How Big Is The Problem

Relational violence is cyclical in nature, tending to follow a consistent pattern which results in repeated incidences of abuse. In this lesson, we will learn about the cycle of abuse and how it contributes to the prevalence of domestic violence. We will also discuss discrepancies between prevalence and reporting, arrests, and eventual prosecution, and the legal proceedings in domestic violence cases.

Cycle of Abuse

Not all abusive relationships fall into a cycle, but those that do seem to follow a similar pattern. The “cycle of abuse” refers to three phases that abusive relationships tend to go through: tension-building phase, acute battering phase, and honeymoon phase. Each relationship is, of course, different.

They may go through the cycle just once, or hundreds of times. One phase may last longer than the others. The time it takes to complete the cycle may range from just a few hours, to over a year. For those relationships that go through the cycle several times, the phases may become shorter, and the honeymoon phase may disappear altogether.

Here are the three phases in more detail:

Tension-Building Phase: During this time period, tension builds between partners over common issues such as money, work, or household duties. With increasing tension, the abuser may become increasingly more controlling. Controlling behaviors may include setting strict rules, verbally abusing his or her partner with threats, and/or denying the victim contact with family and/or friends. In response, the victim will often try to counter-control or minimize the situation by trying to please his or her abuser, or avoiding the issue(s) altogether.

As tension continues to mount, the victim may feel that they are walking on eggshells, either just around his or her partner or all the time. Tension tends to continue to build until it reaches a boiling point, at which point the cycle moves into its next phase: acute battering.

Acute Battering Phase: When tension between partners has peaked, an incident of abuse occurs. This abuse can take any one of the forms of abuse we have discussed throughout this course – physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, or economic. These incidents are often unpredictable and beyond the victim’s control. It can be triggered by a victim breaking a “rule” that the abuser has set, by an external event, or even by the abuser’s internal state of emotions.

This phase is often the shortest of the three, but is undoubtedly the most dangerous. Each time the cycle goes around, the abusive event often increases in severity. Afterward, abusers are often in disbelief or denial. At this point, the cycle moves into its next phase: the honeymoon.

Honeymoon Phase: During the honeymoon phase, abusers often feel ashamed and deeply remorseful about their actions. To deal with these difficult feelings, abusers will often become very attentive to their partner’s needs, apologizing profusely, expressing generosity, showing affection and love, and making promises never to do it again. Others will minimize the abuse as a way to make themselves feel better, and to convince their partner that he or she shouldn’t be upset.

Some abusers are more extreme in their efforts, and deny that the abuse ever happened, and/or blame their partner for what happened. These are all attempts of the abuser to convince the victim to remain in the relationship, and to cope with their own actions. After an abusive incident, victims often have mixed, and very confusing, emotions. It’s possible they’re upset about what happened, but at the same time, they may be pleased by his or her partner’s apparent remorse and subsequent expression of love.

During this phase, an abuser’s actions are particularly manipulative, and can cause a victim to consider reconciliation. At the end of this phase, however, tension once again begins to build between partners, and the cycle repeats itself.

How the Cycle Contributes to the Problem

Often, the honeymoon phase of the cycle can convince victims to remain in their abusive relationships, which can increase the number of abusive events experienced in a single relationship. In fact, many victims do not report abuse until after several events have already transpired. This is one of many contributing factors to the discrepancy between prevalence and reporting, arrests, and eventual prosecution.

Reporting, Arrests, and Legal Proceedings

According to the latest National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), domestic violence accounted for 21% of all violent victimization’s from 2003 to 2012. Within that category, violence within intimate partner relationships was most common, accounting for 15%, while violence against family members and other relatives accounted for 9%. Approximately 45% of domestic violence incidents resulted in physical injury, and physical injuries occurred more often within intimate partner relationships.

Those involved in intimate partner violence were also more likely to experience more serious injuries, including those resulting in sexual assault, gun violence, wounds caused by knives and other weapons, and broken bones.

Nationwide, domestic violence-related calls are reportedly the most common kind of calls received by police. That said, as we’ve touched on throughout this course, not everyone who is victimized by domestic violence reports it to police. It is estimated that only 55% of domestic violence incidents are reported, and many do not report abuse until after several occurrences.

Some theorize that one reason for this is that many victims hope their experience was isolated, or that the abuse will stop. Others, still, fear that reporting their abusive partner will only cause the abuse to increase in frequency, or intensify in severity, or both. In the 2005 NCVS, included in the reasons that abuse was under-reported were the beliefs that abuse was a personal matter, that victims feared retaliation from their abuser, that victims wanted to protect their abuser, and that police would not do anything to stop the abuse if it they were called.

Of all domestic violence incidents reported, few result in arrest. Arrests vary state-by-state, depending both on jurisdiction and how each state defines domestic violence. According to the National Incident-Based Reporting System, in 2005, only half of all reported incidents of violence within intimate partner relationships resulted in arrest. Slightly less (44.5%) of other domestic violence incidents resulted in arrest.

In some states, rates of arrest are even lower. Such low rates are the result of a number of factors, including the classification of some kinds of domestic violence as misdemeanors, and not felonies. When the crime is less severe, an arrest is often less justifiable.

Just as not all incidents of domestic violence result in arrest, not all domestic violence arrests lead to prosecution. As you might expect, prosecution varies by state. In a series of studies, prosecutions per domestic violence arrest ranged from as low as 4.6% to 94% across the country. This is, in part, because of varying domestic violence laws across the country.

Reason for the lack of prosecution is that many, if not a majority, of victims are unwilling to testify against their abuser in court. Sometimes, as a result, charges are dropped altogether.

In this lesson, we have learned that abuse is often cyclical, and as a result, many victims suffer multiple events of abuse in their relationships. We have also learned that victims, unfortunately, do not always report abuse, and even when they do, not all calls lead to arrests, and even fewer lead to prosecution.

Despite low rates of prosecution, we know that domestic violence is a widespread issue that affects millions of individuals in the United States. In the next lesson, we will discuss the impact of domestic violence on the emotional and physical health of victims, as well as interference with their career. We will also discuss the impacts of domestic violence on children.