Is Abuse Really a ‘Cycle’?

Is Abuse Really a ‘Cycle’?

We use many different words when we’re describing abuse: systematic, power, control, pattern, purposeful. One word we don’t use when talking about abusive relationships is cycle.

abuse isn't a cycle

This way of describing abuse began in the 1970s and today, the “cycle of abuse” is still talked about in courtrooms, therapist sessions, in the media and more. Here at The Hotline we don’t use that descriptor, for a variety of reasons. Here’s why:

To describe abuse as a cycle makes it seem like there are four predictable, repetitive steps of what is going on in any relationship at any given time:

1)    Tension-building

2)    Incident — often a physical altercation

3)    Reconciliation

4)    Calm

If abuse was a cycle, it would be predictable — you could know what to expect and when to expect it. But the reality about domestic violence is that it doesn’t happen that way. While there may be recognizable patterns going on in a relationship (ex. you know your partner tends to get more confrontational after going out drinking) the violence rarely occurs in a predictable cycle.

An important reason why we don’t use the term “cycle” is because it’s sometimes used to blame victims for the continuation of abuse.

In her essay “Reframing Domestic Violence Law and Policy,” Professor Leigh Goodmark writes,

“Describing abuse as a cycle becomes problematic when this language is co-opted to be used against victims, particularly in a court setting — ex. “Why didn’t you leave during the calm stage?”

No one ever asks to experience abuse. The fault lies with the abuser, not the victim, so it’s important that we don’t use language that blames the person suffering abuse.

The model that more accurately describes what occurs in an abusive relationship is The Duluth Model and its Power & Control Wheel. It explains the many tactics an abusive partner uses at any one time to establish and maintain power and control over their partner.

To learn more about why we don’t refer to abuse as a cycle, check out the video below of Ellen Pence, co-founder of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, speaking about the creation of a new model of understanding abuse.

Pence also helped to create the Power & Control wheel, which was developed through listening to the stories of people who had experienced different types of abuse.

On Monday we’re taking a spin around the Power & Control Wheel, which will shed some light on a more accurate way of describing what’s happening within abusive relationships.

Head back to the blog next week to learn more!

Comment section

26 replies
  1. Maybe Thsts why I always feel ashamed about staying, because I call it a cycle and I do ask myself, when were calm and ok, why don’t I just leave!!!? Becaue I love him. Because I want things to work. Because I’m hoping one day, there will be that one day where we both realize how stupid we are acting and stop. I knwo people shouldn’t say “it’s my fault too” but how can I not say that when we’ve been together so long and I knwo what to do and say to “push his buttons” and I do and I end up getting beat. He hits me like im a man and I can’t hit back as hard as he hits me. Is there Something wrong w me for hitting back? We were together 4 years, broken up for 5 and now back together for 2. Idk what possessed me to come back. We have no kids together. He has one teen, I have none at all. Maybe my insecurities about myself and thinking I won’t find better. Or that I want to work it out and be with my first love forever. Idk. It hurts so bad. We were jst in a big fight. Neighbors had to come make sure I was ok. I felt stupid. Eyes swollen and crying saying I’m ok. When they heard me screaming at the top of my lungs telling him to stop. Again idk why I stay.
    I called the hotline and got the recording 5 times so I hung up. I guess I just needed to vent and talk to someone about this. But I guess I’m doing it here. I’m in my safe place now, and I’m ok. I just wish this wasn’t happening to me and other victims out there. Damn.

  2. I know how you feel. I’ve been married 15 years and most of it I’ve been unhappy. I’ve never called the hotline but I will soon. Maybe because now I am sure its over. I’ve been crying on and off for two weeks. I have been verbally and emotionally and physically (ten times or less)abused in front of our children. He is an alcoholic who gets MEAN. The worst is that he calls me names whenever he feels I deserve it. I know he wants out, and I think he’s trying to make so bad that I leave. That really would be easiest, but a friend told me, and I have since read, that if I leave the kids at home that I may lose custody. Ithought it would be easiest if the kids could still stay in the house they have lived all of their lives, and I could move into a room nearby. But now I won’t do that. He says that if he leaves, he will quit paying the mortgage because he won’t be able to pay for both places (a place for himself and a place for us).
    So now I’m really not sure how this will all shake out.
    The reason I have let this go on is that I’ve kept believing that he would realize he’s been abusing me and want to change. Would want to stop drinking because he’s so unpredictable when drunk.I keep hoping he will feel some sort of shame. I think he feels a littlebit ashamed, but won’t admit it to me. After an altercation last week, I admit I tried to make him feel sorry and ashamed. I told him that he was an alcoholic and a beater, and he then said that he didn’t care if he was an alcoholic and didn’t care he was a beater!
    It’s not g

  3. C,

    Thank you for sharing your story with our blog community. This sounds like a very scary situation and it sounds like a lot is going on. There is nothing that you can say or do to deserve to be hit by your partner. Abuse is always a choice and whether you “push his buttons” or hit him back, it still does not justify his abusive behaviors. It is also completely understandable to want the relationship to work out. In order for that to happen, he will have to hold himself responsible for his behavior and change his perspective on relationships. Even with years of therapy that is a difficult task to achieve.

    I am sorry it took us a while to answer your call. That is not always the case. From everything you have described, it sounds like an advocate on the HOTLINE can offer guidance, support and options. I encourage you to try to give us another call at 1800-799-7233. Our hotline is available 24/7 and is completely anonymous and confidential.

    Until then,


  4. I’m confused about what abuse is and is not. I’m a 30 year old successful Caucasian woman married to a doctor. My husband and I have been together for five years, married for two, trying for chikdren. We moved to a different state for his residency and I work full time while continuing to pursue my graduate degree. My husband is charming and kind toward his patients, his family, my family and our friends. He is also kind and loving toward me, most of the time. However, we argue incessantly and often treat each other disrespectfully. He gives me silent treatment/cold shoulder and tells me that I’m not putting enough effort into the relationship. I try to maintain a cool head and talk through our conflicts. Despite this we often yell at each other. About 3 times over the past two years, our conflicts have become physical. Often I feel I have a part in escalating the situation because I damage property (ie throwing pictures or tearing up papers) and yell at him; I’ve even called him names and used profanity. At these times he has used choke holds and/or pushed me. He always apologizes afterwards and explains that he takes responsibility. He has said he feels bullied by me but that it doesn’t excuse his behavior. He often says that I make independent choices that make him feel unloved, such as spending time with friends instead of him. Most recently he has agreed to get marriage counseling with me. I showed him the wheel of power and control and he says that I do as many of the descriptors as he does and that he feels I verbally abuse him. I’m really confused. I don’t consider him a “batterer” because for the most part he seems to be a good person outside of our relationship. I really do feel like a lot of conflict could be avoided if I could make the choices he wanted me to make like spending more time with him and putting him first but I just haven’t been successful. So am I abusing him, is he abusing me or are we both abusing each other? Will counseling help? Does frequency play a part in whether this is abuse or not? Thank you.

  5. Michelle,

    Thank you so much for sharing with our blog community. From what you have described it sounds like a lot is going on. I am very concerned that the abuse is escalating. To answer one of your questions, it sounds like he is very abusive and manipulative. Although he mentions that he takes responsibility over his behaviors, it sounds like he also finds an excuse for them or finds a way to turn the blame around onto you. That is a common tactic people who are abusive use to maintain control in the relationship. Frequency is not usually an indicator to domestic violence because abuse has to do with more than isolated incidents of physical violence. Abuse happens as a pattern of behaviors that one person uses to maintain power and control.

    It also sounds like you are making an effort to change a lot of your actions and he is not. Healthy love takes equal effort to achieve. One option may be contacting us at 1-800-799-7233 to speak with an advocate more in depth. The hotline is available 24/7 and is completely anonymous and confidential and can be used as a source of emotional support.

    Til then,


  6. I’ve been married to a man for 4 years now. This is the second marriage for both of us. My first husband was a drunk who enjoyed being mean to me. He would call me nasty names in front of our children and he got physical with me alot toward the end. After a nite in the er I decided that was enough and I finally left him. Two years later i meet the man of my dreams. He was so sweet and caring and loving. And I was sooooo blind. He turn out to be the same as my ex-husband just worse. He is very controlling of me he treats me in a way like a child. I am to go by his rules cause what he says goes in his eyes. He has gotten physical with me a few times and each time it does get worse. I have more brusies then the time before. I make excuses for him when other people see the marks on me. I don’t understand whats wrong with me. I went through this before and I promised myself that I would never put up with being treated this way, yet I’m still here. I don’t understand how I can fall in love with another man that beats on me. Why did’t I see the warning signs in the beginning. The first year we were together were all lies. He lied to me about who he is and the way he is. But, I should have seen this I keep saying. I do love him but I am not in love with him any more and I really feel a little hate toward him for treating me this way. I want to get out. When I left my first husband I walked away from everything I took nothing but my clothes and my kids. I had to start my life all over again. And here I am 30 years old in the same situation again and again I will have to walk away from our home and everything. I don’t have any family really to run too. His family is my family. But I Know I have to go. My biggest fear is that he breaks my neck or kills me and then my two boys will be without a mom. I have tried to get him to get help but he thinks that nothing is wrong with him. If I just do what I’m told then we wouldn’t have any problems. I know this is not my fault I have finally come to realize that. I just really wanted this marriage to work. I do not want to get another divorce for the second time. I just wish he would be the person that I fell in love with. But he is not that person anymore. How can I get that back? Everytime I try to leave he cries and tells me he loves me and he is sorry. But sometimes when he talks to me and pushes me or chocks me. I wonder how could you love me and treat me this way. If he loves me why does he want to hurt me so bad. And he hurts me on purpose. He will say things to me that he knows cuts my heart like a knife. Yet he still does it. What do I do? Do I keep trying to get him to get help or do I just make a run for it?

  7. Vickie,

    Thank you so much for reaching out. That sounds like a really terrible situation. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to feel like to be in the same exact position twice. It is very common for abusive relationships to start off wonderfully, in fact, they almost all do. Abusive people are very manipulative and know how to draw you in. You are totally right, this is not your fault. We don’t really have control over other people and often times abusive people cannot or will not take responsibility for their actions. If they do not see what they are doing as wrong, then there is very little chance that they will change. That said, I don’t presume to know your situation so I would definitely encourage you to trust your instinct.

    I would invite you to give us a call if you’d like at 1(800).799.7233. We are here 24/7 and we are completely confidential. We can talk about a plan for your safety and/or escape and connect you to local resources. Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. We are here to help.

    Until then,
    Hotline Advocate MC

  8. I finally left after 4 years, but I’m confused right now. I don’t know for sure if I’m in an abusive relationship. When we first got together it was a whirlwind. He swept me off my feet, then he moved in 2 months later. I was pregnant soon after that. once he was sure I couldn’t terminate the pregnancy, things got very bad. he was drunk and angry and mean to me, but was so sweet to my daughter that I didn’t have the heart to toss him out. he was the only dad she had, and she so much wanted a dad.
    Then he turned the tables, and tried to make me angry at her. He told me I just spoiled her and she’s awful. I ended it, but he said he was sorry, he was drunk, he would never do it again. I was pregnant and scared and vulnerable and broke, so I took him back.
    the day my son was born, I had to buy him vodka before we could go to the hospital. later that night, he berated and insulted and threatened to abandon me because I didn’t want to breastfeed. I was sobbing. thank God the nurse came in. that was almost three years ago.
    since then we have broken up many times, he convinced me to quit my job, and then move with him far away from my family. and then he moved us to a remote small town.
    it got better while I focused on him only, but the kids were suffering. I insisted that he stop drinking, but it would only last two weeks.
    we had bad screaming fights in front of the
    kids and everyone else.
    he makes my kids cry when he’s mad at me.
    he has started making suicide threats and tried to prevent me from leaving by taking all the money or my car keys.
    I left all of our stuff and left, but I’m trying to be nice so he won’t destroy or things and I can get them. it’s hard. he keeps pushing me to go back, saying he’ll get help. I just need to know if I’m crazy or if he really is an abuser.

  9. Yesterday something crazy happened at my house.
    My husband wanted me to find a swimming suit for him. I couldn’t find it and give it to him right away, because the walk in closet was sort of messy. I am working and I was being lazy for a while.
    I was trying to look for a swimming suit, but I couldn’t find it. I found another swimming suit instead.
    Since I was tired and stressed out with a bunch of work at home, I shed my tears.
    After that, he started throwing things at me, got an ax in his hands and started demolishing things one by one. Furniture, my stuff, and he even kicked and broke the door. When I saw his eyes, he looked like he was insane. His eyes were filled with anger. I felt I was gonna die if I attempt to talk back at him. He threatend me with and ax and asked whether I wanna live or not.
    I tried to hide under the closet and he pulled me. I fell down on the floor. I couldn’t stand up right away because I was hurt. He shouted at me to stand up right away. Since I couldn’t move, I lay down on the floor for less than five minutes.
    He kicked me so hard many times until I get up, and humiliate me. And after that, I ran away and shut the door. I was sitting behind the door. Since he kicked the door so many times, the door was broken and I hurt my head. There is a lump behind my head.
    He didn’t stop until he got tired. Later he took a shower and went out to hang out his friends as if nothing happend. I was hiding in the corner of the backyard with my dog until he was gone. My dog puked because he was nervous, too.
    Two hours later, he came home with two of his friends. He dragged me to the bedroom and said, he is sorry about what he did. He sort of laughed and said he didn’t realize he was using and ax. It didn’t sound funny to me. I coudln’t stop shedding tears even when his friends were there. He said I should stop crying because his friends were at home and ordered me to control my feeling and he said we will talk about it tomorrow. Since I coudln’t control myself, they all left and he still hasn’t come back although it id 7:30 in the morning.
    He doesn’t realize how seriously I am hurt mentally and physically. It started with throwing 2 beer cans and now it is really serious. I am sad and I would want him to suffer just like me. I wish at least he feels the same like me. If I commit a suicide, and if he is going to be mentally damged by me doing so, I would do it for sure.
    I think this is the end of our marriage life.

  10. Kelly,
    I am praying for you and I hope you take your dog and run or he will kill you one day.
    I finally ran with my son 3 years ago or he would have killed us. it unfortunatley doesnt get better only shorter peace times and mentally it lkills u a little everyday.
    praying for u stay strong u can do it and YOU ARE WORTH BETTER

  11. Renee,
    Thank you so much for being so brave and strong. It takes a lot to share what can be very painful experiences with our community; we thank you for sharing your story.
    You’ve described a very abusive situation, with some concerning red flags. Suicidal threats are often a way to manipulate a partner into staying but are also a red flag in how dangerous the situation is/can become. If you’d ever like to an advocate about what’s happened in the past and what you’re going through now, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We are 24/7 and totally anonymous and confidential. Please give us a call when you are safe to be on the phone at 1-800-799-7233.

    Hotline_Advocate KK

  12. Kelly,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story and experiences with our blog community. You’ve been through so much and I’m very concerned for your safety. The situation you described sounds so terrifying and I’m sorry he put you through that. You’re right, it is not funny in the least and you do not deserve to be treated that way. If you’d ever like to talk to one of our advocate please give us a call. We are 24/7 and completely confidential and anonymous. It can be important to talk to us when you are safe to be on the phone, for example, at a friend’s house, or when your partner is not home, but you can reach us no matter what time it is. We know leaving an abusive situation is the most dangerous time, so please don’t hesitate to talk with our advocates about making a safety plan about leaving the relationships if that is something you are wanting to do.

    Call us at 1-800-799-7233


  13. Petra,
    Thank you so much for reaching out and supporting and sharing with a fellow community member. We so appreciate when we see you all supporting one another. It can be important to remember that everyone’s experience can be very different, which might impact how they are able to maneuver safely out of the relationship. Since we know that leaving is the most dangerous time in an abusive situation, we always recommend safety planning around leaving, and immediately after. What works for one person, might not work for another.

    Thank you for being an active community member and sharing with us and our blog!


  14. Kelly,
    I am praying for you. Please don’t harm yourself. Cry out to God for his help. He’ll hear and heal you.

  15. I personally don’t believe that your shame is warranted, most of the people that I’ve met in abusive relationships feel this sense of shame as I myself felt in my first marriage. It is natural to ‘beat yourself up’ over the things you do, and the things you feel you cause others to do. However, even when you ‘push his buttons’ it is up to HIM to remain in control of his actions, not you. Also as a woman without children I think that it may be easier for you to say to yourself (perhaps subconsciously) that at least he is not hurting the kids, I realize that alot of women use the children as an excuse to stay but that has never made sense to me as I would think protecting your children would be of the utmost importance. I was lucky and had a strong family to support me when I finally got too scared to stay I realize that is exceptional but this world has not as yet gone completely to hell and there are still good folks that help others out there.

  16. Hi JoLene,

    Thanks for responding to our post. You’re absolutely right that we are not responsible for anyone else’s choices or actions, and that there is nothing anyone could ever do that makes it okay for someone to abuse them. No one ever deserves to be abused, or to be made to feel responsible for how someone else chooses to treat them. It is a very common control tactic to blame a victim for an abuser’s behavior, because it creates a false sense of control, the idea that the person being hurt can stop what’s being done to them. The only person who can choose to stop being abusive is the person choosing to abuse in the first place.

    There can be many obstacles to leaving an abusive relationship, and the challenges may feel overwhelming. Abuse often happens behind closed doors, and only those in the relationship know everything that’s going on. There are many people and organizations working to provide support and help for anyone experiencing domestic violence, even if they are not ready to leave the relationship. Our advocates are available 24/7 to talk, anonymously and confidentially, at 1.800.799.7233.

    Take care,

    Hotline Advocate AS

  17. my sister was killed by her husband just two weeks ago 🙁 I pray for you all, and for my situation as well, and for all the lives lost and all the kids.

  18. I have been with my boyfriend for 5 years now we have to daughters together and over the last year our relationship has went from rocky to horrible. Last week he threw a plate and fork ay my face hit me over and over till my arms were black and blue put his hands on my neck smashed my pgone when i tried to call the police he said he was sorry was nice for a day or to and now hes back to being mean and makeing me affired to say anything i have no job no money of my own or family that i can turn to i dont no what to do any more

  19. I have been with my boyfriend for 5. Years now at first things were great moved in right after highschool had two little girls but over the past year tgings have been getting really bad. He is like a total different person at times. One miniiet hes super nice then the next hes beating the crap out of me. I no i should leavebut i javeno job now money or any family since he wont let me work says my placeis at home with our girls. Tgis past week he threw a plate and fork at my face all because i told him i was not a child and new how to oack his lunch then he pushed me to the groundpunched me over and over till my arms were black and blue chased me and smashed my phone when i tried to call 911 put his hands my my neck and would not let go all in frount of our daughters i dont no what to do anymore

  20. Shannon,
    It sounds like you are in a very scary and dangerous situation. Abusive partners often isolate their partners as a form of controlling behavior and it can often make people feel very stuck in their situation. It sounds like you are very scared and overwhelmed; that is very understandable. If you have the ability to call or chat with us while your partner is at work, you can speak to an advocate to get some support and help with what’s going on. We are completely confidential and anonymous.
    You can reach us by phone 24/7 at 1.800.799.7233 and by chat at thehotline.org from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM Central Standard Time.
    Please contact us when you are safe to talk.


  21. This post was linked in a tweet I read in our feed recently and I found what you had to say very interesting. I shared this post with our executive director and counselors and asked for their perspectives on use of the term “cycle of abuse.” Below are the comments of Clema Lewis, Executive Director and Sheelene Gumbs, Crisis Counselor of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix.
    Clema Lewis:
    “As a therapist who have worked with victims for over 30 years, I continue to use the cycle of violence to show some victims how batterers use this to keep them in the abusive relationship, but I use it with the Power and Control Wheel. I also use it in training to show how the “honeymoon phase” keeps a victim in the relationship, because it leaves room for hope or change on the batterer’s part, Again it is used with the Power and Control wheel as a tactic.
    Sheelene Gumbs:
    I think that “cycle” would be appropriate because it is a strategic point for explaining what is happening and how and when to leave, from victims’, survivors’ and advocates’ perspectives. The type of violence may not be predictable but the actions to the violence are recognizable, therefore narrowing down when are the most dangerous periods.

  22. Debra,
    Thank you for sharing. It always good to hear different perspectives. From our experience, some survivors identify with the cycle of abuse, while others do not identify with it. Unfortunately for some, the reconciliation or calm phase may never really come around. It sounds like people within your organization have found different ways to mold and use these tools to help educate others about domestic violence, which is wonderful. Thank you for all you do!

    Hotline Advocate VG

  23. I was relieved to see the abuse cycle at the women’s shelter after I’d been finally physically attacked by my husband, until that moment my life was ruled by some crazy out of control roller-coaster. When I was shown the cycle, I exclaimed “that’s it! That’s my roller-coaster!”. Although the marriage was over and I never spoke to him again, I could take comfort in knowing that it was actually predictable. Each stop on the wheel could be different time frames and intensities, but they without a doubt followed the cycle.

  24. Joanna,

    Thank you so much for sharing with our blog community. I am so glad to hear that you are safe and were able to get connected with an agency that provided that assistance. We know it can be so validating to be able to identify all of those behaviors as part of the abuse. And I’m glad you were given that opportunity.

    Advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline love hearing all the strength from the survivors who leave the abuse. Know that you can give us a call to share that experience, 1800-799-7233.

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