The Cycle of Abuse – Reclaiming a powerful tool for supporting women with experiences of abuse

During the 1970’s, Dr. Lenore Walker conducted research with women impacted by male violence and abuse. This was significant research at a time when little research had been focused on men’s violence against women. When she analyzed women’s accounts of abuse, she saw a pattern in their partner’s behaviour. She identified this as the Cycle of Violence. Since she published “The Battered Woman Syndrome” in 1979, many advocates and researchers have critiqued and discounted Walker’s Cycle of Violence as inaccurate, unhelpful and victim-blaming. We agree wholeheartedly with the concerns that have been raised about her theoretical assumptions and interpretations of her findings. There are strong reasons to critique many of the conclusions she came to. For example, Walker thought abuse was limited to the Explosion Phase of the Cycle and understood the Tension Phase and Honeymoon Phase as respite from the abuse. We now know that the whole Cycle is abusive and that an abusive man is seeking to have power and control in each phase of the Cycle – just in different abusive ways at different times. 

As a result of Walker’s interpretations, which many now believe were ideologically-biased, there are some professionals who reject the Cycle of Abuse, going so far as to call for a stop to using the Cycle in their work. We are very concerned about this reaction. As counselors, advocates and researchers that have worked for more than three decades with women who have experienced abuse, we believe this would be discarding a very powerful explanatory tool along with a flawed analysis. What we know is that women told Walker that there are three phases to men’s abuse and that there is a pattern or cycle to the abuse. Her problematic and quite frankly, erroneous interpretations of what women said do not make women’s experiences less true; there are patterns and distinct phases used by men who are abusive. We must be careful not to negate women’s experiences of the Cycle based on ideological grounds.

If you have concerns about using the Cycle of Abuse, please read on and consider how you might be able to reclaim this very useful tool. In conjunction with thousands of women and advocates, we have developed a way to use the Cycle that accurately reflects men’s abuse and women’s experiences. We have been using our version and interpretation of the Cycle for three decades in women’s support groups, individual counselling and in training and research, and it is always a fundamental and significant tool for answering key questions about men’s abuse and women’s experiences. 

The Cycle of Abuse gives women new language and perspectives on their partner’s terrifying and confusing behaviours. It creates an opportunity for women to talk about the whole range of ways that they experience his abuse: confusion, fear, hope, pain, exhaustion, entrapment, love, etc. It also counters many dominant myths about abuse and answers complex questions for women: ‘why are men abusive?’; ‘why are women attracted to abuse’; and ‘why do women stay?’. It debunks any suggestions of mutual responsibility, or women being helpless, powerless or choosing abuse. It demonstrates how women resist abuse and build protective strategies for themselves and their children. And finally, it allows women to tell the whole story of their relationship: for example, the experience described by all women that he seemed like a “good guy” in the beginning but that another reality came forward over time. All women relate to the ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ description. No other tool offers that. We just cannot stress this point enough. No other tool describes abusive men’s ‘positive-looking behaviour’ and affirms for women that they were not ‘attracted to the abuse’. This is the real power of the Cycle. Women can see that they made a good choice based on what he showed her early in the relationship – the aptly-named ‘Honeymoon’. And this is why we use the language of ‘Honeymoon’. It tells women that we understand the behaviour in this phase; that while abusive, it looks very different from the types of abuse used by her partner in other phases of the Cycle.

Before exploring the Cycle of Abuse in detail, we want to take some time to talk about Walker’s concept of ‘learned helplessness’ which she used to describe women who were experiencing abuse. This description of women could not be further from the truth. The women we meet are strong, insightful, caring, dedicated and resilient women. When we ask women to describe their experience of the Cycle, women describe all their attempts to resist the abuse. They read books and seek counselling desperately trying to change the dynamic in their relationship. They try everything from “standing up to him” to “not rocking the boat”. They follow the counsel of professionals, even when professionals do not understand the dynamics of abuse. Women eventually come to realize they have no ability to change his behaviour but this is not because they are helpless; it is because they have been terrorized by an abuser. The Cycle allows women to describe the myriad powerful and harmful impacts that the Cycle has had on them, and also shows them what they are surviving, and how well they are managing to parent, work, stay safe, make decisions, etc. under these conditions. It is particularly profound to go through the Cycle in a support group where women can hear other women’s stories and be affirmed that they are not alone, and that their experiences of these patterns are shared with other strong, amazing women. It often makes them ask ‘what playbook did all these men use?’ because the patterns and tactics are so common.

Some professionals are concerned that if we use the Cycle, we are somehow suggesting that abuse is predictable. Nothing could be further from the truth. We always say to women that we know the Cycle looks relatively neat and tidy on the page, but we also know it feels completely chaotic to live it. Abuse, by its very nature, is unpredictable. Being unpredictable is one of the ways abusers hold onto their power. Just because the abuser has somewhat of a pattern to his behaviour and has three distinct types of behaviour does not mean that women are responsible for predicting or managing his behaviour. She cannot. But knowing about the three phases helps her get clearer that he is the problem, not her. For the Cycle to be helpful for women, it needs to be used very differently than Walker’s original theory and interpretation. When women use it to describe how men use different types of abuse in each phase, and how they experience each phase, it gives women language and categories to begin to lift the debilitating confusion that comes with abuse. And the debilitating blame. We do not use it to tell women that her partner’s abuse is predictive or predictable. We do say their partner’s abuse is random, that he is 100% responsible for the Cycle, that all phases of the Cycle are abusive and that he is in control, not out-of-control. The power of the Cycle of Abuse is that it visually demonstrates all this for a woman and helps her begin to make sense of what has felt like chaos. It offers women an opportunity to fill in each of the phases of abuse with their unique story, while seeing the common elements of woman abuse. 

Some people have shied away from the Cycle because they think it leaves women feeling responsible for her partner’s abuse. We believe the Cycle proves the opposite. The abuser is the one who drives the Cycle. It is 100% his pattern, not hers. Women can in no way change the pattern or be responsible for the choices he makes. Women are profoundly impacted by his Cycle and may do many things to try to resist the abuse, but they cannot stop the abuse. Only the abuser can stop the abuse. This is important because so many women have been brainwashed by their abuser, and the dominant discourse in society more broadly, to believe that she can change the dynamic and stop the abuse. The Cycle helps women to see that there is nothing mutual, or 50/50 about the relationship, nor do they each have a ‘part to play in the problem’. Let us repeat this: he is 100% responsible for driving the Cycle. The Power and Control Wheel, which is a great complementary tool, does not enable women to see all the work they are doing to stop the abuse, and how fully responsible abusive men are for stopping the abuse. One way to demonstrate that is to look at an abusive partner’s behaviour after separation. It is clear that he will continue the pattern after separation. Even when he is apart from his partner, he will continue to cycle through honeymoon, tension, and explosion through any point of contact he may have with the woman. For example, many abusive men continue this Cycle through texting and voicemail – cycling between these three phases, regardless of whether the woman responds or not. 

Another dominant myth that the Cycle corrects is that abuse is ‘intergenerational’ and therefore, ‘abuse is normal’ for women who have experienced abuse from a partner. When people say, ‘women need to break the Cycle’ sometimes they are suggesting that women are repeating the abuse they learned in childhood. We strongly disagree with this interpretation. We think that people may be referring to some imagined inter-generational cycle where the woman was abused as a child and so she chose an abusive man. We reject that premise entirely. We have supported so many women without previous experiences of abuse. And we have never worked with a woman who thought that abuse was normal. In fact, we ask all women about their expectations and hopes when they entered their relationship. Nowhere on that long list of expectations is physical or sexual abuse, disrespect, oppression, mistreatment, and loss of dignity or freedom! In our experience, abusive men present themselves as decent, respectful, considerate, kind, attentive, etc. during the initial honeymoon phase. This meets women’s expectations of a partner. Only by understanding the power of the initial honeymoon, can women, professionals and the broader society see that women made a good choice based on how he presented himself. With the Cycle, women finally have an explanation that makes sense to them about what attracted them to their partner.

We want to be very clear here. The so-called “Honeymoon” is not a honeymoon. When we use the language of ‘Honeymoon’ we are not referring to the sweet days after a wedding. We are referring to a set of tactics that resemble ‘positive’ or acceptable relationship behaviour, but abusers use these tactics intentionally to maintain dominance and control. The honeymoon is as manipulative and controlling as the Tension-building and Explosion phases, but it is also much more confusing for women. It is where men show just enough ‘positive-looking’ behaviour that women believe there is hope for the relationship. Again, the Power and Control Wheel demonstrates typical ‘Tension-Building’ and ‘Escalation’ phases, but does not acknowledge or affirm women’s experiences associated with the ‘Honeymoon’ and how confusing and compelling this phase of the Cycle can be.

Now let’s look at the Cycle of Abuse in more detail. Conceptually, Walker viewed men’s violence as contained or limited to the “Acute Battering Phase” (what we call Explosion) which she describes as an isolated incident of abuse. The other two phases, according to Walker, are the Tension-Building and Respite or Honeymoon phases and are characterized by the absence of abuse. This is absolutely not accurate. All phases of the Cycle are abusive: each phase is intended to gain and maintain power and control. While the tactics an abuser uses in each phase are different, the goal is always the same. Women often describe the ‘Honeymoon Phase’ as intense and confusing as men use tactics that do not look like ‘abuse’ to renew hope and commitment, create doubt and weaken women’s resolve to end the relationship; the ‘Tension-building Phase’ is designed to instil uncertainty and fear, and demand changes in her while paradoxically creating a sense of futility; and the ‘Explosion’ or “Escalation’ is an amplification of other abuse tactics that are intended to regain and reinforce power and ensure compliance through fear of greater harm. 

The ‘Honeymoon’ is perhaps the most misunderstood part of the Cycle. Women are unequivocal that there is something in their partner’s words and actions that resemble a ‘honeymoon’. They are attracted to what appears to be respectful, caring and attentive gestures and behaviours. All women can describe this. This positive looking behaviour is what he showed in the beginning of the relationship. It is a tremendous relief for women to see that they were initially attracted to what looked good and that we do not think they are flawed or problematic for ‘choosing’ an abusive partner.  Conversely, the Power and Control Wheel only documents the ‘negative’ forms of abuse and cannot help women see these ‘positive-looking’ behaviours as abusive. We can unintentionally silence women’s experiences of being attracted to their partner and send women the message that we only recognize some power and control tactics present in the relationship.

It is very important to us, and to the women we support, that we begin the Cycle at the ‘Honeymoon’ phase. Walker described Phase One as the Tension-building Phase, which she characterized by ‘minor battering incidents and/or emotional abuse’. If men showed women this at the beginning of their relationship, women wouldn’t stay. But this is not where abusive men begin and this is not what attracts women. Abusive men use ‘honeymoon’ behaviours to coerce women into the relationship, knowing that women are not attracted to abuse. Initially, abusive men adeptly disguise their power and control tactics, appearing to be caring in order to secure a commitment. They may show interest in women’s children, friends, family or work and some may be charming and romantic. Or they may express jealousy, which can often be mis- interpreted as attentiveness or attraction. However they present themselves initially, it is disingenuous and designed to manipulate women’s emotions as a way of gaining control in the relationship. If a woman only experienced explosion after explosion, with no times of honeymoon or tension-building in between, staying would be untenable and leaving would not be as gut wrenchingly awful as it is. It is the ‘honeymoon’ that creates hope and uncertainty in the woman. It is the ‘honeymoon’ that hooks women in and leaves them feeling like they should give him ‘another chance’.  And it is what their partner says that makes a woman feel like she needs to change her behaviour if she wants to remain in or return to the ‘honeymoon’.

As abusive men repeatedly force women around the Cycle and return to the ‘honeymoon’, most women begin to doubt and distrust his motives, seeing them as manipulative and self-serving. They begin to understand that his ‘positive-looking’ behaviour is intended to entrap her, not care for her.  Some women appreciate the term “entrapment” for the honeymoon, because his ‘normal-looking’ behaviour encourages hope in the women, and this hope can be entrapping. In addition, once the Cycle has existed for a long time, women can actually be trapped in the relationship. They are financially dependent, emotionally and physically exhausted; they don’t want to leave and have their partners gain partial custody of their children; or he has threatened to kill her, the children, her family and/or himself if she leaves.

Men’s use of ‘honeymoon’ behaviour is important to understand at the systemic level as well. Unlike the Power and Control Wheel, the Cycle of Abuse also explains why others also think that the abuser is “a good guy”. For the most part, he shows only ‘honeymoon’ behaviour to others. And he is very good at it. He successfully manages to ‘honeymoon’ or ‘groom’ the couple’s therapist, the social worker, and family and friends. Abusive men are able to deceive and manipulate judges, police officers, court-appointed psychologists, etc. using positive looking or ‘honeymoon’ behaviours, just as he does in the relationship. From the neighbours next door to the legal system, abusive men are rewarded for their deceptions, controlling the narrative that he is the victim, the positive parent and loving partner while she is a negligent mother, and mentally-ill, resentful, or manipulative woman. It is the abuser who manipulates parenting evaluators to put into writing the very things he needs to take custody of the children, gets financially rewarded for his clever deceptions by winning court battles, and has the system punish his partner on his behalf. Recruiting professionals to take up the control of his partner is the goal, and there are so many examples of those who have been taken in by his charming persuasion and well-rehearsed descriptions of his positive qualities and his partner’s flaws. Like these professionals, women are similarly deceived by his charm. If men only demonstrated tactics from the Power and Control wheel, no one would be taken in by his deceptions. 

The Cycle provides a powerful illustration of how abusive men so frequently gain the trust and respect of their partner’s, friends, neighbours and professionals, and it is so helpful for women to see this. Women can see that his behaviour is always a choice that he is in control of. He chooses to use behaviours that will benefit him at any given time. It benefits him to charm the therapist, the social worker and the police officer. It doesn’t benefit him to explode in front of these key people. He reserves those tactics for when he is alone with his partner.

The Cycle of Abuse helps women make sense of their experiences of abuse, which is a goal we share with every advocate and professional who supports these incredible women. Women can always accurately and reliably describe their partner’s behaviours, because she has had to pay close attention to all his moods, gestures, tones, etc. for her safety. But, like many, women may carry dominant discourses about what the ‘problem’ is, who the ‘problem’ is, who is responsible for ‘the problem’ and who is responsible for ‘fixing the problem’. The Cycle can help to dismantle the myth that men are out of control and show how much control he has over his behaviour. It also shows so clearly that abuse is not an anger management problem. This tool provides women with an accurate picture of what they were attracted to and offers women a safe framework to begin to share what has happened to them. 

Because of the effectiveness of the Cycle to address so many myths and misconceptions, we introduce it as the first of several tools, or building blocks, to help women make sense of partner’s abuse. The Cycle depicts the reality that women have tried hundreds of things to change themselves – comply with his rules, stop seeing friends and family, give up their freedoms, keep their opinions to themselves, etc. and it has not changed him. Once women see that, it is much easier for women to see that he is driving the Cycle and that they are not responsible, not to blame and not crazy. It lifts the confusion and provides women with a more accurate perspective, categories and language; it normalizes her experiences and shifts the focus from her problems to the impacts of abuse.

Some suggest that the Power and Control Wheel should replace the Cycle of Abuse. We have developed a Power and Control Wheel based on 12 types of abuse, which we use and love. But it too has its limitations. It cannot explain for women why they were initially attracted to their partner. In fact, without an understanding of how abusive men use the ‘honeymoon’ to manipulate or ‘groom’ them, the Power and Control Wheel can leave women with the impression that their partners only showed overtly abusive tactics. By implication, the suggestion is that women were attracted to his abusive behaviours. The Cycle, and specifically the ‘honeymoon’ helps counter the dominant discourse that women are attracted to abusive men by demonstrating that they were attracted to whatever positive-looking qualities he chose to show his partner at the beginning of the relationship. The Cycle so clearly illustrates how men use different types and intensities of abuse to control and coerce women. The Power and Control Wheel only describes harmful, ‘negative-looking’ behaviour. But if abusive men used only these harmful tactics of abuse, women would not be attracted to, or stay in the relationship.

After women have gone through the exercises of describing what her partner does in each phase of the Cycle and how women experience each phase of the Cycle (the impacts of the abuse), we introduce women to the Power and Control Wheel. The Wheel helps women to name and make sense of all the different types of abuse, and helps them see that all forms of abuse have negative and cumulative impacts on their safety, health, autonomy, mental health, finances, children, housing, etc. This is an important complementary tool for women to understand their partner’s actions, intentions and impacts.

Critics have argued Walker’s theory is flawed, as it does not apply as universally as Walker suggested, nor does not accurately or completely describe all abusive relationships. No one would argue that there is a single, or simple, way to describe women’s experiences of abuse. Women’s experiences are complex, multifaceted and intersecting. A number of tools and exercises are necessary for women to develop and give voice to their own understanding of their experiences. Women find the Cycle to be an invaluable tool to help them begin to name and validate their experiences. Along with a number of exercises and tools described in our Best Practices Guide, we help women build a more accurate, comprehensive and compassionate narrative for themselves. We explore all these ideas much more fully in the When Love Hurts book and our newly-released When Love Hurts Best Practices Guide and Curriculum for supporting women with experiences of abuse. If you have stopped using the Cycle of Abuse because of the unhelpful ideas and interpretations based on Walker’s original work, we hope that our material will help you reclaim this invaluable tool.