The general definition of abuse is misuse. This is why we talk of abuse of office and power. It is the misuse of things. But what is abuse when directed towards people?

It is mistreating people. Treating them the way they do not deserve.

Although the word “deserve” can be taken to be relative in meaning, the bottom line is that every person ought to be treated with respect and dignity.

Every human being is unique and important, thus should be given fair and respectful treatment. However, some people seem to have a different understanding of this. For them, not only are their needs and wants important, but they can only be best met through mistreating others.

Such people are called abusers.

An abuser mistreats you in an effort to gain and maintain control. However, his pursuit of control is at times extreme and he may end up seriously hurting you. In some cases, the hurt leads to death.

But just how does the abuse take place? Can you recognize it? Can you avoid it?


Abuse normally takes place behind closed doors and is not very easy to recognize. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. The abuser knows how to hide and lie – abusers are master deceivers and they know how to paint themselves in good light when in public. They will show themselves to be friendly and helpful. For this reason, it’s difficult to associate them with abuse.
  2. The victim usually doesn’t know what is going on – victims of abuse are usually confused, not knowing that they are being abused. The reason is because all kinds of abuse start at the psychological and emotional level.

When this happens, the victim’s self-esteem is destroyed and he becomes a puppet in the hands of the abuser. He gradually starts doubting his own reality and at this point, he really cannot recognize that what is happening is abuse.

Although recognizing abuse is difficult, this article highlights the stages involved and tells you what happens in them. This way, you are able to recognize abuse.

If you are experiencing any of the signs described, then you will know which stage you are in and what you can do.

The origin of the term “Cycle of Abuse”

The cycle of abuse was first theorized by Dr. Lenore Walker, in 1979. This was after interviewing 1,500 women who were survivors of domestic violence.

What she found out was that although the women narrated different stories, the stories shared a similar pattern.

There was a recognizable cycle of how the abuse had happened. Walker proceeded to develop the cycle of abuse theory which is as shown in the image below.

Let’s look at these four stages of abuse and some real-life examples. Afterwards, you will be able to easily identify abuse and recognize the situation that you or a victim is in.

At the end, you will learn that you do not have to be enslaved by this cycle. Not only can you break it, but you can also live an abuse-free life, because you deserve it.

Tension-building phase

This is where the cycle begins. Despite all relationships having their share of conflict, conflicts in an abusive relationship are never resolved. This is because one of the things abusers never do is admit any wrong.

As conflicts arise in the relationship but they are not resolved, several things happen. These include the abuser acting in passive-aggressive behavior. This is one of the ways the victim gets confused because the communication channels are essentially closed.

As the tension builds up, communication from the abuser becomes poor. This makes the problem more vague and unclear. You are neither able to pinpoint the problem nor its cause, even though you’re experiencing its effects.

This presents you with a very problematic situation. Since as a victim you are most likely passive, you lack the confidence to address the situation. You therefore get stressed on the inside and it comes out through your actions.

You become clumsy as you go about your daily activities and are likely to do things wrongly. This is exactly what the abuser is waiting for. As you will come to know later, this is one of the ways the abuser sets the stage for abusive behavior.

You also become fearful and start actively avoiding things which might trigger violence or other unwanted actions from the abuser. Quite literally, you start walking on eggshells.

Although in every relationship people avoid the things which they know their partners don’t like, for you it is not out of love but fear. This fear largely contributes to your inability to make sound decisions, leading to wrong actions.

Incident phase

The tension that has built up will soon enough give way to an incident of abuse. This is where the abuser acts out his anger.

Depending on the abuser and how far the relationship has come, this incident may vary.

It may be as “small” as a verbal attack or as big as physical violence. In most cases, physical abuse comes way later into the relationship, when the abuser has developed control over you and is assured of your compliance and inability to leave.

If at the infant stages of the relationship, what may come from the abuser is likely to be harsh criticisms of you. Outbursts of anger, arguing and yelling might also occur. The whole purpose of this is to put you down and reduce your self-esteem. This is important for the abuser so as to gain control over you.

Another common incident to occur at this stage is blaming you for all the wrongs in the relationship. Even his reactions. Although abusers rarely admit wrongdoing, in the event that they do, then they won’t take responsibility for it. They will instead put the blame on you.

They will always justify their actions by pointing out what you did. If you try having a rational discussion to resolve conflicts with an abuser, he will do everything to scuttle the process. Abusers cannot reason logically. This is mainly out of training themselves to hide their hurts.

Intimidation is also a part of the incident phase. An abuser will intimidate you to show that he is right while you are wrong. Through out the relationship, it will always be about him being right.

In the minds of abusers, everything is usually about gaining control. If they don’t have control, then nothing will run smoothly. Unfortunately, no amount of control satisfies them, not to mention that their control is always exercised through hurting others.

Reconciliation phase

The reconciliation phase comes after an abusive incident because the abuser is now afraid of the consequences of his actions against you.

In most cases, the abuser will be afraid that you might leave. To avoid that, they will show remorse, which might be real or fake, just to convince you not to leave.

Both the abuser and the victim have character traits that make this phase work just as the abuser intends. Although you are likely to accept his apology, it is often just another part of the game. For the abuser, it is all power play.

Abusers happen to have great convincing power. This is however not the kind that works in great salesmen but one that is driven by their desperate need to control others. It is only when they have complete control over everyone around them that they can get satisfaction.

The abuser will tell you that he is sorry for what he did and that the incident will never occur again. If he acknowledges his wrong behavior, he will most likely deny its magnitude. He will downplay the effects of his actions or the harm he has caused you.

Something else likely to happen in this stage is making excuses for his behavior. An abuser will always have an excuse as to why he did what he did. And a part of that is the blame-shifting that he does. His actions are always a valid response to your own actions.

On your part as the victim, the reason this stage succeeds and leads to the next one is your gullibility. Lacking in knowledge about abuse simply makes you vulnerable. You have witnessed wrong treatment and cruel attacks but are unable to pinpoint it as abuse.

Something else, it is likely that you have low self-esteem. This mostly comes from your upbringing and the effects of your past life prior to getting involved with the abuser. This is how you first of all fell into his trap because abusers rarely abuse confident people.

People with low self-esteem are always, even unconsciously, seeking approval more than the confident person. This makes the victim open to making sacrifices to please other people in an effort to gain their approval. This openness to making great sacrifices is what abusers look for as they “hunt” for victims.

All the same, not everyone who is open to making sacrifices can be abused. There are those who can make sacrifices though they have a firm stand in regards to the extent of it.

Although such people will initially accommodate the abuser because he posed as one who needed help, they will soon confront them on some aspects which will leave the abuser sensing exposure. At this, the abuser will naturally flee.

At the same time, it is important to realize that the manipulation carried out by abusers is not easy to detect. Unless you are knowledgeable about abusive tactics and are on the lookout for them, you can fall victim.

Calm phase

This is the last phase of the abuse cycle and is very closely tied to the reconciliation phase. It is also sometimes referred to as the honeymoon phase. This is due to the actions of the abuser at this stage. He simply goes back to the charming ways he began with.

As the name indicates, this phase is characterized by calm and peaceful times in the relationship. As such, you are assured that the abusive incident will never happen again—just as the abuser promises.

However, the calm is not all there is at this stage. This phase is really like a honeymoon moment for you. In an effort to erase the memories of abuse from your mind, the abuser may go to considerable lengths to paint an impressive picture of himself.

Since he knows you quite well, he will seek to do the things he knows will make you happy. He will put in the efforts to show you that he is loving and caring.

Two things will be happening to you at this stage:

  1. Enjoying the calm – you are pleased by the turn of events and start holding onto the relationship not wanting it to fall apart. This will be a sign for him that all is well. Most, if not all abuse victims are usually very hopeful that things will turn out well. Remember that in their hearts, they are people who are willing to help and sacrifice. You cannot help if you’re not hopeful that things will be better. The efforts by the abuser thus pay off and they gain the trust of the victim—again. Unfortunately, this is just in readiness for the next abuse incident.
  2. Self-blaming – as you enjoy the calm and loving environment, you are at the same time internalizing what happened before the calm. At the very beginning, you believed that the abuser was a good person. Then with the abuse, he constantly criticized you and blamed you for his actions. With time, you have believed his criticisms. So you now start thinking that it’s possible you’re the one who causes the abuser to behave the way he does.

And because you don’t want the incidents to repeat again, you start “giving back” by doing what the abuser likes while avoiding what he doesn’t like. What is happening is that you are adapting while the abuser is becoming used to getting away with it.

Why the abuse may not stop

You may think that adapting to the likes of the abuser will stop the abuse.

Not so fast. Actually, you may just be fueling it.

Being a relationship setup, conflicts will always arise. Every conflict brings in fears for the abuser that he might lose control of the situation.

To safeguard his control, which is the source of his confidence and satisfaction, he has to solidify his rule. He has to ensure that he is fully respected (actually feared).

This can only be achieved through more incidents of abuse because according to the abuser, that is the only way of going about issues.

With time however, things get worse for you as the abuser becomes more insensitive and the abuse more cruel. As you become isolated from friends and family, you may become suicidal.


Abuse is very real and many cases go unreported. The victims who seek help have enabled some data on abuse to be collected. From that, we have very grim statistics. For example, everyday, there are more than 20,000 calls made to domestic violence hotlines.

The victims who do not seek help are mainly in the trap of not recognizing they are being abused. In the event that they recognize it, they deny it.

It is only after some time that you may start understanding what was happening to you and decide to report. This may be out of anger against the abuser or just desiring that others may know about it and avoid being victims.

At times, victims report the abuse as a last option of seeking help. In some cases it comes just in the nick of time to save their lives.

Fiona Stagg, who ended up with a broken skull

Fiona had been abused by her fiancé but then was lead to believe that it would never happen again. But the cycle was just beginning.

Coming from a 14-year marriage, she was comfortable living alone and was not in need of love. Or so she thought. Until Darren showed up and she was immediately infatuated by him.

Darren seemed to be the prince Fiona had been looking for. Similar interests, a great show of love, an ever-growing romance, everything that love could bring. Fiona concluded that she really had found her prince charming. And wasn’t it worth it?

Every Friday she would come home to a bunch of roses and these would remind her that she had just walked into love’s arms. Fiona knew that she had just started her life afresh. And it was exciting.

Pressing all the right buttons, Darren suggested marriage. He also suggested children. Was there a reason to doubt that life was getting better? Furthermore, her daughter Megan had already liked Darren and the stage was set for a great family.

One evening, instead of the usual bunch of roses, Fiona came home to a drunk Darren who hit her and strangled her till she passed out. Luckily, Megan had called the police. But after the incident, with Darren shocked to see the damage he had done, she dropped the charges against him.

Fearfully, Fiona told Darren that she was sure he didn’t mean to hit her. This was to avoid making him angry again. As for Darren, he didn’t remember doing it. Soon, he was back to his normal welcoming using roses. Holding Fiona tightly in a loving way, she soon felt safe with him.

Convinced that the attack was one off, she encouraged herself that her face wasn’t so bad. And the strangling marks on her neck were fading too. In any case, didn’t they have a wedding to plan?

Things had however changed and Darren became more interested in alcohol than in Fiona. And suddenly one day it happened again. Only that this time it was worse.

Drunk, he came home late and after being confronted, he took a large ornamental elephant statue that was nearby and hit Fiona 5 times with it on the head. Megan came just on time to stop the blow which would have killed her.

Fiona woke up in an ambulance as she was being rushed to hospital. Apart from black and swollen eyes, her forehead was split in half and would need over 50 stitches to get back to normal.

The effects of the abuse have continued past the abuse as Fiona lost her sense of smell and taste. Her memory also got affected and she even forgets what she is saying mid-sentence. You can read her full story here.

Men can be victims too

Paul had to leave his 25-year marriage in order to escape the physical, emotional and psychological abuse he received from his wife.

Trouble started after she got pregnant. Probably pretending to show fear and concern, she threatened that he wouldn’t see his child unless they got married and moved in together. But the truth would soon come out when she started being physically abusive.

The worst part is that she wore Paul down to believe that he deserved every part of it. That is the highest level of psychological manipulation at work on a victim of abuse.

Paul had to literally live part of his life either in the car or the shed where he was supposed to keep his clothes. Why? He was not allowed to keep them in the house with his wife’s things. If he was the only person in the house, Paul was not supposed to have the heating on. Despite being the one paying for it.

But even then, his abusive wife took it further. Paul also became a victim of parental alienation after his wife manipulated the children to believe it was all his fault. They were even left “in charge” of him when she went out of the house.

With his income tied up in the bills, Paul was stuck but finally managed to get help from the Men’s Advisory Project through his sister’s help.

Anyone can be a victim of abuse. The only way to minimize risk is by having the knowledge of what to look out for. Raising awareness is also important so that abusers get to be recognized and abuse cases reduced, if not stopped.


If you are in an abusive relationship, there is hope for you. The cycle can make you insensitive to the abuse, but having gotten to this article, you should be encouraged. You are on the right path towards a more deserving life.

There are steps you need to take so as to recover from the abuse. Start with the below three. They will allow you to have a “soft landing” if you decide to leave the relationship.

  1. Acknowledge the need to take action – this is the first step towards your healing and safety. You have obviously been through a lot of painful experiences and have recognized that things are not the way the should be. Understand that you have been dealing with an abuser who not only knows you, but is capable of making you stick with him some more. Therefore, keep your plans secret. Give yourself assurances of a better life you will have away from the abuser. This will give you strength to move.
  2. Talk to a trusted friend – by now you may have lost contact with all your friends because the abuser isolated you from them. This is one of the ways he set the stage for abuse—by cutting off external influences so he becomes the only person you are attached to. All the same, there is someone out there who can help you. Try remembering any friend you were close to and one you can trust. If you can remember one who at some point showed concern for you, that’s the one to contact. Maybe all he said was, “I’m concerned that I don’t see you often nowadays.” Contact that friend and let him know what is going on.
  3. Search for help online – online help is always available, especially now that abuse is being recognized as a bigger problem than it was previously thought to be. With cases on the rise, organizations which help victims have provided information on how to reach them.

In the USA, some of them are:

Battered women charged with crime:

Help for sexual abuse victims:

Help for domestic violence victims:

Help for men who have been battered:

Help for abuse against men:

Help for domestic violence victims:

In the UK, some of them are:

Help for abuse against women:

Help for men who have suffered abuse:

Help for domestic violence victims:

Help for rape and sexual abuse victims:

Help when abroad

For help from anywhere in the world:

It is important that you maintain privacy as you seek online help. If using your mobile phone or a family computer, ensure you use any form of anonymous browsing that your internet browser can provide. This is to ensure you do not leave digital trails which the abuser can find later.

Also avoid downloading forms to fill as those may not be hidden by anonymous browsing.


Whether physical, emotional or psychological, abuse is the worst kind of treatment you can receive from someone.

It gets worse when the person is someone you trusted to love you.

Always be on the lookout for the signs and avoid committing yourself to relationships too quickly.

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