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The Abusive Cycle

Definition:

Abusive Cycle - This is the name for the ongoing rotation between destructive and constructive behavior which is typical of many dysfunctional relationships and families.

Description:

The Abuse Cycle is a repeating pattern where both the perpetrator and the victim of abuse contribute to the conditions which perpetuate the cycle. There are four distinct phases:

Abusive Cycle Diagram

Flashpoint Phase

This is the point where the one person perpetrates an act of verbal, physical or emotional abuse on another. The perpetrator has maximum power in this phase and the victim has minimal power. The emotional energy level in the relationship shoots upward as adrenaline kicks in and both parties adopt the classic “fight or flight” responses.

Retribution Phase

This phase follows the flashpoint. The perpetrator stops the offensive behavior and begins to fear the consequences of their actions, as the victim typically pulls away emotionally or physically. The perpetrator often attempts to reach out or ‘hoover’ their victim with offers of affection, favors, gifts or promises to change. The victim is at maximum power in this phase and the perpetrator at minimum power.

Some victims take advantage of the moment by rolling out a ‘Declaration of Independence’ - a list of demands and conditions which the perpetrator must meet in order to be forgiven and allowed back in from the cold. The perpetrator is often only too willing to comply and may even be grateful to be given concrete demands which can serve as reassurance that they have not gone so far that the relationship is over. The emotional energy level in the relationship stays high as the victim stays on high alert and the perpetrator works feverishly on their payback list to clear the debt.

The victim’s morale may reach a high at this stage as they receive a lot of positive signs from the perpetrator, including constructive words, actions and some of the items on their “list” being addressed.

Reflection Phase

This is the phase when things begin to quiet down, the adrenaline surge is over and the emotional energy begins to drop. The victim becomes less vigilant and the perpetrator less worried about losing the relationship. They have both had a chance to see what life is like under the new ‘regime’ instigated by the victim and to ask themselves if it is working for them. Both parties adopt a more introspective and analytical posture, thinking about where they are, what they want and what they deserve. The perpetrator may begin to feel some resentment over some of the boundaries and conditions placed on them. The victim may also feel some resentment at having to play the role of a prison guard. Morale tends to drop as both parties realize that everything is not going to be perfect.

Regression Phase

This is the phase where both parties drift back towards their initial or default state. They become less analytical about the relationship and turn their energy to more mundane matters such as work, family, paying bills and taking care of everyday responsibilities. Rules from the victim’s ‘Declaration of Independence’ tend to erode away as the perpetrator spends less energy on the list and the victim is less vigilant in policing the boundaries. Both parties become increasingly resigned to their default roles in the relationship and distracted away from the events and consequences of the previous flashpoint. Morale begins to lift as a sense of ‘normal’ returns.

Who Are Abusers?

Hollywood abusers are easy to spot. They may sneer or speak with a menacing tone. They may dress in black. They may have an unkempt appearance. They are often portrayed as eccentric. They are typically male and unattractive. Crucially, they are almost exclusively portrayed as consistently nasty, consistently angry and consistently violent or hurtful. It’s understandable why screenwriters don’t have the time or an attentive enough audience to portray a “bad guy” as anything more sophisticated than just that... bad.

Real life isn't like that.

Real-life abusive people come from all walks of life, all religious and ethnic backgrounds, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, tall and short, smart and foolish, attractive and unattractive. In contrast to the way abusive relationships are portrayed in popular culture, most real life abusive situations are not so clear cut.

However, despite their diversity, almost all abusers have some things in common:

Abusers are regular people.

They aren’t pure evil. They aren’t like the bad guys in the movies. They are regular people. Just like when a notorious criminal is apprehended, , there will often be an acquaintance or neighbor who tells a reporter that they seemed like such a regular person – “a nice family man who attended the local church”, or a mom who helped run the local PTA. Abusive people are hard to spot. Abusive people are just like the person next door because abusive people are the person next door.

Abusers don't abuse everybody.

If they did, they would be easy to spot. They would all be in jail, ostracized by the community or committed to a local psychiatric ward. Real abusers are typically selective in who they mistreat. Abuse victims are typically someone close, who is powerless to retaliate or unwilling to report the abuse. Abusive behaviors are typically kept behind closed doors and restricted to moments when there are no objective witnesses. A person who mistreats you may mistreat only you and may be a model citizen to everybody else.

Abusers don't abuse all the time.

This is only logical, because if they did, nobody would stay with them for very long and they would all live alone. Most abusive people don’t behave abusively all the time or even most of the time. Real abuse is sporadic, intermittent, occasional, temporary and sustained only for short bursts. It doesn’t take much mistreatment to terrorize or demoralize a person for a very long time. It is quite common for an abusive person to behave normally most of the time and even be kind, polite, humble, gracious, generous, devoted or apologetic in periods between and immediately following episodes of mistreatment. This is often how an abusive person draws a victim closer to themselves between outbursts. It is also common during these periods for an abusive person to want to “rewrite” their own history or try to influence their victim to misrepresent or ignore past events, as a way of justifying themselves or dealing with discomfort about their abusive behavior. The victim will often play along, grateful for a period of calm, “letting sleeping dogs lie” and hoping not to provoke any further outbursts.

Abusers need a victim!

This is one of the most overlooked characteristics of abuse. Where there is no victim, there can be no abuse. Therefore, removing the victim from an abusive situation is often much easier and more effective than restraining the perpetrator. The most effective strategies for eliminating abuse often begin and end with the victim taking action to protect themselves.

Related Personality Disorders

The Abusive Cycle is a common occurrence in relationships involving people who suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Dependent Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, Paranoid Personality Disorder, Schizoid Personality Disorder, Schizotypal Personality Disorder.


For More Information & Support...

If you suspect you may have a family member or loved-one who suffers from a personality disorder, we encourage you to learn all you can and surround yourself with support as you learn how to cope.

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