Circle of Violence

The 3-Phase Cycle of Violence, originally described by walker (1979, 1984), is used to demonstrate the dynamics of an abusive relationship. The 3 phases are:

  • Tension-building
  • Abuse/Violence
  • Apology/Honeymoon

Each abusive relationship is different and so not all of them follow this model strictly, but this 3-phase pattern is fairly common. Domestic violence is insidious – it builds slowly, first with minor controlling behaviors, then psychological abuse, and finally physical violence. Particularly in the early stages, the victim may not even realize he/she is in an abusive relationship. By the time the victim does realize it, there are often many barriers to leaving.

Phase One: Tension-Building

In this phase there are behaviors such as name-calling, verbal threats, and intimidation. The victim often tries to be nurturing, compliant, and provide whatever the abuser needs in order to avoid triggering his anger. Even the most submissive victim cannot avoid an abuser who will usually find something, often trivial, to become angry about. The victim tries to wait out periods of increased tension, hoping they will pass without an outburst. She may avoid family and friends, keeping those who are trying to be helpful away, which may help the abuser to isolate the victim and make him the only source of affection.

The abuser may become more and more angry, jealous, and suspicious of the victim. The abuser may try to supervise every aspect of the victim’s life in an attempt to control her and ensure that the victim does not leave. As the tension builds, the verbal arguments become increasingly hostile and threatening. The tension finally builds beyond control and severe abuse becomes inevitable.

Phase Two: Abuse / Violence

The next phase begins with a severely abusive or violent act against the victim. The batterer can go into an angry rage causing major destruction to the home and injuries to the victim. He may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs and use this an excuse for his behavior. The batterer may have learned from past mistakes to inflict injuries in areas that will be covered by clothing or to be careful not to cause any injuries that would leave marks.

It should be noted that seemingly random acts of violence reinforce the batterer’s power, so there may not be a tension-building phase in some abusive relationships. In some relationships, physical violence fades away over time. The fact that the abuser can use it again at any time may be enough to keep the victim under control.

Phase 3: Apology / Honeymoon

In the apology or “Honeymoon” phase, the abuser will beg for forgiveness. He may follow with seemingly sincere, tearful apologies, promises to end the violence, stop drinking, etc. Gifts and displays of affection often give the victim false hope that the violence will end. The victim wants to believe the abuser even though suspicious that promises will not be kept. This phase is usually seen early in the abusive relationship. Eventually, many abusers skip this phase altogether, finding that they do not need to apologize in order to make the victim stay. In those cases victims suffer through tension-building and violent outbursts with no remorse from the abuser.

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