Unwittingly Describing the Abuse Cycle
The abuse cycle is the circular recurring pattern that keeps playing out, again and again, in abusive relationships. When a relationship initially begins, it tends to be roses and happiness—the “love-bombing” stage can last as long as the dating period lasts. Once an abusive personality realizes he “has” his target, whether through marriage, children, living together, or any other deep emotional bond, the abuse cycle begins to rotate in earnest …
The initial incident of abuse leaves a target feeling confused, dazed, and full of disbelief. What happened to prince charming? Happily, he soon returns after that first shocking break in trust. It’s then that you enter the opening act of the abuse cycle.
The “Adoration/Idealize” stage is when the abuser is contrite, kind, seemingly empathetic and caring, loving. It’s wonderful, and feels like such a relief after the cycle of mistreatment. But then it all falls apart.
You’ve entered the “Tension Building” stage of the abuse cycle. You can feel something simmering, even though it may not be overtly obvious. He turns cold, or critical, or … something. Often the shift is so covert that it’s hard to explain in words, yet it can certainly be felt. It's viscerally, intuitively, fearfully felt ...
There's intense fear. Fear that he's capable of so much more than he's letting on. Fear that he's hiding so much. Fear that you're going to be hurt even more, whether physically or emotionally/psychologically. Fear of him. Sadly, that's what this stage is all about.
Next comes the “Rage Stage”--the explosion, the outburst, the full-fledged Mr. Hyde coming out like a roaring lion, waiting for someone (you) to devour (1 Peter 5:8). If an abuser is particularly covert, this stage may not take the form of violent outbursts such as punching walls, vicious shouting, accusations, and fiery rage, but may take the form of more subtle accusations, heartbreaking name-calling, betrayal, increased gaslighting, and more. Or all of the above. Or a mix. Abusers are unpredictable in their predictability.
Finally, you get much-needed “Calm.” You’ll often hear apologies, although be vigilant and alert. Any apology that has a “but” in it isn’t a real apology (“I’m sorry I called you a stupid bitch, but I was drunk,” “I’m sorry I smashed your vase, but you pushed one of my triggers,” and the like); there are actually many forms of fake apologies, but that’s a topic for another blog post. Anyway, you’re in the “Calm” phase of the abuse cycle, where you feel you can breathe again and perhaps even trust again. He promises to change, or ignores the abuse altogether (making you feel as if perhaps you exaggerated things and it really is all your fault). He slips back into “Adoration/Idealize,” and you’re on top of the world again—until the cycle just keeps on going and you’re onto the “tension building” phrase once again …
This is how trauma bonds are formed, but that’s also a topic for a separate post. For this one, I want to focus on the abuse cycle and how victims can oftentimes be aware of the cycle even if they’ve never been educated or have never read a single article about it. They only know their own experience, and when they finally do start reading and realize that their experience is cookie-cutter similar to other victims of domestic abuse, feelings of shock, disbelief, relief, and understanding merge in a swirl of highly-charged awareness.
Below is a letter one of my clients wrote to her husband long before she’d ever read anything about the “Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse.” When she found out that her experience was typical, she told me she was flooded with empowerment and relief. And yes, shock. No longer could she deny that she was experiencing abuse. It was then that she finally sought help.
(June 24, Some Years in the Past ...)
I’ve been thinking about this a lot today, and realize that until the time when you can stop clinging to your old resentments and hurts, and until you can change your behavior, I can’t get close to you. It’s impossible, because you’ll just hurt me again with your built-up anger and penned-in resentment. Until you can let yourself go enough to stop clinging to those things and nurturing them so that they grow, we can’t become close.
I’ve been on a cycle of letting myself get close to you, only to be betrayed, hurt, abused and accused yet again; then we get closer, and I’m relieved and happy and allow that closeness, only to get crushed again. Each time I’m hurt worse and worse to the point that now, I can’t be hurt again and survive. So for now, I can’t let myself get close to you like I want to. It’s just not possible. You expect me to forgive you for everything, and I have (which isn’t to say that I’m not still extremely hurt and can’t trust you at the moment because trust has been broken), yet you refuse to forgive any real or imagined hurts I may have caused, because you don’t “believe” in forgiveness, you’ve said. That’s hypocritical. Additionally, you’ve never believed me when I’ve told you that I forgive. I know how I feel, yet you’ve tried to tell me otherwise, tried to tell me that I don’t forgive (as if you can get into my mind and heart and know me better than I know myself). Now I realize why. It’s projection. You’re projecting your own inability to forgive onto me. Yet I’m not you. Unlike you, I actually want to forgive and don’t want to cling to anger and resentment, because I know it just festers and destroys from within. Until you can reach that point—which will take a great deal of work, effort, healing, and above all a lot of time—I can’t allow myself to get too close to you.
Your determined effort not to get hurt is based on nothing but your own unfounded fears, yet it has directly led me to getting hurt. You’ve sacrificed my happiness in this marriage in an effort to try to protect yourself from what you see as vulnerability. You’ve repeatedly hurt and betrayed me so you can remain unhurt, which in the end will hurt you because of how deeply and grievously it has hurt us and our relationship. We’re broken because of this. What a wicked and pitiful cycle.
(P.S. I’d like to say that this letter changed the narrative of our marriage and helped my husband to become aware of his destructive pattern of abuse, to help him see how urgently change was needed and impel him to do something concrete toward making steps to change. Ah, that would have been a dream come true! But, sadly ... no such luck.)
Photographs © of Keariel Peasley
Jenny duBay, Trauma-Informed Christian life coach.