Dynamics of an Abusive Relationship

Power & Control

A relationship is abusive when one partner is attempting to exercise power and control over the other partner. Physical and sexual violence are often the rarer elements of abuse—most of the abuse aimed at maintaining power and control is emotional or psychological. It is only when these methods of exercising control are perceived to fail that an abuser might turn to physical or sexual violence. It is important to recognize the various abusive tactics used against a victim.

There are several major categories of abusive behaviors:

  • Coercion & Threats: Often verbally abusive behaviors where an abuser will say things to try to force a victim to do something. For instance, an abuser might threaten to kill themselves if the victim leaves. That coercive pressure often keeps the victim in the relationship because they feel they will be responsible for any self-harm the abuser might engage in.
  • Power and ControlIntimidation: Rather than outright physical abuse, an abuser may try to intimidate the victim by trying to instill fear of physical abuse. An abuser might smash and destroy things during fights, for example. A victim might feel scared into doing what the abuser wants or attempting to appease the abuser.
  • Economic Abuse: Economic abuse is a method for maintaining control that makes it difficult for a victim to leave. For instance, an abuser might prevent a victim from going to their job because they are jealous of a coworker. This limits a victims connection to other social support and limits their financial resources, both of which they would need if they wanted to leave.
  • Emotional Abuse: Attacking a victim’s sense of self-esteem and worth is a frequent tactic to exercise power over them. Making a victim feel badly about themselves, or telling them that no one else would love them undercuts their ability to feel confident in the decision to leave the abuser.
  • Using Privilege: An abuser will often assert their privilege to downplay the abuse and control the victim. For example, a highly respected community member might use their position to make a victim think that no one would believe them or support them if they tried to leave. In LGTBQ relationships, the abuser might draw on the stereotypes that men can’t abuse other men, or women aren’t abusive, in order to discourage the victim from telling anyone.
  • Using Family: For partnerships that involve children or pets, an abuser might use them as leverage to force the victim to stay. Threatening to take away children or hurt the pets can be used to force the victim to do things they don’t want to.
  • Isolation: An abuser is more in control of a victim when they have isolated them from their friends and family. An abuser might use jealousy to limit the people that the victim can see, or force the victim to text them where they are all the time. By cutting off social support and networks, it becomes difficult for the victim to tell anyone, get support, or leave.
  • Minimizing & Blaming: An abuser may downplay the abuse so that the victim doesn’t feel like they deserve to talk to anyone about it or get help. They may tell the victim that the abuse is their fault for making them angry, or that it’s just fighting.

The Cycle of Violence

Many abusive relationships operate in a cycle that is often called the cycle of violence . The abuse is defined by its recurring nature, but the length and frequency of these cycles may vary dramatically. Some relationships move through the cycle over a period of years, months, weeks or even sometimes within the course of a day.

The cycle is defined by three distinct phases:

  • Cycle of ViolenceTension Building: An abuser engages in tactics to exercise power and control during this phase. They can be angry, moody and unpredictable. Victims often describe a feeling of “walking on eggshells” around the abuser.
  • Major Abusive Incident: There is a breaking point at which the abuser explodes and is more overtly violent towards the victim. The explosion can look different depending on the relationship and pattern of abuse—it can be physical violence, or an escalation of controlling behaviors to yelling and smashing things during a fight.
  • Honeymoon Period: The abuser expresses remorse and often makes promises that the explosive incident will never happen again. They may make promises about changing behavior like attending counseling, or bring the victim presents. The abuser regains the trust of the victim and convinces them to stay. The tension building phase begins again once the abuser feels they have some control again.

It’s important to recognize the cycle of abuse when it happens. The longer the relationship goes on, the higher the risk that the cycles will get more frequent, and that the violence in the major abusive episodes might become more severe. Escalation over time puts a victim in serious danger.

For additional reading and research on the dynamics of intimate partner violence, the following articles may be helpful:

Archer, J. (2000). Sex differences in aggression between heterosexual partners: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 651680.
Hamberger, L. K., Lohr, J. M., Bonge, D., & Tolin, D. E. (1997). An empirical classification of motivations for domestic violence. Violence Against Women, 3, 401423.
Holtzworth-Munroe, A., & Stuart, G. L. (1994). Typologies of male batterers: Three subtypes and the differences among them. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 476497.
Johnson, Michael P. "Conflict and control gender symmetry and asymmetry in domestic violence." Violence against women 12, no. 11 (2006): 1003-1018.
Lisak, David, Jim Hopper, and Pat Song. "Factors in the cycle of violence: Gender rigidity and emotional constriction." Journal of Traumatic Stress 9, no. 4 (1996): 721-743.
Shupe, Anson D., William A. Stacey, and Lonnie R. Hazlewood. Violent men, violent couples: The dynamics of domestic violence. Lexington, MA: Lexington books, 1987.
Steinmetz, Suzanne K. The cycle of violence: Assertive, aggressive, and abusive family interaction. Praeger, 1977.

Walker, Lenore. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.