How to End the Domestic Violence Cycle

Empathy and action are a powerful combination – Social Workers protect victims and children by intervening.

How does the cycle of domestic violence start? How does it become so insidious that millions of victims stay in abusive relationships and homes? How do we make it stop?

The Cycle of Violence was identified by psychologist Dr. Lenore Walker in 1979 when she interviewed 1,500 female survivors of domestic violence and discovered that each of them described a similar pattern of spousal abuse. Her work spurred wide recognition of this global issue.

The source of the problem

Power and control are at the root of abusive relationships. The Power and Control Wheel is a time-tested tool used to help people understand why, once it starts, the cycle is both predictable and malicious.

How the violence starts and escalates

In Stage 1, tension develops in a close relationship and appears to be caused by anything from a bad day at work to a major life crisis. The “trigger” doesn’t matter because the abuser’s need for power and control is what spurs the incident.

In Stage 2, verbal or physical abuse begins and the victim reacts, often with disbelief that a loved one could act this way. It doesn’t matter what the reaction is because the abuser will continue regardless, and remains under control despite any claims that the violence is sudden and unpredictable.

In Stage 3, the abuser makes up with the victim and minimizes the event by claiming that it was the victim’s fault. Both partners deny the severity of the abuse and the cycle continues. The couple is convinced that each abusive episode is isolated and the incidents are unrelated to each other.

Without intervention, the violence is likely to become more serious as the cycle repeats. Eventually, the third stage of apology and denial disappears and the level of violence may escalate to homicide.

“Living in a dangerous and stressful environment has long-term health impacts. It’s like living in a war zone,” said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an advocacy group. This is true for children as well: If they witness violent incidents or are abused, the effects of the trauma can last into adulthood.

Why victims stay

“Abusive relationships start with intense emotions,” says Christa Carlton, Domestic and Sexual Violence Program Director at Doorways for Women and Families, a shelter in Arlington, Virginia. This is one reason why victims stay—they think the relationship can return to this stage, despite the evidence in their brains and on their bodies. Also, they may never have learned what healthy relationships look like, or the red flags for unhealthy ones.

Other reasons for staying include fear, love, family, money, shame, and isolation. The latter is especially troublesome: abusers may limit who their victims can communicate with, creating feelings of helplessness in the victims.

How to stop the cycle

Social workers can help clients understand the abusive behavior they’ve experienced, where it comes from, how it impacts them, and help them set goals to move forward and change their lives. But first, victims must be heard.

For anyone who spots red flags in a friend or family member’s relationship, the most important thing to do is listen with a nonjudgmental ear, says Carlton, especially because that person may feel isolated. “Reflect any concerns, give them plenty of space to share,” she says, “Tell them ‘I’m always here for you, and if you want to talk to someone who knows more about this issue, please call the hotline.’”

If the victim takes that first step toward help, social workers can then offer options tailored to what the person is experiencing. “We’ll never push people to do something they’re not ready for,” says Carlton. “We can offer to work with an advocate on a protective order, suggest confidential short-term counseling, either individual or group—there’s a lot of power in a peer support group—or find a bed or other services. We offer the tools to support them and help them save themselves.”

When asked why she chose this specialty, Carlton says she gets energized by the people around her and loves seeing that she makes a difference: “I’m inspired by the survivors and their resilience, and the growth that they show to overcome the worst of circumstances.”

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