4 Stages In The Cycle Of Abuse And How To Heal

woman coping with abuse

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Table of Contents

Does any of this sound familiar? You’re at home, hiding in the bathroom, crying. You aren’t sure how things got so bad between you and your partner, but it feels like you’re always doing something wrong, or they’re angry.

You have no idea how to make them happy anymore, and it’s gotten so bad that you have to hide your pain from them.

If this is happening to you, you might be in the middle of a cycle of abuse.

However, because this type of abuse can be difficult to identify, you might not be sure about what’s actually going on between you and your partner.

Right now, you might be going through a series of emotions that make everything a blur, such as confusion, guilt, and sadness.

In this article, we’ll review how the cycle of abuse works, how you can identify different types of abuse, and how to break the cycle of abuse.

Finally, you can figure out your situation so that you find a way out of this painful experience. Read on to learn more.

Physical and Emotional Abuse in the Cycle of Abuse

There are two types of abuse that occur during the cycle of abuse, which can also both occur at the same time. The first, which is easier to identify, is physical abuse. If your partner beats you or takes out their emotions on you physically, this is physical abuse.

Of course, there are situations when physical abuse seems so minor that you may not consider it to be. But it still is.

Emotional abuse, on the other hand, is more difficult to identify, even though it can be quite damaging psychologically.

What is Emotional Abuse?

Generally speaking, emotional abuse is something an abuser does so that they can control their partner. Usually, they blame, shame, embarrass, criticize, or use other emotional tactics to manipulate their partner.

When someone does this regularly to their partner, using the cycle of abuse, their bullying behavior and abusive words eventually undermine the victim’s mental health and wear down their self-esteem.

Even though emotional abuse is usually known to occur in romantic relationships, it can occur in any type of relationship, among co-workers, roommates, family members, and friends.

It is also important to note that not only women suffer from abuse.

The Cycle of Abuse

cycle of abuse

Part of why so many victims choose to stay with their abusers is that there is a cycle of abuse. Because of how it works, it’s easy to think that these recurring events will eventually stop. The cycle of abuse is made up of four stages.

These stages include the building of tension, the abuse incident, the reconciliation, and a period of calm.

The Building of Tension

Usually, abusers harm their victims because they are in a stressful situation. These stressors can make the situation feel tenser. Potential stressors include fatigue, physical illness, trouble at work, or family issues.

The abuser will start exhibiting signs of paranoia, anger, injustice, and powerlessness in response to these stressors.

As you notice this, you find that you’re hyperalert to their needs and feeling guarded and anxious. You’re afraid that abuse is about to happen, whether it’s emotional or physical.

The Abuse Incident

The next step of the cycle of abuse is the abuse incident itself. This can vary, including emotional manipulation, sexual or physical violence, attempts to control the behavior of the victim, threats of property destruction or harm, or name-calling or insults.

This is the point at which you’re most likely to think that you’re having relationship issues.


After the abuse has occurred, you and your partner will enter the reconciliation phase. Usually, you enter a honeymoon period, brought on by your abuser giving you loving gestures, gifts, and kindness to move past the abuse.

Because your brain usually releases oxytocin and dopamine when this happens, you’re likely to want to stay. You’ll feel more bonded and like your relationship is going to work out after all.


In order to move forward after the abuse, both people involved need to have an explanation that justifies why it happened. The abusive partner is likely to apologize in such a way that it minimizes your perception of their responsibility for what occurred.

Some of the ways they might establish this period of calm are by:

  • Using outside factors as a reason for their behavior
  • Apologizing but blaming others at the same time
  • Denying or minimizing the abuse itself
  • Saying it’s your fault because you provoked them

Once this period of calm begins, it’s easy to pretend that the abuse was an exception. Sometimes, you might not even think it happened, especially if you’re being emotionally manipulated to think it didn’t.

You might even have been manipulated to think it’s your fault, in which case you can’t blame the abuser for it.

Unfortunately, in abusive situations, this calm doesn’t last forever. Once more external stressors come in, they can set off your partner again.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is the cycle of abuse?”, we’ll get into the specific types of emotional abuse and what they might look like. Because it can be hard to identify emotional abuse, it’s important to know what these signs are.

4 stages of abuse

In fact, a large part of emotional abuse is controlling your perceptions. This is called gaslighting. The abuser, in this case, makes it nearly impossible for the victim to see what’s happening, which is why it’s essential to review this list.


One of the tactics emotional abusers use is invalidation. If they don’t accept your feelings and tell you instead how to feel about something, they’re invalidating your feelings. It feels like your side of things doesn’t count. Other examples include:

  • Distorting, dismissing, or undermining your reality or perceptions
  • Making you give explanations of your feelings over and over
  • Telling you you’re “crazy,” “too emotional,” or “too sensitive”

They might also accuse you of being too materialistic, needy, or materialistic when you express what you need. They’re also likely to say you’re blowing something out of proportion or don’t see your ideas or opinions as valid.

Having Unrealistic Expectations

Often, emotional abusers have unrealistic expectations. They might want you to spend all your time with them, be dissatisfied with all your efforts to make them happy, or want you to put everything in your life aside for them.

Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is another tactic emotional abusers use. They might humiliate you in private or in public, use your compassion, fears, or values to control you in a situation, or punish you by giving you the silent treatment or withholding affection.

Creating Chaos

Emotional abusers also create chaos. This interrupts your sense of stability. They might have sudden emotional outbursts or drastic mood changes, start arguments for no reason, or make statements that are contradictory or confusing.

Isolating and Controlling You

When you’re being emotionally abused, your abuser will try to isolate and control you. For example, they might control how often you see your family and friends. They might even forbid you from seeing a specific person. Other signs of this type of control include:

  • Being jealous of other relationships
  • Accusing you of wanting to cheat or having cheated
  • Monitoring your email, social media, and text messages
  • Making fun of or criticizing those close to you
  • Demanding to always know where you are

Additional isolation and control tactics include controlling your finances, using envy and jealousy as signs of love, treating you like property or a possession, and hiding or taking your car keys.

Acting Superior

If you often feel quite small around your abuser, then they are probably using the tactic of acting superior. When your abuser does this, they might blame you for their shortcomings or mistakes, treat you like you’re an inferior, or act condescending.

How to Deal with Emotional and Physical Abuse

If you find that you’re trapped in the cycle of abuse, you might be feeling a bit scared about your well-being. You might also feel a bit heartbroken, knowing that there are some pretty intense issues going on within your relationship.

Despite the difficult position you find yourself in now, this is actually a good thing. Why?

The first step in getting out of the cycle of abuse is knowing that it’s going on. Now that you know your situation, you can start to improve it. You deserve better. You deserve to be happy. You can be. Here’s how.

Prioritize Yourself

First of all, you want to prioritize yourself. Instead of thinking about your partner’s needs, think about your own. What do you need to be physically healthy? Eat well, exercise, and get the sleep you need.

As for emotional health, affirm yourself and think positively. Finally, you can start healing.

Establish Your Boundaries

Now that you’ve identified the abuse, you can establish your boundaries. Tell your partner that they’re no longer allowed to be rude to you, insult you, or yell at you. Have consequences that occur if they don’t respect your boundaries.

For example, you could go out for a walk if they start yelling at you or being unkind.

Don’t Blame Yourself

When you experience emotional abuse, you lose a lot of your self-worth. Additionally, your partner might put the blame on you for many things. As a result, you might be in the habit of blaming yourself. Now that you know about the cycle of abuse, you might be thinking:

“I can’t believe this is happening to me. How I could be so stupid to get into this situation? How haven’t I recognized any of the signs?”

Just remember that this isn’t your fault. This is your abuser’s fault, and no one else’s.

Create a Support Network

Because it’s so easy to feel isolated when you’ve been emotionally abused, you might feel completely alone in this situation. But this isn’t the case at all. There are many people who love you, and it’s just a matter of reaching out.

If any of your friends or family are upset about your distance recently, you can explain a bit about how you were isolated and controlled.

You’d be surprised, however, by how many people will welcome you back with open arms without any explanation at all.

Create an Exit Plan

If your partner continues their behavior even after you’ve established your boundaries and spoken to them about the abuse, you need to get out of this relationship. It isn’t healthy for you to stay in it—or for your partner.

It can be complicated to get out of a relationship. To prepare, speak with a therapist, a trusted friend, or someone in your family. Keep in mind that your exit plan could end up backfiring.

If you think you might end up in a dangerous situation if you try to get out, you should speak with a therapist first about the signs that your partner could be violent toward you if you want to leave.

This way, you can find a way to safely leave your abuser so that you can start to live your own, happy life again.

Need Help?

Now that you’ve learned about the cycle of abuse, the different types of abuse, and how to heal, you might need help. Maybe you want to learn about more strategies you can use to identify abuse or to get past it.

Or maybe you’re looking for a therapist to help you get through this difficult time.

Whatever help you need, we can help you. At Makin Wellness, we offer therapy and counseling services. To learn more about how we can help you, start your healing journey now.

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

Sara Makin MSEd, LPC, NCC

All articles are written in conjunction with the Makin Wellness Research Team.

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