find it and then deny the event occurred.

These are some of the main forms of abuse, but is not uncommon for people to simultaneously experience more than one type of abuse. 

Risk Factors Associated With Domestic Violence Perpetration

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), several risk factors are linked to a greater likelihood of a person committing acts of intimate partner abuse. While these risk factors may be contributing factors, they are not necessarily direct causes of abuse. The CDC advises that not everyone identified as at risk becomes an abuser, but it may help to be aware of the following common risk factors: 

  • Low self-esteem

  • A prior history of abuse in childhood

  • Financial hardship

  • Isolation

  • Emotional dependence

  • Heavy alcohol or substance use

  • Impulsivity

Community and societal factors may involve cultural norms that support aggressive behavior toward others, traditional ideas about gender roles, and economic and social policies.

What Is The Cycle Of Abuse Theory?

The cycle of abuse theory was part of the research conducted by Lenore Walker, who interviewed women in abusive relationships to understand the dynamics involved. She found that abusive behaviors often follow a cycle, leading to the abuse occurring repeatedly. She believed there was a cycle of three stages:

  1. Tension-building phase

  2. Acute battering incident

  3. Honeymoon phase

This process tends to continue until something changes to stop it. The cycle of domestic violence tends to be a repetitive roller coaster of events involving threats of violence, violence, apologies, promises of change, and forgiveness.

Repetition of the cycle of violence often starts when the survivor thinks the first abusive occurrence is a one-time event. They may feel hurt and shocked but often accept the abuser’s excuse or apology, thus setting the stage for the cycle to continue and gain momentum.

After a violent incident, abusers often try to return to normal as quickly as possible. During this time, they may buy extravagant gifts for the person they hurt, pay extra attention to details, and try to make the other person believe they have changed. A survivor may slowly begin to be less defensive and open themselves to communication and affection from the abuser.

Also, the abuser may set up the survivor to feel that the abuse is justified. For example, the abuser may ask the person to do a household chore they know the other person cannot complete without help. Then, when the person cannot follow through, the abuser feels justified in inflicting abuse. Abuse is not justified in this or any other circumstance, and there are ways to end this cycle.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
No One Deserves Abuse. You Can Get Out

Talking To A Counselor May Help End The Cycle Of Abuse

If you’re looking to end the cycle of abuse, it may help to seek support from a healthcare provider or professional counselor to work out a safe way to leave the situation. Health care providers usually have relationships with mental health providers and can give a referral for counseling. If you feel hesitant to see a therapist in person, you might consider online therapy, which research has shown to be just as effective as traditional in-person therapy.

With online counseling, you can connect with a licensed therapist from home or anywhere you have an internet connection and a mobile device. You can communicate with a therapist via audio, video, live chat, or a combination of these methods. With BetterHelp, you can also message your therapist at any time through in-app messaging, and they’ll respond as soon as they can.

If you don’t have the resources for therapy at this time, know that you are not alone. Local domestic violence organizations often have free counseling services for people in abusive relationships. A counselor at such an organization may be able to help you create a plan to safely leave the situation. 

Many domestic violence organizations can also provide legal advice, which may be particularly useful if you have children. In addition, many organizations have free shelters where people can stay until they get settled in a safe place, and some also offer guidance on what to do with pets while getting out of an abusive situation.


If you are experiencing abuse of any kind, you don’t have to face it alone. There are resources available to help you make a plan and end the cycle of abuse. Before you leave an abusive relationship, it may help to think of safe places you can go, pack your most essential items, and keep them where the abuser cannot find them. 

In addition, it may help to speak with a licensed counselor, whether in person or online. With online therapy at BetterHelp, you can speak with a counselor who has experience helping people get out of abusive relationships. Take the first step toward ending the cycle of abuse and reach out to BetterHelp.

Find compassionate support after abuse

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