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The Four Stages of an Abusive Relationship

author image Ripa Ajmera
Ripa Ajmera has been writing for six years. She has written for, General Nutrition Center (GNC), TCW Finance, Alliance for a New Humanity, Washington Square News and more. She was a Catherine B. Reynolds Scholar from 2006-2008 and graduated from New York University Stern School of Business with an Honors degree in Marketing.
The Four Stages of an Abusive Relationship
Close-up of an upset woman.


The four stages of an abusive relationship are also referred to as the cycle of abuse, which is a social cycle theory that Lenore Walker developed in the 1970s to explain patterns of behavior in abusive relationships. Walker’s theory is based on the idea that once abusive relationships are created, repetitive patterns characterize them. This cycle of abuse concept is widely used in the treatment options of American domestic violence programs.

Tension-Building Stage

Tension builds just before an overtly abusive act occurs. This stage includes passive-aggressive behavior on the part of the abuser, poor communication and palpably escalating strain between two people. The victim often strongly fears angering her partner. Therefore, in this stage, victims often try to change their behavior to prevent triggering their partners’ tendencies toward violence and abuse.

Incident of Abuse Stage

The most overtly abusive stage of an abusive relationship includes the incident itself. The incident of abuse stage, as its name suggests, involves an abuser trying to dominate his partner (the victim) through acts of domestic violence, such as kicking, hitting, shoving, biting and throwing objects. Incidents of abuse also include sexual abuse, emotional abuse, stalking, neglect, economic deprivation, intimidation and other extremely controlling behaviors.

Reconciliation Stage

In the reconciliation stage, the abuser apologizes for harming his victim, is overly affectionate and caring, or chooses to ignore the incidents of abuse or blame them on the victim in some way. These events are often classified as the honeymoon phase. In this stage, the abuser will make it seem as though the violence is finished, assuring the victim that such incidents will never occur again or that the abuser will change. The abuser often feels overwhelming emotions of sadness and remorse, or at least he pretends to. Some abusers even threaten suicide to prevent the victim from leaving. Most abusers shower victims with love, purchasing them expensive gifts and treating them with extra kindness.

Calm Stage

The calm stage is thought to be an extension of the reconciliation stage. During the calm stage, the abuser tries really hard to be kind to the victim and does his best to restrain himself from harming this person. The abusive relationship becomes relatively peaceful and calm during this phase, which often convinces the victim that the abuser has indeed changed. Conflicts inevitably arise, however, which lead again into the tension-building stage of the relationship.

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  • “The Battered Woman”; Lenore Walker; 1980
  • “Free Yourself From an Abusive Relationship: Seven Steps to Taking Back Your Life”; Richard Kraus; 2000
  • “Family Violence: Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives, 6th ed.”; Harvey Wallace; 2010
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