Analyzing The Cycle Of Domestic Violence

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 11, 2024by 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.

One way to combat domestic violence is to analyze and comprehend the cycle of abuse. There are often patterns in abuse, and while specific details can vary, the overall progression may not deviate far from the norm. Understanding the cycle of domestic violence entails observing the warning signs, taking note of typical behaviors and characteristics of abusers, and maintaining an awareness of the unique types of domestic violence that can exist. 

Before analyzing the cycle of domestic violence, understanding that anyone can be a survivor can be paramount. Anyone of any gender, sexuality, age, nationality, race, or background can be abusive or be a survivor of abuse. Domestic violence does not discriminate, and the identities of the people involved do not change the severity of the case. Regardless of who experiences domestic violence, the cycle involves three key phases, including tension building, abusive behaviors, and the honeymoon phase. 

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Phase one: The tension-building phase 

The first phase in the cycle of domestic violence is the tension-building phase. Tension and discord between the parties may begin after an argument or disagreement. There are various ways in which the tension-building phase can manifest, but it often acts as a warning sign of the escalation of future abuse. 

Tensions can mount over matters like money, employment, household responsibilities, or people outside of the relationship. At the beginning of the tension-building phase, the abusive partner may gradually lash out at the survivor via name-calling, insults, or put-downs. They may stop being as loving, kind, and charming as they may have been when the two individuals met, which may confuse the survivor. 

In turn, the person who is being mistreated may attempt to please them or ask them why they're suddenly acting unkindly. The survivor might believe that changing their behavior or actions can dispel any arguments or disagreements before their inception. They may also attempt to appease the perpetrator by tiptoeing around them, trying to stay out of their way, or going out of their way to give the individual everything they ask for. However, none of these attempts at reconciliation work, although they may temporarily stop the abuse for a few hours or days. 

The tension-building phase is steady yet gradual. This phase of domestic violence may cause the survivor to have a clue that something bigger and more dangerous is brewing. This unease may prompt them to attempt to avoid this "blow up" by doing everything they can to stop the tension. 

In some cases, the attempts of the individual to appease the abuser may lead to the abusive phase, as the individual may not be satisfied by their attempts or turn the attempt against the survivor. Deep down, the abuser may know that they are acting unhealthily. However, due to the tension, they choose to lash out at the survivor to absolve themselves of guilt or responsibility. 

Phase two: The abusive phase

If you are experiencing sexual abuse or have experienced assault, note that the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) has a hotline dedicated to supporting individuals experiencing sexual assault, harassment, or intimate partner violence. You can contact them anytime by calling 800-656-HOPE (4673) or using the online chat. 

The abusive phase occurs when the perpetrator lashes out at the survivor. This abuse may occur physically, such as hitting, punching, throwing objects, destroying property, forcing sexual contact, choking, shaking, smacking, or restraining them. However, physical and sexual abuse are not the only types of abuse that can occur. 

While physical and sexual abuse is domestic violence, understanding and recognizing that abuse can occur in various manners is paramount. In some cases, abusers employ multiple forms of abuse to control the survivor and have power over them. Abuse is based on a desire to control the other person's actions, thoughts, and emotions. 

Some perpetrators of domestic violence use threats and intimidation as tactics to maintain their control over survivors. They may destroy objects, throw dirty looks, threaten to kick their partner out of the home or suggest harming the survivor's family, friends, or loved ones. Abusers may also attempt to control their survivors financially by preventing them from going to work, stealing their money or credit cards, sabotaging their current employment, or refusing to allow them to have their own money. 

Despite the mounting tension that occurs before the abuse, the abusive phase may still be a surprise to the survivor. Perpetrators of domestic violence may seemingly "explode" and lash out unpredictably or over insignificant topics. When an abuser mistreats their partner, it may seem impossible to reason or rationalize with them. The survivor may attempt to calm down the perpetrator of the abuse, but it may make the abuse worse or be unsuccessful. 

Another part of the domestic violence cycle comes in the form of escalated instances of abuse. Some survivors may initially believe that the episodes are one-time occurrences and won't happen again. However, as domestic violence occurs in cycles, the abusive phase repeats itself and may worsen each time. 

The perpetrator may first start by hitting the survivors. Hitting may escalate to punching, and punching may escalate to strangling. Some people may end up losing their lives to domestic violence, which may end the cycle for them, while their ex-partner moves on to someone else or faces legal challenges. Often, abusers do not stop acting abusively until they are forced to stop. 

Many survivors may believe they can change their abuser or stop the abuse. However, this logic may be faulty because the survivor is not at fault for the abuse; the abuser is. Normal, healthy, and sane individuals do not mistreat and abuse the people they claim to love and care for. Abuse is not love. Domestic violence is not love. Mistreatment and intimidation are not love.

The honeymoon phase

The honeymoon phase may occur after the phase of abuse and before the tension-building phase repeats itself. Throughout the "honeymoon" phase, the abuser may profusely apologize for their actions. They may express genuine remorse, claim that they'll seek professional help, or revert to a loving, caring persona to regain the comfort and trust of their survivor. 

The abuser's shift in conduct during the honeymoon phase may be enacted to prevent the survivor from leaving the relationship. This phase of the domestic violence cycle can also be confusing for the person on the receiving end of the abuse. During the honeymoon phase, they may be reminded of the person they fell in love with. The kindness, promises, and vows to never lash out again may cause the survivor to believe that the relationship can be salvaged, at least at first. 

However, the cycle of abuse is often never-ending. No matter how often the abusive individual apologizes, cries, or begs for forgiveness after the fact, the cycle may repeat itself until the survivor leaves the relationship permanently. However, leaving an abusive relationship can be challenging. When abusers and perpetrators of domestic violence feel as though they are losing control or that the survivor will truly leave or has left the relationship, they may be more dangerous. 75% of homicides caused by abuse happen after a survivor has left a relationship. 

For this reason, a vital support system can be critical for survivors. If a survivor is in a situation where they fear for their life or safety, they can contact the authorities and the Domestic Violence Hotline, which can connect them with resources and advocacy. While the abused individual may view notifying authorities as a betrayal to their abuser, it can often determine the difference between life and death. You're not alone, even if isolated from your immediate support system. Systems are in place to help survivors leave if they are ready. 

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Long-term mental health support for survivors

Immediate support can be essential for survivors, but many survivors are also left with mental health challenges after they leave a relationship. These challenges can consist of but are not limited to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and chronic stress. If you're experiencing these mental health conditions or want to talk to a trauma-informed professional about leaving abuse, it may be beneficial to reach out to a licensed therapist for long-term care. 

Some survivors may avoid seeking support from a therapist due to fears about leaving home or still being connected with their abuser. In these cases, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp may be effective. An online therapy platform lets clients connect with a therapist remotely via phone, video, or live chat sessions. If you don't want to speak aloud during therapy, you can use the live chat session option to talk to your therapist. In addition, you may be able to schedule sessions outside of standard business hours. 

Studies back up online therapy's effectiveness for those with a history of domestic violence or abuse. One study found that survivors of domestic violence with PTSD or depression experienced significant improvements in symptom severity and quality of life. 


The cycle of abuse can be challenging to experience and may seem to get quicker as time goes on in the relationship. However, you're not alone in experiencing this challenge; there are ways to find support. Consider contacting a domestic violence hotline for immediate support or an online or in-person therapist for long-term mental health guidance.
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