The cycle of abuse

During this past week I overheard several stories of abuse especially, in light of the recent death of a female by her spouse here in Barbados and the discovery of females who had been kidnapped for many years, in a home in Cleveland, Ohio.

When I first heard of the events, my neighbour started to regale me with stories of a couple who she overhears “cussing” each other almost every weekend. According to her, the lady runs into the road ever so often, while speaking in angry loud tones and sometimes appears to be crying.

My neighbour is most concerned and cannot understand why the lady would not leave the relationship. She also added that at times she would see them all “lovey dovey” and sweet yet at other times the relationship appears so volatile.

She is not alone in thinking this way and I may add here, several people in the US also wondered why the kidnapped victims did not escape their abuser a long time ago. Although the kidnapped victims may not be considered their abuser’s spouse in the normal sense of the word to some extent, I believe that the cycle of abuse proposed by Walker as cited in Wrightsman (2001) can be applied.

So the article this week is about the cycle of abuse.

Some researchers associate the erratic changes in behaviour of an abusive spouse to that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This description seems to aptly describe the personality of the ones in the opening vignette. Let me explain, research has revealed that men are often loving, nurturing, giving and attentive to a woman’s needs early in their relationship. This behaviour is often displayed during courtship and at times during the early days/months of marriage. I will now summarise the phases as discussed in Wrightsman (2001):

Tension building phase:

During this phase, it is not long before tension begins to build where the wife/spouse is at the receiving end of much criticism and bickering about little things. For instance the soup that he loved so much before is now tasteless or the dress that was once so appealing is now disgusting.

During this phase the relationship begins to show signs of strain and minor forms of physical abuse may ensue. For instance, sudden pushing, pinching and shoving out of the way may take place, the abusive spouse may start to find all kinds of fault with relatives and friends of the spouse in an effort to isolate the victim.

Acute battering phase:

Next comes the acute phase where the abuser explodes into what may appear to be uncontrollable anger and rage. The abusive spouse may throw objects and destroy the personal property of the abused. Generally the abused spouse/individual may suffer injuries both physical as well as psychological very often for the first time.

In most cases the spouse may believe that they are too involved to break-up the relationship. This is because she/he may now be married with children and other responsibilities or they may be reflecting on the good times they used to have.

Some women may even console themselves with the belief that he will change if only they can do the right thing. The abused may start to blame themselves for the abuse and may be trying really hard to do the right things to keep him/her calm.

The contrite phase

This usually comes about after the spouse is hurt (physically) and perhaps when relatives and friends are advising her /him to leave the relationship. During this phase the abuser may promise that it will never happen again. He/she may provide gifts that are reminiscent of the good old times.

The abused may then begin to believe that this is the change they were waiting for and that the situation will never recur. Eventually, this phase will pass and the cycle will start all over again.

According to research, most battered women focus almost all their energies on trying to survive within the relationship rather than exploring other options as a means of escape. This perception probably provides some justification for why they would not try to leave or escape the relationship until perhaps too late (Blackman as cited in Wrightsman, 2001).

According to Blackman (cited in Wrightsman, 2001), several women develop a tolerance for what he terms “cognitive inconsistency” where they articulate two conflicting ideas at the same time. For instance, an abused woman may say something like “my spouse likes me a lot and hits me because he loves me”.

On the other hand, she may report to authorities that he only beats her when he is drunk or high, yet would describe several situations when he was abusive and yet was not drunk or high. Blackman goes on to explain that these inconsistencies explains the psychologically confused state of a battered woman where the spouse “who supposedly loves her also wants to hurt her” (Wrightsman, 2001, pp. 245). In this case Blackman made reference to women but I am sure it could also refer to men.

One must note here that not all battered women/men react in the same manner. Some battered individuals may react violently, especially if they perceive that their children will be harmed. Yet others may seek refuge with close friends and relatives, all the while fearful of the reprisal they will eventually receive for running away.

However, these situations are not specific to every circumstance but are mainly the most common set of characteristics. So before we judge a woman/man because he/she is being abused please consider the psychological implications as well as the personality of the individual.

Not all women/men will readily admit that they suffer abuse at the hands of their spouse. Actually most abused individuals can “have a constructive … effective work style outside of the home” where they will show no signs that such events are taking place at home.

Such individuals may have occupations such as a judge, manager, doctor, lawyer or any other profession. So take care how you judge, and I will close with a line from Rihanna’s song Stay — “Funny, you are the broken one, but I am the only one who needed saving.” Until next time…

* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail:, Phone: (246) 436-4215

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