emotional wellbeing

Written By: DiveThru Team

Reviewed By: Dr. Justin Puder B.A, M.A, Ph.D.


What Are the 4 Stages of the Cycle of Abuse?

PUBLISHED Jun 4th, 2021 & UPDATED ON Nov 17th, 2022

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Chances are, you have experienced an abusive relationship at least once in your life. And if not yourself, then someone in your circle definitely has. In fact, the National Domestic Violence Hotline says more than 1 in 4 people in the U.S. will experience some form of abuse from an intimate partner! We can all agree that number is WAY too freakin’ high, right? But unfortunately, abuse is also present in family relationships, friendships and working relationships.

If you’re in this situation it’s common to not even realize how bad it all is. This is because of something known as the cycle of abuse. So, let’s figure out what that entails and why soooo many folks get sucked into those toxic patterns without even fully understanding them!  

Types of Abuse 

There are 5 main types of abuse in a personal relationship and all of them are HELLA shitty. They make you fear for your safety and cause you to walk on eggshells for fear of doing something to make the abuser act out in these ways (even though it’s totally not your fault)! 

Here are some examples of how each of them shows up:

  • Physical Abuse: any intentional physical injury; like hitting, pushing, kicking, etc.
  • Emotional Abuse: constant arguing or opposition; such as jealousy and possessiveness.
  • Verbal Abuse: saying things that decrease your self-confidence and make you feel helpless.
  • Sexual Abuse: being taken advantage of through forceful and unwanted sexual contact.
  • Psychological Abuse: things like gaslighting used to manipulate and distort your thoughts.

And all of these are scary to have to deal with.

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What Is the Cycle of Abuse? 

When those types of abuse spin into a repeating pattern of high highs and very low lows, that’s when it turns into a cycle of abuse. There are 4 stages, and they cause the victim to become isolated from their friends and family, be in denial about how dangerous their abuser truly is and suppress their true selves in order to be a “better” person that won’t arouse a negative reaction! Think Daisy and Tom from The Great Gatsby — he was constantly isolating her and somehow kept her locked in the relationship, even though she knew deep down that she was unhappy. 

“In all relationships that are abusive — no matter what kind of relationship it is — you have this tension building. And, then there’s the event that happens and then there’s the ‘I’m sorry’ reconciliation phase, and then it goes to the honeymoon phase,” explains therapist Micheline Maloouf in an episode of the Anxious Like You podcast. 

Let’s take a deeper look at how each of those 4 phases looks! 

1. Tension Building

Outside stressors, like work or money problems, cause the abuser to feel aggravated and powerless — so they start taking out little frustrations on you, the victim, through anger or paranoia. And because of that, you try to cater to their every need and become suuuper cautious of rubbing them the wrong way! Until, eventually, that tension boils over and leads the abuser to act out.  

2. Abusive Incident

By ‘act out,’ we mean the abuser follows through on one or more types of abuse to hurt you — and it’s never accidental! For example, Tom severely bruising Daisy’s finger (which is really only possible through intense force). The abuse may happen once or multiple times during this phase, along with repeated threats, insults, manipulation and intimidation which cause you to think it was your fault! And it totally wasn’t, that’s just what the abuser WANTS you to think.

3. Reconciliation

During this phase, the abuser will admit that their actions were wrong and basically promise to make it alright again. But, it’s a trap!!! It’s usually just another manipulation using mind games. And, very rarely do they actually improve their behaviour.

4. Calm

The “I’m sorry” phase is followed by calm…or should we say the calm before the storm? Essentially, you feel almost safe again because things have actually been okay for a while! Maybe you’ve even started being all friendly again and almost convinced yourself that things are back to normal (that the abuse was just a little slip-up). Until, sooner or later, that tension phase begins all over again!

“That’s why people stay in relationships that are abusive for such a long time, because they see the honeymoon and the love-bombing and they’re like, ‘Oh, things are changing, things are getting good,’” adds Micheline. “And then you’re back down and you’re kinda fucked in the head cause you’re like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”

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How to Break the Cycle of Abuse 

Breaking that cycle of abuse can be really, really difficult. It’s so easy to fall into that routine of suffering and keeping yourself going by remembering the light at the end of the tunnel that is the honeymoon phase. And, more often than not, you start making excuses for why to stay! 

“You know you feel bad in it…don’t know why…and can’t really put a finger on it. You look at other bad relationships and you’re thinking, ‘Well, at least it’s not like that, I have it really good here,’” explains Micheline. “And then you leave, and you realize that you have all of this emotional pain.” 

Leaving is the hard part. It feels like there’s no way out or like you’re trapped, and acknowledging the fact that someone (who is supposed to love you) is hurting you can feel like the most difficult thing in the world. But we’ve got some tips (in no particular order) to help you start working towards an out.

1. Keep Records

Write down, or take screenshots of, everything your abuser has said or done to you. Take pictures of injuries or damage (like a hole they punched in the wall).

2. Don’t React in the Moment

An emotional reaction is exactly what they’re fishing for and will only gas them up more. (Reacting and expressing yourself later, when you are safe, is 1000% valid!)

3. Find a Support System

Friends and family may be able to help you gather the strength to leave. If you don’t have someone to help you, find a local domestic violence organization that can help counsel you, find you protected housing (if needed) and help you find more resources (mental health professionals, law enforcement, etc.).

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How to Heal From Emotional Abuse

Once you’ve finally broken free from the chains of abuse, everything will feel reeaallly weird at first. You may even begin recognizing your old self again because you’re no longer trying to appease the needs of someone else every minute of your life! But those old patterns can still follow you through future relationships, even if your new partner is nothing but healthy and supportive. And this can even last for years without the help of professionals. 

Talking out your trauma with a mental health professional can be very beneficial in healing those wounds! It will take time and patience, but it will help you come to terms with your emotions and help you spot those red flags if they ever come up in the future.

If you’re experiencing abuse in your relationship and feel you are in danger, you can call domestic violence hotlines at 1-604-875-0885 (Canada) and 1-800-799-7233 (United States). 

For more information on the cycle of abuse, tune into the Anxious Like You podcast episode titled “Recognizing Abuse with Olympian Laurie Hernandez.”

Here are some tips to minimize the risk of someone knowing that you’re researching domestic abuse-related topics (via Tech Safety):

  • If you think your devices or internet search activities are being monitored, access this information from a device that isn’t being monitored. That should be a device that the person does not or has not had physical or remote access. This is the safest thing to do if you don’t want someone to know that you are visiting these websites.
  • Sign out of other accounts, such as Google or Facebook, before visiting these sites.
  • Use your internet browser settings to increase your privacy, such as turning off browsing history or using the browser in-private mode.
  • If it is safe to do so, delete the websites URLs that you don’t want stored from the browser history.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to increase the security of your internet browsing and activity. 

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Read More: 7 Helpful Ways to Take a Social Media Break, 5 Signs of Emotional Abuse & What to Do Next,