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Lenore E. Walker interviewed 1,500 women who had been subject to domestic violence and found that there was a similar pattern of abuse, called the "cycle of abuse". Initially, Walker proposed that the cycle of abuse described the controlling patriarchal behavior of men who felt entitled to abuse their wives to maintain control over them. Her terms "the battering cycle" and "battered woman syndrome" has since been largely eclipsed by "cycle of abuse" and "battered person syndrome," respectively, for many reasons: to maintain objectivity; because the cycle of abuse doesn't always lead to physical abuse; because symptoms of the syndrome have been observed in men and women, and are not confined to marriage and dating. Similarly, Dutton (1994) writes, "The prevalence of violence in homosexual relationships, which also appear to go through abuse cycles is hard to explain in terms of men dominating women."
The cycle of abuse concept is widely used in domestic violence programs, particularly in the United States. Critics have argued the theory is flawed as it does not apply as universally as Walker suggested, does not accurately or completely describe all abusive relationships, and may favor ideological presumptions over empirical data.
The cycle usually goes in the following order, and will repeat until the conflict is stopped, usually by the survivor entirely abandoning the relationship or some form of intervention. The cycle can occur hundreds of times in an abusive relationship, the total cycle taking anywhere from a few hours, to a year or more to complete. However, the length of the cycle usually diminishes over time so that the "reconciliation" and "calm" stages may disappear, violence becomes more intense and the cycles become more frequent.
Stress builds from the pressures of daily life, like conflict over children, marital issues, misunderstandings, or other family conflicts. It also builds as the result of illness, legal or financial problems, unemployment, or catastrophic events, like floods, rape or war. During this period, the abuser feels ignored, threatened, annoyed or wronged. The feeling lasts on average several minutes to hours, it may last as much as several months.
To prevent violence, the victim may try to reduce the tension by becoming compliant and nurturing. Or, to get the abuse over with, prepare for the violence or lessen the degree of injury, the victim may provoke the batterer. "However, at no time is the batterer justified in engaging in violent or abusive behavior," said Scott Allen Johnson, author of Physicial Abusers and Sexual Offenders.
This phase occurs prior to an overtly abusive act, and is characterized by poor communication, passive aggression, rising interpersonal tension, and fear of causing outbursts in one's partner.
Characterized by outbursts of violent, abusive incidents which may be preceded by verbal abuse and include psychological abuse. During this stage the abuser attempts to dominate his/her partner (survivor), with the use of domestic violence.
In intimate partner violence, children are negatively affected by having witnessed the violence and the partner's relationship degrades as well. The release of energy reduces the tension, and the abuser may feel or express that the victim "had it coming" to them.
The perpetrator may begin to feel remorse, guilty feelings, or fear that their partner will leave or call the police. The victim feels pain, fear, humiliation, disrespect, confusion, and may wrongly feel responsible.
Characterized by affection, apology, or, alternatively, ignoring the incident. This phase marks an apparent end of violence, with assurances that it will never happen again, or that the abuser will do his or her best to change. During this stage the abuser feels overwhelming feelings of remorse and sadness, or at least pretends to. Some abusers walk away from the situation with little comment, but most will eventually shower the survivor with love and affection. The abuser may use self-harm or threats of suicide to gain sympathy and/or prevent the survivor from leaving the relationship. Abusers are frequently so convincing, and survivors so eager for the relationship to improve, that survivors who are often worn down and confused by longstanding abuse, stay in the relationship.
Although it is easy to see the outbursts of the Acting-out Phase as abuse, even the more pleasant behaviours of the Honeymoon Phase perpetuates the abuse because the survivor then sees that the relationship isn't all bad.
During this phase (which is often considered an element of the honeymoon/reconciliation phase), the relationship is relatively calm and peaceable. During this period the abuser may agree to engage in counseling, ask for forgiveness, and create a normal atmosphere. In intimate partner relationships, the perpetrator may buy presents or the couple may engage in passionate sex. Over time, the batterer's apologies and requests for forgiveness become less sincere and are generally stated to prevent separation or intervention.
However, interpersonal difficulties will inevitably arise, leading again to the tension building phase.
The effect of the continual cycle may include loss of love, contempt, distress, and/or physical disability. Intimate partners may separate, divorce or, at the extreme, someone may be killed.
Walker's cycle of abuse theory was regarded as a revolutionary and important concept in the study of abuse and interpersonal violence, which is a useful model, but may be simplistic. For instance, Scott Allen Johnson developed a 14 stage cycle that broke down the tension-building, acting-out and calm stages further. For instance, there are six stages in the "escalation" or tension building stage, which includes triggers, the victim feeling victimized, angry and depressed, isolation and revenge planning. These leads up to the assault by acting out the revenge plan, self-destructive behavior, victim grooming and the actual physical and/or sexual assault. This is followed by a sense of relief, fear of consequences, distratction, and rationalization of abuse.
Donald Dutton and Susan Golant agree that Walker's cycle of abuse accurately describes all cyclically abusive relationships they studied. Nonetheless, they also note that her initial research was based almost entirely on anecdotal data from a rather small set of women who were in violent relationships. Walker herself wrote, "These women were not randomly selected and they cannot be considered a legitimate data base from which to make specific generalizations."