How Victims Get Trapped in Cycles of Domestic Abuse

Leaving an abusive relationship is much harder than it looks from the outside.

Allegra Ringo

Thumbnail photo via Flickr User Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Domestic violence seems to have been a trending topic all year—Christy Mack was beaten by her boyfriend, UFC fighter War Machine; Ray Rice knocked his then-fiance, now-wife unconscious in an elevator; the Senate recently convened a panel on domestic violence among pro athletes.

The general public's understanding of these tragic relationships is shaky at best, however—often, people don't understand why victims stay, or their understanding of the complex dynamics of abuse are limited to not very good Jennifer Lopez movies.

Marina Wood, the prevention coordinator at House of Ruth, a California-based nonprofit, says that there's a "cycle of violence" in extremely dysfunctional relationships. It starts with what she calls the "honeymoon period" of calm and conjugal bliss. Next is "tension building," when the abuser might get jealous or angry for any reason—reasons the victim, of course, can't predict, so he or she walks on eggshells, not knowing what will led to a sudden spike of rage. Then comes the "explosion," in which an especially frightening incident occurs. This could be overt violence, or it could involve the abuser doing a number of things to scare the victim, like threatening to kill their family (which Mack alleges that War Machine did prior to assaulting her).

Victims often stick around after the explosion because the cycle of abuse reverts back to the beginning. After an explosion, the abuser is usually apologetic, tearful, generous, loving—it's back to honeymoon mode. This behavior leaves the victim in an understandably confused state. And every time the cycle goes around, it gets worse.

"The two biggest reasons people stay are fear and love," says Wood. In some cases, a victim might stay for the honeymoon period, but as the cycle continues and worsens, their fear escalates. After a certain point, "they're not staying because of the honeymoon period, they're staying because of the explosion," she says—the victim is frightened of what their partner is capable of.

Some abusers make threats against the victim's life, or the lives of their loved ones. Some abusers threaten to attack random citizens, and sometimes they go through with as John Allen Muhammad, the " DC sniper," did. Workers at the House of Ruth have to keep in mind that only the victim knows what their abuser is capable of. Sometimes, after multiple times through the cycle, they eventually seek help—and if they call a domestic abuse shelter, it's usually at the point when their situation has progressed to a potentially lethal on.

"They come to [House of Ruth] shelter with petechia eye because they've been strangled," Wood tells me. "They come to us when they think 'I'm going to die.'"

And, counterintuitively, leaving an abusive relationship doesn't lower one's chances of being attacked by one's partner—it increases them significantly. A statistic commonly cited by anti–domestic violence organizations is that 70 percent of violence occurs when the victim is planning to leave or has left the abuser. Restraining orders and shelters don't always work either. The abuser often finds ways to harm the victim no matter the obstacles. One of Wood's clients repeatedly got fired from various jobs because her abuser, whom she had left, kept calling her employers to out her as an undocumented immigrant. The victim might be afraid of countless possibilities—their abuser knows what would hurt them, and wants to exploit that.

The emotional violence can also turn inward. A huge part of domestic abuse is that the victim blames himself or herself. Often, the abuser helps this along by convincing the victim that he or she the crazy one— you're being too sensitive, you misconstrued what I said , etc. All too often, the victim's family or friends contribute to this self-blame. They might not realize that what they're hearing about qualifies as domestic abuse. Many of Wood's clients tell her that they've told their parents what's going on, and their parents' response was, "that's normal." There might be generations of cyclical abuse behind that response.

It's hard to know how to respond to something as horrific as domestic abuse, but we can start by acknowledging that victims don't need blame or skepticism. They need a culture that empowers them to recognize the signs of domestic abuse before it's too late.

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