The Cycle of Domestic Violence

More than 35% of women and 28% of men in the U.S. have experienced domestic violence in their lifetimes.[1] The stereotype of domestic violence is a man beating a woman in an out-of-control fit of rage. In reality, abusive relationships are much more complex. Although abusers are usually men, there are women who use violence against their partners as well. A thorough review of the research indicates that women tend to use violence in self-defense; men tend to use violence to gain or keep control over their partners.[2]

Domestic violence often follows a repeating cycle within each relationship. Not every abusive relationship follows this pattern, but many survivors describe their relationships in this way:

Cycle of Violence diagramTension building phase

When tension builds in the relationship, victims may feel like they are “walking on eggshells” around the abuser. This phase can last for a few hours or for months, or anything in between. The longer it lasts, the more inevitable the a blow-up can start to feel, even if the victim can’t be sure exactly what will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Abusive incident

The abusive incident usually occurs when the tension finally breaks. This can play out in many different ways.  Usually, this part of the cycle is when the abuser physically lashes out at the victim. The abuser may hit, rape or try to rape the victim. In relationships where the abuse is primarily psychological, the abuser may suddenly deny the victim access to basic necessities (by changing the locks on the house or cutting off access to a shared checking account, for example), calling the victim humiliating names, or making threats of violence.

Honeymoon phase

During the honeymoon phase, the abuser may apologize, buy gifts, or be extra affectionate to “make up” for the abuse. Many will promise to change, promise to stop abusing, or promise that it will never happen again. These assurances are intended to persuade the survivor to stay in the relationship. Not all abusive relationships have a honeymoon phase. For some, the abusive incident is immediately followed by increasing tension before the next incident.

Once the honeymoon phase is over, the tension building phase begins again, and the comforting promises the abuser made will be broken.

Bottom line:

In most cases, the abuser will not change, and the only way to end the abuse is for the victim to end the relationship. Unfortunately, the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the victim tries to leave. That is when he or she is most likely to be seriously injured or even killed by the abuser. Homicide is one of the top 10 causes of death for women aged 20-44,[3] and more women are killed by their partners than by anyone else.[4]

If you are in an abusive relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at any time of day or night to speak to someone trained to help you. The Hotline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential and anonymous, and interpreter services are available for more than 170 languages.

1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

1-800-787-3224 TTY

All NCHR articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff. 

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. Available at: Accessibility verified March 13, 2013.

[2] Swan, SC, Gambone, LJ, Caldwell, JE, Sullivan, TP, Snow, DL. A review of research on women’s use of violence with male intimate partners. Violence and Victims. 2008; 23(3): 301-314.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Vital Statistics Reports. Available at Accessibility verified March 13, 2013.

[4] Bureau of Justice Statistics. Intimate Partner Violence in the U.S. Available at: Accessibility verified March 13, 2013.