4 Stages In The Cycle Of Abuse And How To Heal

woman coping with abuse

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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.

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Kristine

    Very helpful advice. Thank you.

    1. Sara Makin

      I am so glad we could help! Abuse is a very serious topic and we are here if you need to further explore this.

  2. Chase

    Very helpful! This has helped me determine that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. One further question…. In your work have you seen emotional abusers change? My husband says he realizes he didn’t treat me like I should have been treated and that he is willing to go to counseling. Some small red flags for me are that he tries to minimize how often the outbursts happened and there severity…basically he says he knows this happened but that I have exaggerated it in my mind. Another is that he always says he knows this happened between us but that I need to look at how I contributed to it and I need to work on that. I know in my heart I was trying everything NOT to start a fight.
    I have been separated from him for 7 months and he says he gets it and we can go to counseling and a couples retreat and he wants me to move back in immediately. I’m not comfortable with that so I am not going to do that but I am just so scared to give him a second chance. I feel like I have him so many chances to no avail.:/

    1. Sara Makin

      Unfortunately, many times emotional abusers don’t change. It sounds like he is gaslighting you and we don’t think it would be safe for you to move back in with him at this point in time. For further guidance, one of our therapists are able to help you individually to help process your feelings. Tori, Pam or Tanja would be a great fit for a therapist 💙

      1. Rosana Fernandes

        Please I need help!

        1. Makin Wellness

          Hi Rosana, Thank you for reaching out. If you are in immediate danger please call 911. You can reach out to our counselors anytime at 833-274-4325 for mental and emotional support, but your safety is invaluable. We wish you the best and hope to hear from you soon.

  3. Eve

    What if my husband will not go to counseling or any kind of therapy. How do I get him to see that it’s necessary? I have not entirely confronted him on his abuse. Out of fear, and knowing it will be pushed back onto me as my problem, I’ve even suggested that the therapy would be for me and all of “my craziness.” Still, he has said no. Any suggestions or advice?

    1. Sara Makin

      If he is completely against going to therapy, our best advice is for you to get in therapy yourself. Being in a relationship with an abuser is something that we’d advise you to process. It Is typically very challenging to get an abuser into therapy because they usually know deep down that the therapist would eventually address it. We are happy to help you further at 833-274-HEAL

  4. Lisa

    Hello our daughter has been in an abusive relationship for the last 5+ years. If had esculated with his drug us over the last several years.
    He husband checks off everything above for physical and mental. The police have been to the house they live in that we own that they know it if you mentioned it say oh that house.
    November 2020 a week and a half before Thanksgiving we and the eventually the police ended up at the house. This time she finally filed a complaint after 4+ years of this.
    Unfortunately she back off and ask the charges be dropped he eventually plead guilty to menancing and got time served 3 days and one year probation with no counseling.
    Since this there has been multiple emotional outburst our 11 year old granddaughter us to house for. Our granddaughter has been with us since late May 2021 because she doesn’t want to be there anymore. The 7 year old grandson only stays because he is allowed to play video games most of the time and he loves his mommy. He ask me to get him a phone to hide in case he needed to call me over since sissy isn’t there with her phone. There is a 2 year old granddaughter who doesn’t realize the whole situation yet.
    We are searching for guidance, counceling and legal help unfortunately due to supporting a d being taken advantage of (financially) we don’t have funds to seek legal advice.

    1. Sara Makin

      Hi Lisa, Thank you for reaching out to us. We understand how complicated relationships like this can become. My best recommendation for you right now, considering your situation, is to talk to some one who can help you cope with all of the different levels of strife this is causing your family. We are always available to talk to you one on one, but if you feel like that won’t work for you right now, we do offer Q & A sessions with a live counselor on Facebook Live. Our next session will be on August 27th @ 9:30am. You can join anonymously and have your questions answered in a more personable way. We wish you well and hope to hear from you soon.

  5. Susie Kaploozie

    I live a life with a man who constantly belittles, shames, is unemotional, controlling, never happy, loves money. He is a master at gaslighting. We put on a good “front” for everyone. I have been very sick for the entirety of the marriage … almost four years. I have an education, yet unable to work. He knows it. Constantly throws up that I “live off him.”
    Anytime I bring up a business idea… to bring in income, he poo poo’s the idea. Punishes with the silent treatment. Days. Never apologizes. I need to get out.

    1. Sara Makin

      Suzie, Thank you for sharing. Your situation sounds like it is definitely at a breaking point. You do not deserve that. I highly recommend speaking to a therapist to help you cope with the hurt and fears you are dealing with. Being able to sort through your thoughts and emotions in a safe environment with a licensed professional will help you move on. We would love to speak with you and help you find your true potential. Please contact us at 833-274-4325 Monday-Friday 7am-7pm. We are here for you Suzie!

  6. Lisa W

    Great article. My situation is now to point that I have broken ties with abusive adult daughter. It’s been brewing steadily over 2 yrs, but very recently, after trying every reasonable method, there was an irrefutable breach. A cycle of emotional abuse, gaslighting, and much more. She’s 44 and I am 66. Fortunately, we live 800 miles from each other. I have cut off any way for her to communicate with me. She’s got so many of her own issues in life, and she’s not coping well at all. By removing myself from the situation, I can move forward and she can no longer use me as excuse to avoid her own life. Honestly, this is so long overdue. I did this 2 weeks ago and feel a million times better.

    1. Sara Makin

      Hi Alyssa, Thank you for sharing and congratulations. It is incredibly difficult to cut ties with a child, even in adulthood, but putting your mental health first is the right thing to do in such a situation! Give yourself time to heal and try to practice daily self care! If you need some one to help you work through your thoughts or emotions, we are here for you. Everyday is another opportunity to be better to yourself!

  7. Mayra

    Thank you for your article. I have a question in regarding boundaries. I know he is abusing me mentally by yelling at me and constantly reminding me not to eat much all the time cause he doesn’t want me fat when he isn’t the best of shape and expects more food on my plate than mine….also he blames me on things that are out of my control or he did.

    So one is: what are example of boundaries we can create and two what example of consequences that occur if they don’t respect your boundaries? I’ve said it’s best we go apart but he hates and gets upset I say this and says I’m quitting and giving up on us. What can be said? Thank you.

    1. Sara Makin

      Hi Mayra, Thank you so much for reaching out. After discussing your situation, our counselors highly recommend that you start individual counseling as soon as possible so you can develop a safety plan and explore what your options could be. Mayra, our team is here for you. Please call 1-833-274-4325. If you are not from Pennsylvania, we can help guide you in the right direction. Stay safe and we hope to connect with you soon.

  8. Lebo

    I have been in a emotionally abusive relationship till i decided to end it then my partner asked for a place to stay while sorting out his things,i allowed him to stay in my house until he raped me and now he says he did that because I’ve been toying with his emotions.i don’t remember doing that i was just civil with him since we are sharing the same space and he started telling me he’ll buy prostitutes i told him to do anything he wants with whoever he wants instead he raped me…I’m not comfortable around him and he doesn’t want to leave.

    1. Sara Makin

      Thank you for reaching out. I’m so sorry that you are dealing with this. Your home should feel like a safe space and you shouldn’t be uncomfortable. If you’re feeling like you’re in immediate danger, please call 911. I would also suggest reaching out to our office. We would love to help guide you through this stressful time. Our number is 1-833-274-4325. We’re here for you!

  9. Max Jones

    Thanks for the info about spousal abuse. A friend of mine has been dealing with a difficult marriage. I’ll tell my friend to get legal help for the spousal abuse she has been dealing with.

    1. Makin Wellness

      Thanks for your response Max. Your friend is very lucky to have you.

  10. Stephanie

    I’ve been dating my boyfriend for 2 years now and it was great at first but after 6 months I noticed when I tried to bring up any issue calmly he yells at me and saids really nasty things things to me. For instance, I’m a bad mom, I’m unreliable with the kids, I’m lazy, he does everything around the house. I’m a mom working towards getting my bachelors degree and working. I feel so small around him and very stupid, he makes me feel incompetent. I can’t never bring up an issue because he saids I love to fight. I don’t ever yell at him or disrespect him. Everything in the relationship feels like a transaction I work, school, kids, and chores. If I mention my goal is to go in a trip when I graduate I’m being materialistic. He speaks to me like a child and tells me I’m immature. I’m just so confused and hurt. I’m hurt from the last two arguments when he gave me the silent treatment and when I wanted to talk to him to arrange house chores. All he saids is to get it done. He sounds like a tyrant. He is great with my kid but with me it’s like I’m on his clock and if he’s done talking about an issue everyone else is done.

    1. Makin Wellness

      Thank you for reaching out Stephanie. If you see that you both show a willingness to improve your relationship and you are both open to the idea of seeking help from a professional through counseling, then you might still be able to work things out.

      However, based on what you said, he doesn’t seem to show any interest at all in working things out with you nor acknowledging that he has some issues to be fixed. Reach out to him for the last time, try to present your ideas and resolution in a calm manner. If he agrees, that’s good! But if he doesn’t, just remember that there is no relationship that is worth that kind of trauma. You are amazing and you deserve better. Know your worth. Your mental health is more important than trying to fix someone’s behavior who is not even willing to change. If you would like to speak with some one concerning this we are here to help. Please call us at 833-274-4325 or you can join our next live Facebook Q&A with one of our amazing counselors on October 15th at 12pm est. We hope to speak with you and wish you the best on this journey.

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