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Breaking Free: How to End the Cycle of Abusive Relationships

May 14, 2024 | Relationships

Every year, countless individuals find themselves trapped in a repeating cycle of abusive relationships. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence from an intimate partner. Recognizing and breaking free from these harmful patterns is vital for victims’ safety and vitality.

Breaking free from the cycle of abusive relationships is crucial for personal well-being and safety. It involves recognizing abusive behaviors, understanding why these patterns repeat, and taking decisive steps to prevent future abuse.

Understanding the Roots of Abusive Relationships

Abusive relationships often stem from deeply ingrained patterns learned in childhood. Many individuals who perpetrate abuse have themselves been exposed to abuse at a young age, either directly as victims or indirectly through observation of abusive relationships within their family. This exposure can normalize harmful behaviors and set a precedent for future relationships, perpetuating a cycle that is difficult to break.

It may seem contradictory that individuals who have suffered from abuse could themselves become abusers. However, this pattern is so persistent because individuals who experience abuse see this as a model for achieving dominance in relationships, may subconsciously try to resolve their trauma by acting out abusive behaviors, or have had poor models for how to manage their emotions while growing up.

In relationships, the pattern of abuse typically unfolds gradually, making it difficult to recognize at first. It often begins with subtle emotional manipulations and can escalate to more direct psychological, physical, or sexual abuse. When a child is involved, the term “grooming” has been used to characterize the manipulation of the child through the gradual building of trust and breaking down natural defenses which can open the door to an abusive relationship. This progression allows abusers to establish control while diminishing the victim’s self-esteem. It’s crucial to recognize that the victim is never to blame for the abuse. Reasons for an abuser’s behavior are complex and often rooted in past traumas.

However, breaking this cycle is necessary for immediate safety and developing long-term well-being and independence. By first acknowledging the signs of abusive behaviors, individuals can recognize that the relationship isn’t healthy and begin to break free of this cycle.

Signs of An Abusive Relationship

Recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship is crucial for intervention and prevention. Abuse can manifest in many forms, not all of which are immediately obvious.

  • Control and Isolation: Abusers often attempt to control their partner’s activities, who they see, and what they do. This might include excessive jealousy, preventing the partner from seeing others (including their family), or spying on a partner.
  • Verbal and Emotional Abuse: This abuse can range from name-calling and constant criticism to more subtle tactics such as gaslighting or emotional manipulation.
  • Threats and Intimidation: Making threats, either against the victim or their loved ones, including threats of violence, suicide, or doxing (revealing personal information online), are common abuse tactics.
  • Physical Abuse: Any form of violence, such as hitting, slapping, pushing, or using physical force to dominate, is physical abuse, as the purpose is to hurt or intimidate the partner.
  • Financial Abuse: Abusers may restrict access to money, desire unnecessary control over partners’ finances, or prevent their partner from working or being financially independent.
  • Digital Abuse and Stalking: Digital abuse involves using technology to bully, harass, stalk, or intimidate a partner. This can include relentless texting, monitoring emails, or using GPS to track someone’s location.

While there will be disputes and differences in healthy relationships, both partners support one another and desire to resolve these differences.

However, in abusive relationships, there is a persistent pattern of an abuser trying to control and dominate a victim, in some cases attempting to mold that victim to their expectations and desires. This pattern constantly denies support in favor of control and indicates attempts to create an asymmetrical balance of power.

Why People Stay in Abusive Relationships

People often wonder why victims stay in abusive relationships. It’s important to understand that the decision to stay is not simple and is never the victim’s fault. Victims are often caught in a complex cycle of abuse perpetrated by the abuser, which can make leaving seem overwhelming and appear to be impossible.

This cycle was first described by psychologist Lenore E. Walker in 1979 as the Cycle of Abuse theory, which broadly outlines a recurring pattern of behavior in abusive relationships:

  • Tension-Building Phase: Tension builds over trivial matters, and communication begins to break down as the abuser becomes more upset. Victims may attempt to calm down or bargain with the abuser to prevent escalation.
  • Incident Phase: The tension culminates in an incident of acute abuse, which can be physical, emotional, or verbal, in an attempt for the abuser to gain control.
  • Reconciliation Phase: The abuser apologizes, makes excuses, or blames the victim in an attempt to make amends.
  • Calming Phase: A “honeymoon period” where things seem normal or better, and there appears to be a promise of the abuse ending, with the victim choosing to remain in the relationship.

While broadly accepted, it’s important to recognize the limitations of this theory, which does not represent all patterns of abuse within relationships. Critics maintain that the theory oversimplifies how abuse manifests in all relationships. Further, the model was based on heteronormative relationships (where the abuser is predominantly male and the victim is female) and does not include the many other ways abusive relationships may play out, particularly with gay and queer couples.

What this theory does offer is insight into how abuse persists in relationships as a toxic cycle, where abuse is normalized or excused during periods of reconciliation. While the cycle may be difficult to observe within a relationship, recognizing how it perpetuates is essential for breaking the cycle.

Strategies for Breaking the Cycle

Breaking free from the cycle of abuse is not as simple as just walking away and can be dangerous and challenging for many individuals caught in these relationships. It’s crucial for those in potentially dangerous situations to recognize that they’re not alone and immediate help is available.

If you ever feel in immediate danger, reaching out for emergency support is essential and accessible. In the United States, the National Domestic Violence Hotline provides confidential assistance and is accessible 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233. They offer support, resources, and advice for those experiencing domestic abuse.

In some situations, developing an escape plan may be necessary. This plan should include having a safe place to stay, packing essential items, knowing the quickest escape route from your home, and having a list of contacts available who can provide immediate help.

In less severe circumstances, emphasizing personal empowerment, professional support, and protection is essential to creating the space and autonomy to get away from these relationships and begin life free of abuse. Because abusers rarely allow victims to be fully free, planning and caution may be necessary to protect oneself from retaliation or repeat abuse after leaving the relationship.

  • Awareness and Education: Understanding the signs of abuse and recognizing its cycles are the first steps toward breaking free.
  • Developing a Safety Plan: A safety plan, as mentioned above, can be crucial during moments of a crisis, providing a practical and immediate plan to protect a victim from abusive incidents.
  • Building a Support System: Isolation is a common tactic abusers use to gain and maintain control. Reconnecting with friends, family, or support groups can provide the emotional support and affirmation needed to leave an abusive relationship.
  • Legal Protection: Understanding and using legal resources, such as restraining orders or seeking custody arrangements of children involved can provide protection and space from the abuser.
  • Economic Independence: Financial abuse and control is often a barrier to leaving abusive relationships. Being financially independent, such as having a separate bank account and maintaining control of your own funds limits the abuser’s hold on the relationship.
  • Protecting Your Privacy: Abusers often stalk their victims and maintain a tight rein on social media posts, emails, and text messages. Clearing browsing history (including for articles on this topic), having a separate email or phone, and regularly changing username/password data on accounts help to prevent abusive behavior and give you more freedom to leave the relationship.
  • Seeking Therapy: Engaging with therapists, counselors, or support groups that specialize in domestic abuse can provide essential guidance and support needed to navigate the complexities of abusive relationships

Explore Your Autonomy With Start My Wellness

No one chooses to be in an abusive relationship, and those caught in the vicious cycle are victims of an abuser. However, you do have the choice to break free. The journey to breaking free is challenging and fraught with emotional and sometimes physical risks. It requires courage, careful planning, and the right support to navigate safely.

Start My Wellness understands the complexities involved in stepping away from abusive relationships. Our team of professionals is equipped to offer the necessary support, guidance, and resources to help those in need navigate their path to recovery.

If you or someone you know is struggling in an abusive relationship, don’t wait. Reach out to Start My Wellness today at (248)-514-4955 and meet our therapists. Let us help you take the first step towards a safer, freer future.


  1. Joyful Heart Foundation: What are the Roots of Domestic Violence?
  2. Start My Wellness: Discovering Self-Worth: An Overview of Enhancing and Cultivating Self-Esteem
  3. WebMD: Signs of an Abusive Relationship
  4. National Domestic Violence Hotline: Why People Stay
  5. Healthline: Understanding the Cycle of Abuse
  6. National Domestic Violence Hotline
Dr. Anton Babushkin

Author: Anton Babushkin, PhD

Looking for a Therapist? Start My Wellness has highly experienced Licensed Therapists that are currently accepting new patients.


Blog Posts Tags: Relationships
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