The stages of an abusive relationship are common whether the relationship lasts months or decades. We will go through these in this article, as well as covering the stages in the cycle of abuse. I am going to talk specifically about an abusive intimate relationship but the same can be applied to a teacher/student relationship, a work situation, a friendship, a coach/athlete set up and so on. The same dynamics also apply to leaving a destructive cult.
Let's look at each stage in turn, keeping in mind that the stages may not be totally separate and indeed there is often a lot of overlap...
People don’t go out looking for an abusive relationship. If they suspected that a potential partner was selfish, cruel and abusive, they would walk away. The abusers know this so not only do they hide their true nature but they present themselves as the ideal partner. The abuser sizes up their target, determining what their wants, needs, desires, dreams, fears, weaknesses and strengths are and then they create a character that seems to the victim to be a perfect fit.
They provide compliments, gifts, attention, care, time, friendship, company and whatever else the target wants. The target is made to feel fantastic by the abuser, often to the point of euphoria. They are head over heels in love with this amazing person. The target feels understood, special, unique. It feels like this new person is perfect. You can read more about what messages the manipulator sends to build such a strong bond.
With such a find, it's a no brainer for the target to start a relationship with the love of their life. Move in together, even if it's only been a few weeks? Why not? Get married? Of course! What's not to like? It feels to the target that the good times will never end. Even if warned by family or friends that things are going too fast, or that there is something off about the new partner, the victim is so giddy with emotion they cannot see any problems.
This phase will go on until the manipulator knows that he or she has a certain level of control.
There are lots of rewards and almost no punishments in this phase.
At some point the manipulator does something unkind or controlling or even cruel.
This often happens after there has been an increase in the commitment in the relationship, moving in together, getting married, a pregnancy. It may occur simply when the controller is confident that they have enough power over their victim.
The change in behavior can be shouting, insults, lying, starting an argument over something trivial, stealing something, arriving home drunk or a whole host of other things.
Up to this point the victim has been having a fantastic time that they want to last forever. When the controller does something bad, it seems 'out of character'. The victim will often justify it away, 'he is stressed, he is having a bad day, he is tired....' etc. The bad behavior is chalked up to an 'aberration', because things have been so good up to now.
In some ways, this is a test by the controller of the victim. How does the victim respond? What is the victim going to tolerate? How much do they object? What does the controller need to do to placate the victim?
Once this initial 'test' is done, there will be more and more incidents where the manipulator acts badly. The manipulator will also begin to impose conditions on the relationship.
All that unconditional love and attention starts to become conditional on the victim doing and saying what the manipulator wants or does not want. Initially the changes are small. "When you do that, it makes me feel bad" or "Can we not talk about this because it upsets me because of my past?" At this point, the victim considers that it's easy to do what is desired because they want to keep the relationship intact. But more and more, the relationship becomes about the victim pleasing the manipulator.
Now the punishments start to kick in. The manipulator gets angry when they don't get their way, or they stop communicating and leave the victim in the dark about where the relationship is going. This has the effect of making the victim step up and try harder to please the controller because they want things to be as nice as they were in the initial stages of the relationship.
The abuse cycle itself has 4 stages:
Figure: stages of an abusive relationship
In the tension building stage, the abuser starts to get irritable and critical. They may withdraw or become more overbearing. They are moody and the victim describes feeling like they are walking on eggshells. The victim knows that an explosion is imminent and that they will be blamed for it. Therefore they do what they can to placate the abuser. No matter how much they try though, it's not enough.
The abuse phase is where the emotional, psychological or physical abuse occurs.
Then comes the reconciliation phase where the abuser gives excuses for what happened or minimizes or even denies anything bad happened. Its very common for the abuser to blame the victim. "Look what you made me do!" or "I was just responding to what you were doing to me!"
When the abuse cycle starts in the relationship, the abuser may apologize profusely, promising that it won't ever happen again, offering to go to therapy and so on. They can be very convincing! Of course, it's all lies. They don't mean a word of it. Very shortly after apologizing they are at the same nasty behavior again.
Similarly early on in the relationship, there may even be gifts, rewards, care and attention, etc after the abuse. As time passes and the cycle of abuse continues, there is often less apologies and less gifts and they eventually fizzle out.
This is the followed by the calm phase where things seem to be back to 'normal' again. The abuser acts like nothing bad ever happened (and the victim is expected to do the same). The victim typically is hopeful that things can continue this way from now on.
Unfortunately this phase often doesn't last very long long before the tension starts to build again...
This is typically the longest of the stages of an abusive relationship and will often go on even after the separation! As long as the victim is in contact with the abuser, you can expect that the abuser will be driving the victim through this cycle.
There are several things of importance to keep in mind about the cycle of abuse.
Some cycles can occur in minutes. Others may take 6 months or a year to play out. There can be cycles within cycles. This typically means that the victim is never completely relaxed when in a relationship with an abuser. There is always something they have to watch out for.
The calm phase is actually very dangerous for the victim. When things are going 'well' it's easy to forgive and forget the abuse in the hope that things will be better in the future. The abusers know that when things are friendly that it's difficult for the victim to be angry and begrudging so they will 'act nice' if they want to quickly manipulate the impressions of the victim. This acting nice will only continue until the abuser knows they have the victim back on board with the relationship again. Then the abuser goes back to their normal way of being and the cycle starts over.
Most people will tell you that if someone abused them, they would walk away, they wouldn't tolerate it. But when the cycle of abuse starts, and it has been preceded by the love bombing, the opposite actually happens. The victim actually tries harder to please the abuser. They know what it's like to receive compliments and feel great, and they want more of that. They don't want the criticism and the bad feelings so they are actually motivated to try harder to make the relationship work. This is done, of course, by pleasing the abuser.
This counterintuitive response occurs because their personality has been changed. You can read more about this false personality, or pseudopersonality here, and about the dynamics of this personality change in these articles about narcissistic boyfriends and narcissistic husbands.
Obviously there are more punishments than rewards in this stage of an abusive relationship. While at the start of the relationship, the victim was driven to get rewards, in this stage, the victim is motivated by avoiding punishments.
There are two aspects here, one is the realization that there is something off about the spouse, the second is the realization that things are never going to work out and one has to leave.
The first realization may occur very early in the relationship. The problem is that the victim is in a highly charged emotional state during the love bombing stage and will typically give their partner the benefit of the doubt because things feel so good. Later on, when the pseudopersonality is in place, part of the programming of the pseudopersonality is to ignore the bad stuff and focus attention on the good things. In all of these situations, the victim may realize that something is not right but basically is unable to act on it.
The second realization, that leaving is necessary, may not occur for years. Sometimes this realization occurs after some particularly nasty treatment. The victim is pushed across a threshold and decides right there and then that enough is enough.
More commonly, there is a creeping realization over some time that things are not going to change, the victim realizes that they cannot win with the abuser, they will never have what they want and the only way to put an end to all this bad treatment is to leave. Initially the thought comes into the mind of the victim but the idea of leaving causes terror or even panic and the thought is pushed away. Over time, the thought occurs more and more often, until the victim comes to understand that the benefits of leaving outweigh those of staying.
Unfortunately this phase can last a long time, too. The phobias of being without the abuser, financial insecurity, fear of retaliation, staying for the sake of the kids and the dependency of the pseudopersonality can all make it difficult for the victim to go to the next of the stages of an abusive relationship, leaving.
People leave abusive relationships in one of 3 ways: they are thrown out by the abuser (or the abuser dies), they leave of their own accord, or they leave with the help of a professional.
The first of these is the most traumatic for the victim because they have been made to be so dependent on the abuser, by the abuser. The only thing they can think of is getting the abuser back. They will do almost anything to get back in the good books of the abuser again because it feels so bad to not have contact with them.
Those who leave of their own accord also have this massive sense of loss and the only way to alleviate the horrible feelings is to go back to the abuser. This is why battered wives will often return to their husbands and why many people end up having an on and off relationship for some time before they eventually break away for good from the manipulator.
Of course, this is not the only hurdle that has to be overcome. Organizing a place to stay and finding a job are major undertakings at the best of times and for the individual who is being psychologically abused it is even more so. People in this situation often have never revealed to anyone the real state of their relationship and finding people who believe them now can be very difficult. Friends, family and neighbors may believe that the abuser is such a nice person that they have difficulty accepting the victim's story. Managing the situation with children in tow obviously requires even more planning.
Working with a specialist is the easiest way to leave. The expert can help with starting to get rid of the pseudopersonality, diminishing the fear of the abuser, help with decision making and point out the dos and don'ts of leaving an abusive relationship.
This phase overlaps with the next of the stages of an abusive relationship, recovery.
This stage involves learning about mind control, psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists and understanding what specifically was done to you, what techniques were used and what effects these had on your beliefs, thoughts, decisions, emotions and behaviors. This is obviously best done under the guidance of an expert in the field. Your ability to think and your belief system will have been grossly distorted by the manipulator. Having professional help to sort these things out can save you years of heartache and pain. As the pseudopersonality disappears, your own personality is allowed to re-emerge and take over again so that you begin once more to make your own decisions.
The less contact one has with the abuser, usually the faster the recovery. Having the help and support of loved ones is also invaluable. And of course, any children involved need help to undo their pseudopersonalities as well.
People who don’t properly recover, who still have a pseudopersonality, run the risk of getting caught in another abusive relationship.
For completion, the final stage is the establishment of normal, healthy relationships.
Mind Control 101 is to isolate victims from their support networks. Some people who have been estranged from friends and family have to rebuild these relationships. In some cases, the abuser may have manipulated family members or friends into being 'on their side' and it can be very difficult to get them to see that they are victims of the abuser, too. This can be very isolating and distressing for the original victim.
After abusive intimate relationships, the victims often want to find a partner to love and who loves them back. This can be done slowly, step by step, often with the now 'ex-victim' relearning what it's like to be in a healthy environment where there is give and take on both sides, re-experiencing what it's like to be in a relationship of equals.
Education is vital for victims of psychological abuse and you can read more here about the signs of a controlling relationship, leaving a controlling husband, divorcing a sociopath, healing from psychological abuse, and help for victims of psychopaths.
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