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The Abuse Wheel: How Women Stay Stuck in Abusive Relationships

Updated on April 17, 2017
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Lisa is a passionate advocate of domestic abuse prevention and finding resources for victims.


Why don't women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them just leave? It seems like such an obvious solution coming from the perspective of an outsider. The reality, of course, is that the dynamic of an abusive relationship is never as simple as it seems. Perhaps the woman has not worked in many years and cannot support herself and her children. The abuser may have threatened to harm or kill her and the children if she leaves. She could come from a conservative background and believe that marriage is forever, no matter what.

The reasons that women stay with an abuser are as varied as the women themselves. Even when a woman does muster up the courage to leave, she frequently returns to the relationship due to limited options, guilt, feeling like she still loves the abuser, and numerous other reasons. The average abused woman leaves her relationship up to seven times before making the final break.

Why Do Men Abuse?

Why is leaving so difficult? Beyond the obvious financial, social, safety, or religious reasons, many women stay because they are caught in a never-ending cycle of abuse. Before people can understand the cycle of abuse, they must comprehend the one-word reason for it: control. Behind every abuser is a desperate need to control the words and actions of his partner. She is not allowed to have a different opinion, inconvenience him, or to act in ways that don't inflate his ego. Many abusers are also narcissists who see their partner as a mere extension of themselves.

Phase One: Tension Builds

During the first phase of an abuse cycle, conflict arises as communication breaks down. With an abuser, this usually means that he is not getting his own way. It sometimes takes nothing more than a menacing look to let his wife or girlfriend know that she has pushed too far, but by that point it may be too late. She will pay the price somehow. Many women who have escaped abusive relationships describe this phase as feeling like she has to walk on egg shells or say whatever it takes to diffuse the situation, whether she means it or not. It is not uncommon for abused women to feel physically ill from the tension.

Phase Two: The Incident Occurs

The tension that built up during the first phase will eventually come to a head in a phase two. However, it is not always in the form of physical abuse. It may also show up as verbal abuse, throwing objects around the house, unwanted sexual contact, threatening words and behavior, blaming the victim, storming out of the house, or sulking and refusing to speak to the victim until she backs down or apologizes for upsetting him. These actions are manifestations of abusive behavior.

Phase Three: He Says He's Sorry

During reconciliation, the third phase of an abusive cycle, the abuser may appear genuinely remorseful and shower his wife or girlfriend with compliments or gifts. He may also blame her for the abuse, tell her she's making a big deal over nothing, or even try to claim it never happened. The latter type of behavior is a phenomenon known as "gaslighting." It means the abuser deliberately and repeatedly tries to get the victim to deny her own reality. The message in this phase is sent loud and clear: the incident is over and she is not to bring it up again.

Phase Four: The Honeymoon Period

During this phase of an abuse cycle, life goes on as normal. The incident may just as well have never happened. The abuser is not necessarily turning on the charm, and life settles back into a more predictable pattern. Unfortunately, the only thing predictable with an abuser is that it will happen again. The honeymoon period is always the calm before the storm.

He's Not the Guy She Fell in Love With

People who have never been involved in an abusive relationship may have trouble grasping the fact that those who are probably never saw it coming. An abuser is never abusive in the beginning of a relationship because that would repel the woman he is trying to woo. He is charming, attentive, and appears to be kind and considerate as well. Many women fall quickly and deeply for men who later turn out to be abusive. Even as the abuse starts becoming obvious to others, she has a hard time reconciling the man in front of her with the one who swept her off her feet and proclaimed his undying love.

He Eventually Reveals Himself

For a man who is abusive at heart, keeping up this kind of pretense is exhausting. Eventually, when he has the woman right where he wants her, he will start letting down his guard. She will say something he doesn't agree with and he will become moody, give her the silent treatment, criticize her, or become openly hostile. The first time it happens, she is in shock and can't process it rationally. He's just tired, or sensitive, or not feeling well -- anything but abusive. Her Prince Charming is not abusive, and to say something to that effect at this stage would probably result in her defending him and calling the accuser ridiculous.

It Only Escalates

Once an abusive exchange has taken place, it will likely happen again and the next time will be worse. If an abuser insulted his wife or girlfriend with hurtful words the first time, the second time may involve insults and him pushing her against the wall. If she makes it clear there are certain things she won't tolerate, he may back off on those behaviors while continuing the ones he can get away with. However, he may only see that as a power struggle and exert his control even more. He tells her that she makes him get angry, or finds fault with her in another way. She usually believes it.

She Tries to Change

Perhaps he tells her she's unattractive and deserves to be abused because no one else would put up with her. She takes these words to heart, goes on a diet, and tries to wear nicer clothes for him. Since he's still abusive, he needs to find something else to throw at her. If she continues to take the bait, she will run herself ragged trying to be the perfect wife or girlfriend so he will treat her right. Unless he is suddenly struck with enormous insight, he rarely changes his behavior. This leaves the abused woman with two choices: continue to run on the hamster wheel of the abuse cycle or try to find a way out.

If She Stays

A woman who remains in an abusive relationship for years eventually loses all connection to the person she once was. The continuous exposure to abuse will break her down physically, mentally, and spiritually until she lives merely in survival mode. Whereas she may have once enjoyed rich relationships with others, she will withdraw and retreat into a world of her own making. The escapism may come in the form of an addiction or avoiding contact with the outside world entirely.

If She Goes

It takes a tremendous amount of support and courage to leave an abusive relationship. Sadly, many women report not being believed when they disclose the abuse to a family member, pastor, friend, or counselor. This is especially true if no physical abuse took place. People in the woman's social circle, if she even still has one, may have been manipulated by the abuser to believe that the woman is the one with the problem.

As difficult as it may be, abused women need to reach a place of strength deep within that tells them to move forward with severing the relationship. She needs to keep talking until people believe her and work with a support system to begin making plans for leaving. Many challenges exist for a woman coming out of an abusive relationship. She may at times wonder if leaving was worth it. Fortunately, she can usually answer yes within a short time of getting out, regardless of how difficult it may be to start a new life.

© 2017 Lisa Kroulik


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    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 2 months ago

      "Why don't women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them just leave? It seems like such an obvious solution coming from the perspective of an outsider." - Perspective really is the key!

      Imagine a 6 year old boy who is bullied by a 9 year old boy at school. Every time he sees him his heart races, palms of his hands sweat, and he's overcome with an urge to pee on himself as he looks for ways to escape. For (him) it's "life and death".

      However if his parents were made aware of what was going on they'd step in and talk the school officials, possibly hash it out with the bully's parents. They don't see it as "life and death".

      My point is once the abuser has "mentally" gained a foothold on their victim it's almost impossible for her or him to have an outside perspective. The abuser becomes "bigger than life", all knowing, and controlling. And yet another man might look at him as a wimp who he could easily beat his ass.

      In other words the rest of the world isn't shaking in their boots!

      You are correct in pointing out the numerous reasons why a woman will not leave an abuser. However it's important for her to realize that by staying she's guaranteeing the abuse will continue. There's never going to be a day where the abuser decides to never abuse their victim again.

      Women in particular need be made aware that it's not okay to put up with being slapped or pushed even in Jr. High school.

      Lots of them experience their first abuse during their teenage years with boyfriends and never report it to their parents.

      Generally speaking "verbal abuse" is the foreplay for "physical abuse". Whenever someone doesn't use an "edit button" when talking to you or they call you names, curse at you, and insult you, or punch holes in a wall or throws something across a room....These are all indicators that it's time to leave.

      In other words don't wait to be hit!

      Our society spends a great deal of time trying to get men to change their behavior, creating anger management tools, and even putting them in jail which is all well and good.

      However as long as there are who are (willing) to continue to date, marry, and stay with such men the cycle will continue.

      Another reason for this is many men and women grow up in households where violence was witnessed in the home.

      A child witnesses her mother getting yelled at, slapped, punched, or threatened and then sees her afterwards setting the dinner table for him is likely to believe on some level this is how (marriage) is. Therefore if it happens to them when they're grown it's not "foreign" but rather familiar.

      Some women stay because they're embarrassed or as you said they truly believe he is "the one" for them.

      In other instances some feel being in a "toxic relationship" is better than not being in a relationship.

      So much of it comes down to having low self-esteem and needing to earn or prove they are worthy of being loved from someone who doesn't easily offer love and affection.

      For every abuser there is a "nice guy" who was (passed over) who wonders why so many women seem to prefer jerks.

      Abusers are usually confident, they know how to be charming, and are especially good at making women (feel) special in the beginning. If he displays rage at others sometimes a woman sees it as "strength" and feels he would be a great protector.

      She never dreams one day his anger will turned towards her.

      I think we as a society need to find a way to encourage women to continue be more independent and career bound as well as learning to love themselves before pursuing relationships.

      We can continue to preach and punish men for their abusive ways but ultimately it takes two people to form a toxic relationship.

      "Never love anyone who treats you like you're ordinary."

      - Oscar Wilde

      A woman who truly loves herself and has a career of her own is not likely to put with too much crap from anyone.

      The best time to leave an abuser is at the first sign of his rage whether it's against you or someone else.

      Many women are quick to say: "Once a cheater always a cheater." Maybe they should say: "Once an abuser always an abuser." Some things should never be forgiven not even once!

    • nybride710 profile image

      Lisa Kroulik 2 months ago from Minnesota

      Thank you for your insightful and thoughtful comments.

    • Cherie Kurland profile image

      Cherie Kurland 2 months ago from USA

      @dashingscorpio - oh so true - children model what they see, even more than what they hear. So if they're around abusive behavior, they'll accept that as normal, and words alone won't overcome that.

    • nybride710 profile image

      Lisa Kroulik 2 months ago from Minnesota

      Cherie - I agree. It takes enormous insight to change behavior that has been modeled as normal.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 8 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Emotional abuse can happen in almost any relationship. Like you have said here, the victim doesn't see it coming and often denies its reality, even defending the abuser by coming up with reasons for the behavior.

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