Stopping The Abuse Cycle: Where Do I Start?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated June 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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The cycle of abuse is a pattern of behavior characterized by the exertion of power and control, typically escalating from tension-building phases to episodes of emotional and physical abuse. Between incidents of phyiscal or emotional abuse, there may be periods of reconciliation or remorse from the perpetrator, further complicating the dynamics of the relationship and perpetuating the cycle of violence. 

Domestic violence can take on several forms beyond emotional and physical abuse, however, which is why not everyone recognizes certain behaviors or situations as abusive.  While certain populations are more vulnerable to abusive relationships, abuse can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or perceived abilities.

This article explores the abuse cycle, the mental health effects it can have on individuals who are abused, and resources to help those who have or are currently experiencing abuse. 

Getty/Israel Sebastian
Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult

What can statistics tell us about domestic violence?

Domestic violence often begins with one act, though relationship abuse can become more intense and frequent over time. Sometimes, there might be short or long periods of time where there is no evidence of domestic abuse. These stretches may lead the person experiencing abuse to believe that things are getting better. When you are ready, know that there is help available, no matter your age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, nearly 30% of women and 10% of men have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by a partner. Women between the ages of 18-24 and 25-34 experience the highest rates of domestic violence by an intimate partner. Just under 20% of women and about 1.4% of men have been raped during their lifetimes. Almost 1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner within their lifetimes.

About 22% of children have witnessed some type of domestic violence, and 30%-60% of perpetrators of domestic violence also abuse children in the household. A North American study showed that children who were exposed to domestic violence were 15 times more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse.

How to recognize domestic violence

It’s normal for intimate partners to get into arguments on occasion. When the arguments turn into a regular cycle of abuse, the perpetrator always apologizes afterward, promising never to do it again, and the fear of a future attack still looms, this is considered an abuse cycle. The physical and emotional pain of domestic violence is real, and it may not go away until the abuse cycle stops and the survivor takes steps to heal from it.

Domestic violence is also called intimate partner violence when it occurs between people who are in an intimate relationship. Domestic abuse may occur between people of all sexualities and genders, in any kind of relationship. An abusive relationship may take on many forms. It may be emotional, physical, or sexual, or a person may make verbal threats of abuse.

Abusive relationships are usually characterized by an imbalance of power and control. Signs of abuse can appear as early as at the start of the relationship. Other times, the abuse starts gradually and increases over time. Abusers often try to control their partners with words or behaviors that are intimidating or hurtful.

Understanding sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is a form of domestic violence that happens with adults and children. Perpetrators of sexual abuse use force, threats, and situations to take sexual advantage of people, including those who can’t legally give consent. Survivors of sexual abuse often react immediately to the assault with fear, shock, and disbelief.

Survivors of sexual abuse often have symptoms for many years and possibly for a lifetime. It’s common for some to experience anxiety or fear long after the abuse occurred. It can even manifest in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some people. 

Child sexual abuse is any sexual interaction either between a child and an adult or between two or more children where the perpetrator uses the child for sexual stimulation or observes a child for sexual stimulation. Child sexual abuse involves physical touching, but sometimes it consists of voyeurism (looking at them naked), exhibitionism, or exposing children to pornography.

Child sexual abuse perpetrators don’t discriminate. It can occur to boys and girls of all races, ages, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. In 8 out of 10 cases, a child or teen survivor knows their perpetrator as a family or acquaintance.

Whether it’s sexual, physical, or emotional, domestic abuse toward children is harmful. Domestic abuse is also harmful to children who witness it. When children grow up with domestic violence in their homes, they’re more likely to be abused and have behavioral problems than non-abused children. They’re also more likely to believe that an abusive relationship is standard or acceptable.

Pregnant women may also experience domestic violence. Domestic abuse sometimes starts when a woman becomes pregnant. It can endanger the life or safety of the woman and child and it may continue after the baby is born. Other vulnerable populations of domestic abuse include immigrants, older women, people in same-sex relationships, and the LGBTQIA+ populations.

How to break an abusive cycle

People who have survived abusive relationships often put the blame on themselves, which may prevent them from reporting incidents of domestic abuse. It’s common for survivors of abuse to worry that telling someone about domestic abuse will break up the family or make things worse. The reality is that seeking help is an important step in removing yourself and your family from violent environments, domestic or otherwise.

Leaving an abusive relationship is difficult

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’ve reacted to an abusive relationship by verbally or physically acting out with yelling, hitting, or pushing during altercations. The perpetrator may try to use such incidents to manipulate you by turning the tables and pointing to you as the perpetrator in an abusive relationship. When the truth comes out, your actions will likely be perceived as made in self-defense or emotional distress.

If you’re still not certain that you’re involved in a domestic violence situation, try to view your circumstances objectively. Look at the larger patterns in the relationship and compare them to the signs of domestic violence.

The longer that you remain in the cycle of domestic violence, the greater the toll violence can take on your health and well-being. People who are experiencing domestic violence may become worried, anxious, and depressed. The longer it goes on, they may feel more frightened or unsure about how to leave the abusive situation.

Creating a safety plan

Women’s and men’s shelters and crisis centers often provide 24-hour emergency shelter. Many of them also offer advice on legal matters or advocacy and support services. A shelter may be able to help you get a restraining order against your abuser so you can start a new life.

Leaving your abuser can be dangerous, so take as many precautions as you can. Pack an emergency bag with items you’ll need when you leave like extra clothes, water, and keys, and keep them in a safe place. Locate your important papers, money, and prescription papers and place them strategically so you can grab them at a moment’s notice. Save some money and put it aside for the move. There are shelters available, so know the local shelter number. Make a plan for where to go and how to get there.

Be careful about leaving traces of your whereabouts on electronic devices. Your abuser may try to use a mobile phone, electronic tablet, or laptop to monitor where you are, who you’ve been in contact with, or to try to contact you directly.

If possible, use someone else’s laptop to seek help. Use your work computer, the library computer, or one from a friend. Remove or turn off the GPS from your car to prevent the abuser from finding your location.

Change your email password often. Choose passwords that would be impossible for your abuser to guess. Clear your viewing history on all devices so your abuser doesn’t know what you’ve been looking at.

Therapy can help you through an abusive situation

A therapist can be a safe person to turn to when you’re considering an exit from an abusive relationship. They have likely worked with others in your situation and can connect you with transitional resources. One associated challenge is the difficulty of attending regular therapy sessions in scenarios where your location is tracked, or the perpetrator may hurt you for seeking help.

In these situations, online therapy may be more safe or useful than traditional in-person therapy. Using online platforms like BetterHelp, you can schedule a therapy session from any location with Wi-Fi connection. If your home is not safe, for example, you can meet virtually in a library, office, or shelter. BetterHelp will also match you with a therapist who is uniquely qualified to address your specific needs.

Online therapy is an effective way to build the confidence to remove yourself from an abusive cycle. Many therapists use a technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) to treat people with PTSD, which they may have developed during an abusive relationship. EMDR involves using blinking lights, tapping, or other movements to stimulate both sides of the brain, with the goal of helping a person process painful memories or emotions. Studies show that EMDR is effective when carried out online. 


While a sense of relief may follow an escape from an abusive relationship, things may continue to be difficult for a time. You might find it hard to talk about the abuse. Know that there are people who are available and willing to help you. Try to remember that the best thing that you can do for yourself is to be willing to receive help and support. A good place to start is with online counseling because you can continue meeting with the same person regardless of where you live. Getting out of the cycle of abuse is hard, but it’s the first step toward reclaiming your own life and looking forward to a healthier future.
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