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Cycle of violence 24.07.07

mother babyThe term “Cycle of Violence” is used in two distinct ways to refer to two separate models of domestic violence and abusive behaviour,which is both confusing and misleading.  

Neither of these models is, in Women’s Aid’s view, particularly helpful in explaining domestic violence, as they are deterministic, not generally applicable, and tend to remove responsibility for the violence from the perpetrator. 

Cycle of violence meaning 1:
  abuse carries on to the next generation

This model is based on the view that children who live with domestic violence will learn that abuse is acceptable, and as they grow up, will tend to become either perpetrators of abuse or victims, largely depending on whether they are boys or girls.

The true picture is much more complicated than this.  While experiencing or witnessing domestic violence can have a serious impact on children and young people, they will respond in various ways depending on their age, race, sex, culture, stage of development, and individual personality. 

Some children may feel that they are to blame; or they may feel angry, guilty, insecure, depressed, frightened, powerless, or confused.  They may have ambivalent feelings, both towards the abuser, and towards the non-abusing parent, and this may mean that for a time they withdraw or show signs of aggressive behaviour; or – in some cases - they may enter into relationships that are unhealthy or abusive. If children have a good relationship with the non-abusing parent or can access other sources of support, this can increase their resilience.

By no means do all children who have lived with domestic violence grow up to become either victims or abusers. Many children exposed to domestic violence realise that it is wrong, and actively reject violence of all kinds.

Cycle of violence meaning 2:  cyclical model of abuse followed by remorse

The term “cycle of violence” is also used to refer to a cyclical model of an abusive relationship (1)  in which the abuse gradually gets worse and builds to a climax, often involving severe physical or sexual violence; this is then followed by remorse and pleas for forgiveness (the “hearts and flowers” or “honeymoon” phase).  At that stage, the abuser is likely to promise never to repeat the violence; however – according to this model - the tension gradually builds up again to a further climax of abuse.  The cycle can take varied periods of time, but tends to speed up the longer the relationship lasts.

It's important to see the honeymoon phase as a part of a continuing pattern of power and control – i.e. the perpetrator using his expressions of remorse as a tool to absolve himself from responsibility, and to manipulate his partner into staying in the relationship – perhaps even blaming herself for his violence. This model may have some relevance in some circumstances, but isn't universally applicable. 

power-control-wheelThe Power & Control Wheel

 A better model is that of the Power and Control Wheel”  developed by the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Minnesota.

This model (shown left) is based on the experiences of more than 200 women attending educational sessions provided by shelters (i.e. refuges) in Duluth.  Many of these women were critical of theories that described the abuse as cyclical rather than as a constant factor in their relationship, or that portrayed outbursts of violence as a response to intolerable stress. 

The power and control wheel depicts violence and abuse as intentionally aimed at controlling the partner’s actions, and as part of a consistent pattern of behaviour - rather than isolated incidents of abuse, or the cyclical build up of tensions leading to repeated explosions. 


1.  This model was developed in the USA by Lenore Walker (1979) (Walker, Lenore E. (1979) The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row.)