Relationship Roller Coaster Ride: The Cycle of Abuse
Do you feel like you’re going around in circles in your relationship? Are there so many emotional highs and lows that you feel as if you’re on a roller coaster? Have you tried and tried to make your relationship better, but to no avail? You may be involved in a cycle of emotional abuse. If so, here’s what you need to know.
- Not only is it possible for women to be the emotionally abusive partner, it’s quite common. In fact, women have been found to be more relationally aggressive than men (e.g., female aggression; The Truthiness about Feminism; No Gender Gap for Victims of Violence; Female Aggression in Intimate Relationships; Aggression in British Heterosexual Relationships). Women use verbal assaults, withhold affection, the cold shoulder or shut you down to inflict hurt instead of physical blows. However, women often commit physical violence, too. In fact, recent studies show that it is a 50/50 split.
- Although your partner’s attacks feel very personal, they’re not. You could be anyone–meaning that you’re not “bad” nor is there “something wrong with you.” She’s an abusive personality type and as such, she’d be the same way with any man as she is with you. This also means that if you finally decide to end the relationship, you don’t need to worry that your ex will miraculously get better and be the dream girlfriend or wife with the next guy. Pending a brain trauma, a frontal lobotomy or a lesion to the amygdala; she won’t change.
- You don’t have to stay in a relationship in which you’re devalued, tormented, verbally savaged, and made to feel worthless. You can end it. There are women out there who are kind, loving, and supportive. You can have that kind of relationship if you have the courage to break the cycle of abuse in which you’re currently stuck.
The Cycle of Abuse or “Jane, Get Me Off this Crazy Thing!”
Lenore E. Walker wrote about the cycle of abuse in The Battered Woman (1979). She used it to describe the pattern of tension that builds into violence against women by their husbands or boyfriends. This is a limiting use of the model. It can also be applied to emotional abuse in which the woman is the abuser and the man is the recipient.
There are generational cycles of abuse and episodic cycles of abuse. Abusive behaviors, be they physical, sexual, or emotional, are learned. The abuser learns at an early age (usually from their family) that bullying and humiliation are how you get others to do what you want. For example, when your wife was a child, she probably observed her mother deride, criticize, and belittle her father. She learned that this is how you treat the people you “love.” Now she subjects you to the same treatment. If you have children, they’ll learn this pattern of behavior, too, hence, generational.
Episodic cycles of abuse involve specific periods of tension building behaviors that inevitably erupt into a rage episode or vicious verbal attack in which she alternates between name-calling and tears about some imagined or distorted transgression. Sometimes, you can predict these episodes; other times, they come out of the blue. Typically, men who experience this kind of recurring emotional abuse deny that it even occurs or minimize the severity of it. This serves to perpetuate the problem and refutes the need to seek help.
4 Stages of the Cycle of Abuse
1) Kaboom! The cycle begins with a loud verbal explosion, yelling, screaming, accusations, verbal harassment, needling, or threats of abandonment. “You’re lucky I put up with you. No one else would tolerate what I do. If you don’t shape up, I’m going to dump your sorry ass, you loser!” Meanwhile, she’s the one behaving like a lunatic. She’s not going to leave you. It’s an empty threat. You should be so lucky. However, one of the effects of emotional abuse is that you believe her nonsense and actually fear being abandoned.
2) Let’s be friends. Next, a period of remorse, rationalizations and/or excuses follows. She will either:
- Apologize and vow it will never happen again.
- Pretend like it never happened, which is also highly abusive.
- Blame you for her outburst. If you didn’t do x, y, and z, she wouldn’t have to be that way. Abusive personality types never take responsibility for their own actions. It’s always someone else’s fault.
- Deny the incident occurred.
- Minimize her behavior and insist it wasn’t that bad.
Usually, you’re so relieved that the screaming and insults have stopped, no matter how she spins events, that you go along with it. You hope the recent attack was the last, but it never is.
3) The calm before the next storm. Things go back to “normal”–for a time. This is referred to as the “honeymoon phase.” No overt abuse is taking place. You’re getting along, while simultaneously waiting for the other shoe to drop and hoping that it won’t. She appears sincere in her efforts to be kind and loving, but what she’s actually doing is lulling you into a false sense of security that the worst is over. It’s not.
4) Tick, tick, tick… Tension begins to build again, replacing the all too fleeting honeymoon period. Irritability surfaces. Communication deteriorates. She makes veiled accusations, blaming you for her unhappiness, frustration and anything else she can think of. She emotionally withdraws and gives you the cold shoulder. Eventually, this escalates into another full-blown rage episode, verbal attack, humiliation party or completely shuts you out.
This repetitive cycle of abuse will leave you feeling insecure, fearful, worthless, broken, and dependent upon the abuser. Eventually, your entire life revolves around trying to second-guess her moods and needs in an effort to stave off the next attack. You become a non-person in that your needs don’t matter because your entire focus shifts to keeping her happy, which is an impossible task. You won’t be able to make her happy, no matter how hard you try. Nor will you be able to change her behavior; only she can do that.
The only way to end the cycle of abuse is to end the relationship. You can try some kind of formalized therapy, but the abuser usually denies the fact that there’s a problem. Alternately, if she does agree to attend therapy, she typically sabotages treatment by either labeling the therapist as a fraud, especially if she gets called on her bad behavior, or finds a therapist who colludes with her and piles more blame and abuse onto you.
You don’t have to suffer in silence. You don’t deserve to be treated this way. Please find a source of support and end this vicious cycle. Life is way too short.
by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
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Roller coaster by english invader on flickr.
Female time bomb by Something to See on flickr.