Domestic abuse falls into a common pattern, or cycle of violence:

Domestic violence is rarely an isolated incident. Rather, it is an ongoing pattern of behavior aimed at establishing and maintaining power and control over an intimate partner.

This pattern is typically described as a cycle of violence.

Since the seriousness and effects of abuse escalate as each cycle is repeated—the pattern of domestic violence can also be described as a spiral. If the cycle of violence is not broken with an intervention, it may result in the death of a victim.

Here are the phases that occur in the cycle of violence:

  • Set-up
  • Abuse
  • Guilt and fear of reprisal
  • Rationalization
  • Normal behavior
  • Fantasy and planning

And then it repeats itself—always escalating:

  • Set-up
  • Abuse
  • And on and on and on it goes.

Here is a description of each phase that occurs in the cycle of violence:


The abuser creates and controls situations in which the victim has no choice but to react in a way that will, in the abuser’s mind, justify the abuse.


When the time and planned circumstances are right, the abuser perpetrates the violence. The attack is a display of power and control over the victim and over everyone else in the household. Over time, the abuse worsens.

Guilt and fear of reprisal

After abuse, the abuser may have feelings of guilt. This isn’t normal guilt, like feeling sorry for hurting another person, but an expression of the fear of getting caught and held accountable for the abuse. The abuser may apologize, make excuses for the abusive behavior, pledge to never do it again, and use gifts, promises, and bribes as a way of assuaging the guilt and fear of reprisal. The real purpose is to silence the victim and prevent the victim from speaking out or seeking outside help.


The abuser states it is the victim’s fault. “You make me do this to you!” The abuser makes justifications of the abuse: the victim made the abuser mad, it is the victim’s fault, etc. This provides a justification for the abusive behavior and is used as permission to continue abuse in the future. The abuser denies and ignores personal responsibility for the abuse.

Normal behavior

Between incidents of abuse the abuser often acts as if nothing happened. The victim is coerced to participate in the cover-up. The abuser threatens the victim’s credibility by saying thing like, “No one will believe you.” The abuser may also make subtle or direct threats, such as, “If you say anything, you will never see your children again.” Often, the victim is manipulated through guilt.

Fantasy and planning

Abusers often fantasize about past and future episodes of abuse, which feeds their anger and propels them to actively plan their next abuse. The abuser may plan a future attack using excuses from the rationalization stage. The abuser also begins to set the victim up.

Your abuser’s apologies and loving gestures in between the episodes of abuse can make it difficult to leave. He/she may make you believe that you are the only person who can help him/her, that things will be different this time and that he/she truly loves you. However, the dangers of staying are very real and can result in your death.

And then it starts all over again!

The cycle of violence does not stop by itself. It usually requires outside help from people who have dealt with it and are skilled in helping the healing begin. If left unbroken, the cycle starts again and you are back on the roller coaster of set-up, abuse, guilt and fear of reprisal, rationalization, normal behavior, fantasy and planning, and on and on and on.