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Intimate Partner Abuse: Walk Away Before the Cycle Starts

If your partner makes you feel bad, it's not love.

The recent media attention to the abuse of women by their high-status partners is bringing much-needed attention to an all too prevalent encounter between intimate partners. While movies theaters have been presenting a wide variety of treatments of this issue (from marital rape in Gone With the Wind to the “Gaslighting” of Ingrid Bergman, the abuse of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Farrah Fawcett’s Burning Bed, to Sleeping With the Enemy, and now an interesting new twist in Fifty Shades of Grey) for over three-quarters of a century, violence and abuse between partners show little change in dynamics or consequence.

Both men and women can be battered or batterers. The message that intimate violence and domestic abuse transcend gender, ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, age, occupation, sexual orientation, and any other demographic variable people might try to promote as sacred is increasingly communicated and accepted.

What is growing more concerning is the evidence that our society is being desensitized to violence. Whether it is the video/computer games being played, the films being viewed, or living in gang war territory or any other forms of exposure, they all contribute to this effect. Further, there seems to be a cultural promotion of expressing violence or taking out your bad day on innocent others as “a normal reaction” to a bad day.

Violence is not an acceptable manner of coping when things don’t go your way. Abuse of any type—emotional, physical, mental, sexual, intellectual, spiritual, and the list goes on—is an incident that no one should have to expect or accept. However, in too many relationships, the onset of the abusive incident becomes something is expected and accepted.

In 1979, Lenore Walker determined that there were predictable stages in the cycle of intimate partner violence and abuse and these have been distilled into three stages:

  1. Tension-Building — this is when the abuser is getting frustrated in life and tension is building between the abuser and the victim. Of course, tensions build in any relationship—it is human nature to have disagreements—but in the abusive relationship, the tensions cannot be “loved or empathized away.”
  2. Explosion and Battering — this is when the tension reaches its peak and violence or abuse erupts. Responsibility for the abuse belongs fully to the abuser. The victim is truly that, a victim, of the relationship. However, once the pattern of the abuse has been “learned” by the victim, or the grooming has been complete, the victim may recognize the explosion as the step that leads to the next phase—the “honeymoon.” Thus, getting the “explosion” over may be encouraged by the battered partner in order to move on into the third phase.
  3. Honeymoon Phase — this third step in the cycle brings the batterer to a place of guilt and remorse. Apologies, promises of change, and explanations for the battering and abuse are communicated. Some batterers even blame and remind victims that “the abuse wouldn’t happen if the victim didn’t ‘ask for it’" and victims’ self-esteem may be so damaged that they accept the lie as truth. Unfortunately, honeymoons do not last forever and tension will again begin to build as the cycle recycles.

The dynamics of abuse may take on different guises depending on the particulars of the individuals in the relationship, but it falls into a cycle of repetitive and often increasingly cruel behaviors.

Unfortunately, the tendency to assert power through control of another merely communicates the lack of control an individual feels he or she has in their lives. Healthy people do not need to bolster their self-esteem by battering the significant people in their lives in any way, shape, or form. Modeling by parents or others in a person’s life may explain where they “learned violence,” but this does not “excuse violence.” Watching professional athletes punch their lovers and drag them unconscious out of elevators does not make domestic violence OK for high school athletes or Pee Wee League football players—even if the concussed girlfriend later marries the guy who punched out her lights.

According to statistics from, 25 percent of high school girls have been victims of physical or sexual abuse, and 70 percent of college students have been sexually coerced. In fact, young women between 16 and 24 are the most frequent targets of abuse, but when they stay silent and allow the abuse to continue, their young batterers are being given the tacit message that abuse is OK and acceptable.

Further, in a culture that encourages anonymous online lives, in which individuals can create identities in virtual space that allow them to engage in all of the primitive and base actions they crave with no penalty or censure, the need to be aware of the signs of potentially abusive relationships is paramount.

There is a pattern to abuse and while it starts out subtle, as a victim is “tested” or “groomed” to accept abuse as a part of the relationship dynamic, it typically only increases in intensity until the relationship is terminated—by a partner walking out or the victim being put in the hospital or the morgue due to the final assault.

The first time a partner belittles you, makes you feel bad about yourself, forces you to do something against your will, or harms you needs to be made the last time. When apologies, placing blame on you, and promises of change are quick to follow the abuser’s actions, these should be the last “red flags” you need to walk away before you are caught up in the cycle and it becomes too late.

We should never have to live in fear of someone who truly loves us.


  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
  • Walker, Lenore E. (1979) The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row
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