The Cycle of Abuse
When I was a domestic violence counselor, we used the term “cycle of abuse” to describe the patterns of behavior that led up to and included an abusive event. As counselors, we taught women who were involved in abusive relationships to recognize these patterns and to identify which stage they were currently in. By doing this, they could create a preemptive strategy to avoid or cope with an upcoming abusive incident.
Dr. Lenore Walker proposed the “Cycle of Abuse” in 1979. After interviewing 1,500 female domestic violence survivors, she found that they all shared a similar abusive scenario and that there was a recognizable pattern to how the abusive events happened. She developed this “cycle of abuse” based on this scenario.
Four Elements of Abuse
Four elements were present in various forms for each of the female abuse survivors:
- Tension Building
- Abusive Incident
The Honeymoon Period proceeds directly into Tension Building, and the cycle repeats itself, uninterrupted. Every cycle shares the same four phases, but each cycle’s details differ from the previous ones. From one abuse cycle to the next, each of the four stages, as well as the cycle itself, can last different amounts of time or include behaviors that are unique from those of the last time.
The following diagram is based on Walker’s Cycle of Abuse.
The first phase is the “Tension Building” period. In it, the target senses growing strain in the relationship, and becomes anxious, highly alert, and guarded. There is an unshakeable feeling that there will be an abusive incident soon. Hence, the target attempts to control the environment to keep the abuser happy and calm.
In phase two, the abusive incident occurs. The abuse may be physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, verbal, or financial. Examples include name-calling, gaslighting, threats, intimidation, angry outbursts, arguing, blaming, and withholding love, affection, and attention.
The third phase is the “Remorse” period. In this phase, the abuser apologizes, makes excuses, and promises that the abuse will never happen again. The target is showered with love, affection, and attention, and sometimes offered gifts and tokens of affection as indicators of sorrow.
The “Honeymoon” is the fourth phase. There is a period of calm in the relationship while the abuser attempts to make the target feel loved, safe, and secure. The Honeymoon will continue for an undetermined amount of time, the length of which may change with every cycle.
This entire cycle will continuously repeat, often over years, until it is intentionally interrupted by one of the two participants. One way of interrupting the cycle is for the target to leave the relationship.
When a narcissist is involved in the cycle of abuse, it plays out differently. The “Remorse” phase is not present in the narcissistic abuse cycle because narcissists are unwilling to accept responsibility and would instead place the blame on their target.
Remember, narcissists need to feel superior and “right” in every situation. This, combined with their lack of empathy, means that they don’t experience feelings of remorse. Remorsefulness requires empathy, sympathy, and taking responsibility for our actions (Hammond 2018). So, the narcissistic cycle of abuse differs significantly from Walker’s cycle of abuse in this phase.
The Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse
Here is what the cycle of abuse looks like when a narcissist is the offender. This diagram is based on Christine Hammond’s “Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse.”
(Hammond, C. 2018)
In phase one, a Narcissistic Injury occurs. The abuser feels rejected, threatened, jealous, abandoned, disrespected, or any feeling that challenges their superiority. The target feels anxious and tries to appease and please the narcissist, much like in phase one of Walker’s Cycle of Abuse.
As in Walker’s Cycle of Abuse, phase two is also an Abusive Incident, which could be physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, verbal, or financial. Examples include name-calling, gaslighting, threats, intimidation, angry outbursts, arguing, blaming, withholding love, affection, and attention.
Phase three is completely different in the Narcissistic Cycle of Abuse. When the cycle involves a narcissist, the roles in the Remorse stage are reversed. Now the narcissist will play the part of the abused/victim, and the target will apologize and appease. What eventually happens in the fourth phase is that narcissistic behaviors become stronger, and the abuse cycle repeats until someone intentionally breaks the cycle. To break it, the target needs to change their behavior by not accepting the role reversal. In other words, the target will no longer take the blame or accept the role of the abuser.
Subtleties of Abuse: Golden, Invisible and Scapegoat
As I’ve mentioned in the book “Lemon Moms,” there’s a particularly dysfunctional family dynamic in which one of the children of a narcissistic (or alcoholic, dysfunctional, mentally ill) parent becomes the “idealized” parental favorite, known as the “Golden Child.” The other children will take turns being devalued and blamed, known as the “Invisible Child” and the “Scapegoat. The dysfunctional parent controls these roles.
The roles of the Golden Child, Invisible Child, and Scapegoat are flexible; any role can be assigned to any child at any time, depending on the parent’s mood. It’s a “crazy-making” situation because the toxic parent has the unchallenged power to change the entire family dynamic unpredictably. The children are caught unaware and unprepared.
The Golden Child: The Golden Child’s role is to bring positive attention to the the toxic or narcissistic parent and the family. The Golden Child is the favorite, and as such, may have a special status and receive more attention and praise. They’re the ones that get bragged about. They make the dysfunctional parent look good. Even so, the parent will always take some credit for their children’s accomplishments. When the golden child walks into the room, the parent’s focus is on them. Golden Children may grow up to be adults who are compulsive overachievers or perfectionists who feel a loss of identity and have low self-esteem.
The Invisible Child (aka Lost Child): The role of the Invisible Child is to “stay under the radar,” to follow the rules unquestioningly, be quiet, and easy-going. Invisible Children are often taken for granted, and their needs are neglected because they never complain or ask for anything. Invisible Children may internalize a sense of having no impact on others, or their input not mattering. They may grow up to feel insignificant and inconsequential because their sense of identity has not fully developed
The Scapegoat: The Scapegoat’s role is to bear the blame for all of the family’s problems. They are the butt of jokes and get less of everything than the other siblings. They are seen as the problem child. Scapegoats often grow up to become the ones who speak up and challenge the dysfunction. They’re the ones telling the truth about what’s going on in the family and will act out the frustration, anger, and feelings of the entire family.
When we suddenly and unexpectedly become the Scapegoat, it leaves us wondering what the heck just happened. Was it something I said (or didn’t mention or was supposed to mention)? Was it something I did (or didn’t do or did but not correctly)? If not me, then who or what was it? Was it another family member? A friend? Their boss? The traffic? Did something happen at work? Was it the weather? Maybe it was a coworker. Or their supervisor. Perhaps it was the cat? Or something they got (or didn’t get) in the mail? In other words, it could have been for any reason, and we’ll probably never know what it was.
A sudden change in family positions is upsetting. These random role reversals affect our sense of observation, decision-making, and self-trust because we never know if the explanation we’re giving ourselves is accurate. And we’re continuously guessing our current standing within the family. And if we’re the Golden Child, we’re also appeasing and pleasing our toxic parent because we don’t want to lose that privilege.
Those of us who’ve lived under those circumstances were usually on high alert, in fight-or-flight survival mode, because we had no idea when the next attack or role reversal would happen. It meant we were continuously producing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, so it was a common occurrence to feel confused or experience scattered thinking, have difficulty making decisions, or remember. Eventually, we became emotionally and physically exhausted.
Living under these circumstances can result in destroying a child’s self-esteem and cause them to feel unnecessary fear and shame.
Tools for healing:
Learn about expectations
Learn about setting boundaries
Learn about codependency and maladaptive coping skills
Take the Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz
Learn about Narcissism Awareness Grief
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us. We can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice.
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions. Practice mindfulness.
Learn about letting go of what you can’t control, by using loving-detachment
About the author
Diane Metcalf is an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer on the topics of domestic violence, abuse, and family dysfunction. Currently, she writes about toxic relationships and recovery tools. Diane holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and has worked in numerous fields, including domestic violence and abuse. She also holds a Master of Science degree in Information Technology.
As a result of growing up in a dysfunctional home, and with the help of professional therapists and continued personal growth, she has developed strong coping skills and healing strategies. She happily shares those insights with others who want to learn and recover.
Her books and articles are the results of her education, knowledge, and personal insight regarding her own abusive experiences and subsequent recovery work. She is no longer a practicing Social Worker, Counselor, Program Manager or Advocate, nor is she or has she ever been a licensed psychologist.
Currently, Diane runs her own website design company, Image and Aspect, and writes articles and tutorials for Tips and Snips, her inspirational blog for creative people. She continues to learn and write about Emotional Healing.
This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.