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Breaking Free of the Cycle of Abuse

“I’ve never talked to a ca-counselor before,” Cassandra (not her real name) stuttered.

She continued, “I’ve been living with my boyfriend the last couple of months. We’ve been dating almost a year.  Well, two months ago my daughter and I moved in with him.  Oh, how I regret that decision,” Cassandra started sobbing behind the cover of her trembling hands.

“This is so difficult for you,” I offered, trying to interrupt her embarrassment and soothe her hurt.  “What’s happened to leave you feeling so badly?”

“I can’t believe I let this happen,” she continued. “I thought I could trust him. He’s a Christian. In fact, his dad is a pastor. He was so good to me in the beginning of our relationship. But now I’ve seen this other side to him. He has an explosive temper. He just yells at me and berates me. Sometimes he grabs me and shakes me. He’s even hit me. It’s, it’s awful. It’s so demeaning.”

Her tears flowed.

The Process of Psychotherapy

Over the course of therapy, Cassandra got past her embarrassment and worked through her conflicting emotions. She needed a lot of caring support. But she needed more than support. She also needed to accept that the abuse wasn’t her fault, that he was responsible for his anger and his abusive actions, not her.

She needed to make some decisions and set some boundaries. She needed to be empowered. We started by helping her to admit to her angry feelings that she’d been repressing. Then we role played different frightening scenarios in her relationship and what she might say and do to stay safe and to take care of herself and her daughter.

Also I got her connected with a support group for battered women at a local shelter. There she could receive additional encouragement from other women survivors, along with helpful information and resources.

Every Nine Seconds

Every nine seconds in the United States a woman is battered by her husband or boyfriend.  This adds up to four million women per year! These women are traumatized and may be physically injured.  And they’re not the only victims. Their children and others who witness the abuse may also suffer negative consequences psychologically and relationally. Including the victims and witnesses, one of out three Americans has experienced at least one incident of domestic violence.  

(95% of adult victims are women and therefore in this article I will speak of survivors as women and perpetrators as men. Still, it is important to realize that sometimes women do abuse men and abuse also occurs in gay and lesbian relationships).

This article is for anyone who is in or might get in a relationship that is abusive. It is full of helpful information because knowledge is power — especially when it includes knowledge of God’s love for you and his power to help you. Survivors of domestic violence need to be empowered in order to break free and learn to move from just surviving to thriving in a life of love, joy, and peace. If you’re stuck in an abusive relationship you can break free!

Have You Been Violated?

Very often survivors of abuse will be so embarrassed and afraid that they will deny or minimize the seriousness of the violence, especially at first. I find it helpful for victims who need to admit that they were abused to have it spelled out for them exactly what behaviors may qualify as abuse. Here’s a list of some examples, starting with those that are less obvious:

  • Extreme jealousy, trying to control another’s behavior
  • Extreme criticism, threats, frequent blaming
  • Throwing or breaking things in anger at or in front of someone
  • Explosive temper, yelling, screaming, raging
  • Forcing a partner to have sex; any unwanted or violent sex
  • Hitting, kicking, slapping, shoving

Characteristics of Victims

If you are a survivor, take heart – you are not alone! As we already said, there are many other women in situations like yours. And they have some of the same feelings and struggles as you do. In fact, there are some common traits among battered women and other victims of domestic violence. Many of these traits are effects of the abuse. Other traits are part of the dysfunctional relationship that may be the context for the abuse.

Understanding and taking responsibility for your behavior – not your abusive partner’s behavior – is a big step toward freedom.  Until you admit to what you’re struggling with and your own unwise behavior you can’t get help. Ask yourself, which of the following characteristics fit me?

  • Lack of Trust: not only for partner, but for yourself
  • Shame: “I’m bad,” low self-esteem, feels worthless, “eligible” to be abused (For male victims, shame may be intensified due to social roles and expectations)
  • Guilt: blames self for his unhappiness, anger, and problem behavior
  • Fear: lives in fear of another episode, being criticized or abused
  • Anger: may escalate conflicts or may internalize anger and convert into shame, depression, and anxiety
  • Dependency: unable to support herself financially or emotionally
  • Isolation: avoids people at times to hide abuse or because feels bad about it or because doesn’t want to upset partner
  • Powerlessness: feels stuck in abuse and unable to make decisions
  • Deny feelings: may be embarrassed by her problems, too proud to admit how bad things are, or afraid to make things worse
  • Lack of assertiveness: doesn’t take good care of herself, afraid to confront abuser or to seek help
  • Overly focused on partner: tries to anticipate and accommodate his desires and needs in order to control his anger for him (e.g., co-dependency)
  • Sexual problems: lack of pleasure or desire, poor boundaries
  • Flashbacks and phobias
  • Victim mentality: “poor me,” “he won’t change,” “nobody will help me,” “I can’t afford counseling,” “Even though I’m being abused (and my kids are being abused with me) I can’t leave (or get help) because _______.”

Characteristics of Perpetrators

The men who abuse women also have some traits in common. If you think you might be in an abusive relationship take a long, hard look at your partner. Does he exhibit any of the following problem behaviors?  Does he fit the profile of a perpetrator?

  • Rage, loses temper, very low frustration tolerance
  • Lacks self-control, violent behavior
  • Lonely: few friends, isolates
  • Demanding: expects partner to meet needs perfectly
  • Low self-esteem: hides feelings of inadequacy and inferiority
  • Fear and insecurity hidden underneath anger, he’s afraid to lose her or for her to become independent
  • Intimidates: tries to physically or emotionally dominate and exploit others (to hide own fears and inadequacies)
  • Blaming: blames her for his problems
  • Rationalizes abuse (e.g., “she started it,” “she deserved it,”  “the Bible says that I’m the head and she has to submit to me,” “I taught her a lesson.”)
  • Noncommunicative, e.g., gives the silent treatment
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Sexual problems, pornography
  • Jekyll & Hyde: charming yet mean, generous yet selfish, abuses partner yet afraid to lose her
  • May be successful, friendly, religious, good-looking to the outside world, but have abusive episodes at home

Why Does the Victim Stay?

Tragically, victims of abuse tend to be re-victimized. A woman who has been abused by her husband or boyfriend usually stays in the relationship and is violated again later. Is this true for you? Have you been abused more than once? There are reasons for this that need to be understood and dealt with. Identifying these reasons is another way of pinpointing the changes you need to make.

  • She hopes the perpetrator will change
  • She blames herself for problems in the relationship and the abuse
  • She lacks money and job skills to support herself (and her children)
  • Her children depend on him as father or male figure 
  • She’s embarrassed to admit she’s being battered or made a bad choice in her partner.
  • She has cultural, religious, or personal beliefs that make it hard for her to leave.  Beliefs like, “Divorce is wrong,”  “The Bible says I have to forgive,” “Jesus teaches me to turn the other cheek” are misapplied to maintain the cycle of abuse and reflect a misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches about abuse (See “What the Bible Says About Men, Women, and Divorce” at the end of this article.)
  • She feels sorry for him, thinking, “He needs me,” “He’ll commit suicide if I leave.”
  • She’s afraid to be abused again (3 out of 4 battered women are abused after they leave, are separated, or divorced – usually because they go back into the relationship even though nothing has changed.)

The Cycle of Abuse

Usually domestic violence occurs in the context of a volatile, dysfunctional relationship. A pattern develops in these relationships called the cycle of abuse. This phases of this cycle of abuse tend to become a vicious circle that gets worse over time without intervention.

Cycle of Abuse

It’s important for survivors to realize that the problem isn’t just the abuse. It’s the whole cycle of how the partners relate. Hoping that he won’t do it again or trying to somehow avoid it next time isn’t the answer. Stepping out of the cycle of abuse takes courage, which becomes possible by admitting to the problem and getting help.

If you’re in an abusive relationship you can get free and to learn to move beyond surviving to thriving if you stop participating in this cycle. Don’t take responsibility for the abuse. Don’t take responsibility for your partner’s happiness or anger. But do take responsibility for your behavior that may be a contributor to the cycle of abuse continuing. To get started, study the following three stages of the cycle of abuse to see where you may need to break free.

Tensions Building

The tension-building period is marked by increasing frustration and agitation in the man in response to various stressors. The stressors may be very large, like job loss, money problems, pregnancy, major family problems, or her attempts to get help from someone. Or they may be “little” things like a mess in the house, a dinner that doesn’t please him, or a conversation she had with someone that he didn’t like.

In any case, tension builds and she senses it. He becomes irritable, frustrated, complaining, critical, blaming, or challenging. Typically, the woman tries to dissipate the tension by accommodating him – doing things she thinks will please him or calm him, walking on egg shells in order not to upset him, apologizing for things that aren’t really her fault so he won’t feel bad. All these behaviors are a problem because she’s taking responsibility for his unhappiness and internalizing her anger.

At other times she may react out of this tension and her own frustrations to say or do things that escalate the tensions and exacerbate his anger. She may develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, or physical complaints like headaches, upset stomach, or insomnia.


If a pot of boiling water receives more and more heat eventually the lid will blown off! So also the abuser’s rage eventually erupts in an out of control explosion of verbal abuse or violence or some other distressing incident. He is often completely unaware of just how enraged he is or how much injury he is causing when he explodes. Even afterward he is likely to minimize or outright deny the inappropriateness or abusiveness of his behavior.

Instead of taking responsibility for his anger the abuser is likely to blame his wife or girlfriend, saying, “You started it by…” or “You deserved it.  It’s about time I put you in your place” or “If you would’ve listened to me in the first place then that wouldn’t have happened.”

The victim may or may not try to fight back, escape, or get help. Some women are passive and completely detach during the violent episode, so much so that it all feels like a dream and she herself may quickly forget about it and try to move forward as though nothing happened. She may be in a state of shock and be unaware of the seriousness of the trauma or her injuries.  Other women may become hysterical and incoherent.

What triggered this eruption? It may be something incidental or unknown. In any case, trying to understand or control the trigger is normally not helpful. The issue is this whole cycle of abuse.

If there are any children in the home who witness the violence then you need to realize that they too have been harmed — even if they were not directly violated. To watch your mother or someone you love be abused is very frightening and hurtful. You feel like you too are being abused and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The children are prone to identify with their mother and feel ashamed and be susceptible to being re-violated. Other children may identify with the aggressor and become abusive themselves.

So don’t make the mistake of thinking that the children aren’t effected by anger and mistreatment in the home that they observe, hear, or just sense. They’re dependent upon their caregiver(s) setting boundaries on abusive behavior, managing their own anger and feelings, and getting help for themselves and the family.


Right after the abuse she is probably upset, angry, or determined to leave, but commonly these feelings are overcome by her acceptance of his intense campaign to win her back with apologies, gestures of love, gifts, and promises to be better. Temporarily, her fragile self-esteem is boosted and she feels loved. Her romantic ideals are revived: this gentle, loving man is her real man, she just needs to keep him happy and under control in order to prevent future abusive episodes.

During this reconciliation she believes things like: “This time things will be different,”  “He’s changed,” “We really do have a loving relationship,” or “I just need to trust God.”


After their reconciliation a strong bond of idealism develops between the couple. This part of the cycle may seem pleasant. Sometimes it’s called a “honeymoon.” It may begin a few hours after the incident or several days later. Both partners feel relieved that it’s over and to have a fresh start.

The calm is deceiving — it’s only on the surface and it won’t last because it’s based on a denial of the real problems. The calm is also destructive because it serves as a positive reward for the violence by reinforcing the cycle and enabling the couple to avoid dealing with the real underlying issues or developing effective conflict resolution strategies. Meanwhile, the re-bonded and idealistic couple is isolated from outside support.

Left untreated, this cycle of abuse is a downward spiral that gets worse over time, both in terms of the frequency and the severity of the violence. And the cycle tends to change: the tension building becomes more intense and shorter, the violent episodes become more frequent and more severe, and the honeymoon of remorse and calm becomes shorter and may even disappear.

Steps to Freedom from Violence for Survivors

The cycle of abuse doesn’t have to continue. Survivors of domestic violence can step out of the violence and refuse to be abused. They can learn to go from surviving to thriving, enduring continual craziness and abuse to regaining control of their lives and living healthier and happier lives.

If you or someone you love has been victimized then consider the following steps to freedom that the survivor needs to take after a violent episode has occurred.

Make sure that you and your children are safe
  • Domestic violence is against the law
  • Call 911 if you or your children are in imminent danger or need immediate, urgent medical treatment (This will set the criminal justice system in motion.)
  • If you and your children need to leave home to find a safe environment then go to a woman friend’s or relative’s house. Or you can stay at a domestic violence shelter and receive legal, financial, and medical assistance and support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE or a local hotline to find a shelter in your community.
 Admit that the abuse is a problem that is likely to be repeated
  • Pray that God would help you take these steps to get you (and your children) free from violence.
  • Let go of trying to change your partner and entrust him to God.
Develop an Action Plan in case another incident occurs or you feel unsafe
  • Make a list with emergency #’s like 911, police/sheriff, doctor or therapist, hotline(s),  and a shelter.
  • Make a list of safe people and their phone numbers so you can call one or more of them for support.
  • Make arrangements for safe places you can go if you’re in danger.
  • Pack a small bag with the above phone lists, clothing, toiletries, and personal items for you and your children. Hide this bag.
  • Keep the following essentials handy in a safe place: money, keys, driver’s license, car registration, checkbooks, credit cards, medications, address book, green card.
  • Make sure you have access to a car that runs and has gas in the tank.
Seek counseling for yourself (and your children if necessary)
  • Get support for the effects the abuse has had on you.
  • Strategize with your counselor on what you need to do to protect yourself (and your children) and how you can hold your partner accountable to non-violence.
  • Become aware of your anger at the perpetrator (he is 100% responsible for his behavior and his violations against you) and learn how to mobilize the energy in your anger to be assertive in doing what you need to do to take care of yourself.
  • Address any issues of your own that may make you vulnerable to abuse (e.g., low self-esteem, weak boundaries, unassertiveness, mistrust in yourself, idealizing your partner, emotional reactivity, history of depending upon someone who is unsafe, love/hate confusion).
  • Seek additional support from your church and/or a support group.
 Continually Seek Help from God and the Bible
  • Abuse is not okay with God! There is no justification for it. It is a serious problem and a sin that the perpetrator needs to stop doing and get spiritual help and psychological treatment to change.
  • Meditate on the life of Jesus Christ and the abuse that he endured, especially with his cross. He knows how it feels to be victimized, to be in awful pain, and to be humiliated. See our article on Jesus’ passion: “Healing for the Abused.”
Calmly and firmly tell your partner that his mistreatment of you is unacceptable 
  • Encourage him to get help from a counselor and/or support group.
  • Tell him that if he disrespects your boundary you and the children will leave until he demonstrates over time that he respects you (and your children) and that it is safe to be with him.
  • Don’t cry wolf! Don’t tell him you’ll leave until you’ve thought it over long and hard, talked about it in confidence with at least one person you trust and respect, and are ready to act. If you cry wolf by repeatedly making threats that you don’t follow through on then you will undermine your self-respect, credibility, and ability to take charge of your life.
  • If you leave and you are married or in a relationship you want to continue and it is reasonable to believe that the relationship can be repaired and reconciled then explain to him (once you are safe – this can be done in a counselor’s office or over the phone or in writing if you’re afraid) why you left and what your conditions are for returning.  Set clear, objective expectations with a time frame (e.g., once a week attendance at a “Men of Peace” or “Anger Management” Support Group for Men, counseling, at least three months time with no violence and sobriety from alcohol or drugs.)
  • Do not return until your conditions are met.
Other resources for survivors of abuse
  • For shelters, information, or support you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.
  • For financial help or other assistance call the Victim-Witness Assistance Program for crisis intervention, referrals, emergency assistance and other help at 1-800-VICTIMS.
  • If the violence continues contact the Attorney General’s office in your state to learn your legal rights and to understand Domestic Violence Protective Orders and child custody issues.


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