The cycle of relationship violence

Why does the assaulted woman not leave her abuser? Why not report the attacks? Why, after having denounced several times, do they withdraw the complaint? How do victims of assault feel at the different stages of the assault? How do they become victims?

We have all heard these kinds of questions in the public opinion. We can give you an answer if we take a close look at it victimization process, Which, as the name suggests, is not a one-off and isolated situation, but something that develops over time. A relationship where there is violence usually doesn’t start happening overnight.

It is a process that often begins subtly and causes the victim not always to be aware of the gravity of the situation they are going through.

The cycle of violence and the process of victimization

In 1979, the famous American psychologist Leonore Walker shed light on how victimization processes work based on her research designed to try to understand and answer previously asked questions.

From the testimonies of abused women, he realized that they are not assaulted all the time or in the same way, but that there are phases of violence, which have varied duration and manifestations. This has been called the cycle of violence, one of the most widely held theories about the internal dynamics of violent relationships around the world.

This theory considers the existence of four phases in all the dynamics of relational violence. The phases in which the cycle of violence is divided succeed one another, making it difficult to break the cycle. In the same relationship, the cycle can be repeated infinite times and the duration of its phases can be variable.

The 4 phases of abuse

Below, I will describe the different phases that an abused person goes through.

1. Silent phase

In a first phase, the situation is calm. No disagreement is detected and everything is experienced in an idyllic way. But, when the cycle has been repeated several times, the victim may begin to feel that calm is being maintained because all is well from the point of view of the abuser who is ultimately the engine of the cycle.

2. Voltage build-up phase

Little disagreements start, so the aggressor feels more and more questioned by his victim. It may be that the victim, in her attempt to keep things the way the abuser wants, may make a mistake as the increased stress affects her ability to concentrate. At this point, in fact, psychological violence begins to be exerted on the basis of the idea of ​​control and that it is a red flag of what is to come.

Many abusers justly apologize by saying that they were warning their victim but that she ignored them and continued to provoke them. The woman tries to calm down, please, or at least not to do anything that may bother the partner, in the unrealistic belief that she can control the aggression.

Tensions are built up and manifested in a specific way, such as certain behaviors of verbal or physical aggression of a light and isolated nature, resulting from small incidents: subtle contempt, innuendo, contained anger, sarcasm, long silences, irrational demands, Etc. The victim adopts a series of measures to manage this environment and gradually acquires psychological self-defense mechanisms to anticipate or avoid attacks.

The aggressor’s actions have one goal: destabilize the victim. At this stage the victim tends to minimize or deny the problem (“we have our pluses and minuses, like everyone else”), justifying the violent behavior of the aggressor (“as he is very passionate, he is carried away by the ‘anger … “), and allude to the positive aspects of his partner (” he is my only support in life “).

3. Explosion phase

The aggressor takes action. It is characterized by a strong discharge of the tensions caused in the previous phase by the aggressor. The most significant physical, psychological and / or sexual assaults occur.

Compared to the other phases, this one is the shortest but also the one that is experienced with the most intensity. The most important consequences for the victim arise at this time, both physically and mentally, when they continue to institute a series of psychological alterations due to the situation experienced.

At this point, the victim may have high expectations of change in their partner (“over time it will change, you have to give it time …”), and feelings of guilt appear (“I have it). deserved “,” the guilt is mine for choosing it “).

4. Honeymoon phase

At the beginning, it is generally the responsible phase that the victim remains in the cycle because in her the abuser initiates a series of compensatory behaviors to show the victim that he feels it and that it will not happen again. This allows the victim to see the positive side of the abuser as well and get caught up in thoughts of how to make that part appear more frequently.

This phase is characterized by extreme kindness and “affectionate” behavior on the part of the aggressor (attentions, gifts, promises, etc.). the aggressor he tries to influence his family and friends to convince the victim to forgive him. It is often common to try to make the victim understand that the abuser needs professional help and support and that they cannot abandon them in this situation; reason why some victims come back with the aggressor (in case they have ended coexistence with him) and / or withdraw the denunciation that had been presented previously.

But over time, this phase usually disappears and the cycle is reduced to just three phases: quiet, surge and explosion. This disappearance of the honeymoon phase is consistent with a verbalization that many victims make when they comment that “me, as long as you do not call me and that you do not abuse me, I am fed up” thus ignoring how a relationship is sustained in things that go beyond the absence of abuse.

As the honeymoon phase gets shorter attacks are more and more strong and frequent, Which decreases the psychological resources of women to get out of the spiral of violence.

Connect with learned helplessness theory

Leonore Walker postulated that Seligman’s theory of impotence was one of the theories that could explain the psychological and behavioral reactions of abused women.

Following this theory, continued abuse would lead to the cognitive perception that one is unable to manage or resolve the situation one is going through, Which would generalize in future situations. This feeling of helplessness would lead to increased depression, anxiety and have a debilitating effect on problem-solving abilities.

Abused women would come to a point where they would recognize that their responses had no impact on their abusive situation because they implemented different alternatives to change their own behavior or that of the abuser and yet they continued to do so. be mistreated.

final thoughts

Some authors have criticized the learned helplessness theory applied to abused women since can be misinterpreted and used to support stereotypical concepts of a passive woman or a helpless victim. Walker says the term “impotence” should be used with great caution, as it portrays battered women as incompetent and responsible people. It is therefore important to stress that one of the pillars of working with victims is to promote their autonomy / self-care, self-esteem and self-responsibility.

Abused women are not responsible for what happened to them, but they are responsible, after therapeutic work and having become aware of the nature of the cycle of violence, prevent a new violent situation from occurring in a future relationship of couple. At this point, they will be able to identify the signs that a relationship is not “healthy”.

Bibliographical references:

  • Echeburúa, E. and Corral, P. (1998). Handbook on Family Violence. Madrid, 21st century.
  • Echeburúa, E., Amor, P. and Corral, P. (2002). Abused women in prolonged coexistence with the abuser. Relevant variables. Psychological action, 2, 135-150.
  • Walker, LE (1984). Abused woman syndrome. New York, New York: Springer.

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