'Round and 'Round We Go
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Editor's Note: This is part two in a series on domestic violence.
Domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes. Women experience 4.8 million domestic violence related assaults and rapes each year. On the average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends every day.
— Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics
Understanding the Cycle
Domestic violence is difficult to grasp since it’s so haphazard and confusing. Not every moment is violent. There are periods of time where the abusive person is apologetic and vows to make everything different and better. Among the confusion is a pattern of behavior. Looking at this cycle might help you understand the emotional devastation of violence and how the victim is drawn into the relationship.
First, the tension builds. Little things are constantly noted. The abusive person may be sensitive to anything in the surroundings that is changed. They may react to noises or small annoyances that others easily disregard. I remember trying desperately to put the fingernail clippers back facing the same direction and touching the same object they had been touching before I used them to avoid angering my abuser. I also recall convincing my mom not to do the dishes because I knew the sounds made when moving dishes and closing drawers could set him off. This time isn’t necessarily violent, but the woman lives every moment on the edge of what might cause a rage. Living with this kind of hypervigilence is exhausting.
When the tension has built to its breaking point, the abuser explodes and rages. Most generally, the issue at hand is minor. It might be a “dumb question” or a simple mishap, like a seat belt that doesn’t buckle the first try or a faucet that doesn’t get hot fast enough. The victim lives trying desperately to pave the way for peace and avoid rages. Despite her best attempts, the rage occurs anyway. He blames her for the incident and may even deny it occurred. As a result, she may be left feeling responsible and incapable of managing relationships. It’s important to remember that an abusive incident is not characterized strictly by physical harm but may actually include the threat of harm. The following is an example of one such event.
The vehicle veered through traffic, edging dangerously close to others. I winced, anticipating the sound of metal hitting metal as we headed straight for the cement barrier dividing lanes under the overpass. The car was traveling well above the speed limit, and I could feel myself breaking into a sweat. I didn’t know what caused this and I couldn’t think of how to stop it. Fidgeting in my seat, I begged, “Please stop!” My sweaty hands clenched nervously, I felt totally out of control.
“That’s it! I’m just gonna ram this car into that wall and we’ll both be dead.” He said it almost calmly, but the intense and angry look on his face said more.
“No, no, please don’t! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I tried to hold back the tears. I wasn’t sure what caused the upset. He pounded his fists into the steering wheel and started mumbling mean things.
He drove toward the wall, bracing the steering wheel with both hands. “Here we go,” he announced in a controlled voice. I could hardly breathe but I wanted to scream. Would opening the car door and jumping out be any less painful than hitting that cement wall? What do I do?
I put my hand over my mouth to hold in the scream about to explode from me and braced myself for the impact. Then, just as we were about to hit, he suddenly swerved, driving recklessly through the surrounding traffic. I didn’t know what changed his mind, but at least he didn’t carry it out.
I can’t remember many details of this traumatic explosion twelve years ago. What I do know-- he was eventually tearful and apologetic, the constant pattern of violence I endured. He raged quickly, without warning, and often times about things that were seemingly insignificant. This unpredictable behavior felt like a nauseating roller coaster ride that wouldn’t stop. So, what contributes to a woman staying in an abusive situation? The next phase holds the key to the deep-seeded confusion and emotional upheaval.
The 'Honeymoon' Phase
Once the anger and rage have subsided, the relationship hits a point referred to as the “honeymoon” or “making up” stage. The abuser convinces the victim he’s sorry and will stop the harmful behavior. He vows to treat her well, much like in the very beginning or “honeymoon” stage of a relationship. All sorts of promises are given. The abuser may convince the victim that a change of job, home, or other paramount milestone will undoubtedly change his stress level and make the anger disappear. This explains why many women get pregnant by abusive men, since they promise that once children are involved, the violence cannot and will not continue. There has been enough mind control by this point that women cling to one last hope, unable to think with healthy judgment. They continue to honestly believe that everything will change given the right situation.
He’ll lavish gifts upon her and hope to appeal to her emotions. Because this stage feels better than the tension building and exploding stages, the victim musters hope and reinvests her emotions in the relationship during this time. She clings to these memories and apologies and makes them larger than life, hoping this time it will be different.
The abuser confides in the victim about the people who have hurt and abandoned him. He uses this subtle manipulation to persuade her not to abandon him too. She conditions herself to feel sorry for the abuser, hoping and trying desperately that she can give him something he claims to have never experienced…being loved and not abandoned.
Abusers prey on women who are kind-hearted, devoted, and have weak personal boundaries. These same traits keep women engulfed in abusive relationships and often suffering in silence.
Around to Tension-Building Phase Again
It doesn’t take long and the tension starts building again. This cycle continues again and again. And the duration of each stage may change throughout the course of the relationship. Some women have sat in my office and admitted that there are times they cycle through several times a day. As one might imagine, the physical abuse is a horrific thing to endure. But what some might not realize is that the emotional turmoil of the other stages can be just as harmful, if not more harmful than the punching, kicking, choking, and other forms of physical violence.
This is an inside glimpse into how the cycle of domestic violence plays out. For those who aren’t involved, this cycle may look phony and predictable. And for those living it, there’s been a great deal of intimidation, insanity, and demeaning. The victim no longer sees things clearly or rationally. They’ve been virtually brainwashed through the process, and may honestly believe that every marriage is abusive. They may feel inferior, thinking other women handle their violent relationships better. And they grow to believe that even those close to them are violent behind closed doors. Many of these thoughts could never be sold to a healthy-minded person. However, a woman overpowered by abuse and violence is hampered from healthy thinking.
Do you or someone you know need help in dealing with an abusive relationship? Read the third part in this series, Stop the Ride…I Want to Get Off, for information on seeking help or supporting someone entangled in an abusive relationship.
Berry, Dawn B. (1995) The Domestic Violence Sourcebook. Los Angeles: Lowell House.
Wilson, K.J. (1997) When Violence Begins at Home: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Ending Domestic Abuse. Alameda, CA: Hunter House.
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, www.nrcdv.org
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