When it comes to domestic and family violence people often ask “Why didn’t she just leave?” To anyone who has never experienced an abusive relationship, this question seems harmless and rather innocuous but to those who live in (or who have lived in) the cycle of violence, it raises all sorts of frustrations.
As a survivor, I want society to know that it is never as simple as just upping and leaving. Ever. People need to understand that if it was easy to leave, family violence statistics and in particular, male perpetrated partner homicide rates, simply would not be what they are today.
In my recent blog Domestic Violence and the million dollar why question that NO ONE should ever ask, I provided some 80 reasons why she didn’t just leave. These reasons, for me, didn’t require much thought because many of them were my reasons for not leaving. The rest were reasons other survivors have told me and some were collected through research. In writing that article I hoped to give people a simplified answer to the question “Why didn’t she just leave?” but below you will find a far more comprehensive look at what is actually going on in an abusive relationship and why women stay so deeply involved in a relationship that is clearly so destructive.
What is the cycle of violence?
The cycle of violence was created in 1979 by Dr. Lenore Walker, an American Forensic Psychologist whose passion is gendered violence. Dr. Walker is an academic who has dedicated her life to research on various forms of gendered violence including domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sex and human trafficking and child abuse.
The cycle of violence looks at the repetitive nature of a perpetrator’s actions that hinders a woman's ability to leave an abusive relationship. It highlights how the behaviour of a a perpetrator can change dramatically thus confusing the woman and making it more difficult for her to leave.
Before I go on I want to add a disclaimer of sorts. No, domestic violence isn’t just male to female. I acknowledge that some females are also perpetrators however, as a survivor of male perpetrated violence, in my role as a Women’s Health Counsellor and given the statistics of male to female violence, I choose to focus exclusively on the female experience of violence.
Ok, lets get into it...
Phase One – The Tension Building Phase
This is where the temperature starts to rise. There may have been a minor disagreement between the couple, an act of control by the male or some form of assertiveness on the woman’s behalf which is perceived as threatening by the male. Anything that acts as a trigger. This is the “you could cut the air with a knife” phase of the cycle of violence.
The abuser may be nit-picking, name calling, putting the woman down or telling the woman she is crazy for having what is effectively a normal response to an abnormal situation. He could be screaming at her, threatening her or accusing her of things he himself has actually done (this is known as ‘projection’).
Tension is rapidly rising to the point where an explosion is inevitable. In the interim the woman is usually confused and often very scared. She may:
- Downplay the tension or excuse it
- Reach out compassionately to the male in order to defuse the situation
- Use reason or logic in an attempt to pacify him
- Avoid the situation altogether (when she would otherwise stand up and speak her mind)
- Become excessively compliant, just to survive what she feels may otherwise erupt
On a personal note I will add here that quite often during this stage a woman is thinking of her children. She often downplays or ignores what is going on because she wants life to return to ‘normal’ for her children. In order to survive daily life she needs the chaos to end immediately so she employs tactics that will restore peace quickly, effectively perpetuating the problem by way of ignoring it.
Phase Two – Acute Explosion
This is the most dangerous stage for the woman. During this time she may be;
- Thrown against walls
- Spat on
- Threatened with weapons including knives or guns
- Physically restrained and prevented from getting to her children to comfort them
She may also have her possessions smashed and property destroyed. She may be teased and taunted again and again and is often provoked into responding with what is known as 'reactive abuse'... so she ‘becomes’ the “crazy” or “psychotic” person the abuser labels her as. Reactive abuse is hugely misunderstood by law enforcement and society as a whole.
In this stage the woman’s survival instinct kicks in. She may try to call Police or run to a neighbour for help. For doing this, she is often punished. She will be trying to protect herself in any way possible which may involve fighting back or becoming submissive, just to survive. She may even try to bond with the abuser simply to have him stop. You may have heard of “Stockholm Syndrome” in which hostages become emotionally attached, or bonded, to their captors as a way to survive intense, emotional experiences? This is often at play in destructive domestic violence relationships.
Phase Three – Honeymoon
During this phase of the cycle of violence the abuser’s behaviour changes dramatically. He calms right down and begins to apologise for his behaviour. Often the apology is feigned however, another manipulation tactic to ensure the woman remains connected and engaged with him. He will often try to excuse or justify his behaviour by blaming drugs, alcohol, anger management issues, work stress, or childhood trauma.
The abuser will usually throw false promises like confetti. “I’ll never do it again”…. “This is it, no more”… “I promise to get some help”. It’s important to note that remorse is rarely a factor in the honeymoon phase. The abuser’s behaviour is usually driven by their own agenda. The abuser may threaten suicide if the woman tries to leave him. Guilt is a significant manipulation tactic that many abusers employ. It is highly effective in appealing to a woman’s natural desire to care for and nurture others.
What is 'love bombing'?
In this phase abusers will also often use ‘love bombing’ as a way to reengage the victim, thus strengthening the trauma bond. He may use sex to win the woman back or simply tell her he loves her over and over again. He may bribe her with gifts, holidays or money. This intermittent reinforcement keeps the woman ensnared because randomly dropped love bombing ‘rewards’ are far more impactful when you live in perpetual chaos where little to no affection is otherwise shown.
Psychology tells us that humans respond more strongly to ‘surprise rewards’ than to continuous, predictable rewards so it is only fair that we call out the greater force at play here, that of human nature. When we are love bombed the reward system in our brain is activated and dopamine (the hormone responsible for addiction) floods our brain. This biochemical response increases our chances of enjoying these rewards in the future.
At this point the abuser’s kindness often leaves the woman doubting the severity of the explosion and his love bombing and other manipulation tactics draw her back if she tries to leave the relationship. She is likely to snap back into life as if the explosion never happened, usually because she has children to look after. This allows her to dissociate from the painful reality that is her life.
During this phase she is also likely to back down from legal proceedings she may have instigated. She will be living in hope that this was the last of it and she will be looking to the future, the amazing future her abuser has just promised her as part of his love bombing manipulations. She may excuse, justify, deny and downplay the abuse, all to her own detriment.
What happens next?
The abuser and the woman live in a blissful state of denial. Life seems normal and everyone gets along again. They both fly high on the joy of newfound reconnection. However, it is only a matter of time before the next phase begins again. Thus the cycle of violence. A cycle that so many women understandably struggle to break free from.
I hope this information helps people better understand why women often stay in abusive relationships. I hope it breaks stigma and I also hope it stops people asking the age old victim blaming question “Why didn’t she just leave?” Clearly there is still so much work to be done on breaking down judgement and shaming of domestic violence survivors and victims in society.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, support is available. Information on how She Counselling can help is available here. You can also reach out for support via the contact page. My services are available Australia wide. As a survivor myself, it would be my pleasure to help you. x
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Erica has a passion for Women’s Health. She works with women who want to be heard, supported and empowered! Erica is a survivor of many life experiences. A Mum. A travel lover. A green thumb in training and an eternal optimist!