The Cycle of Abuse
How the Abuser Uses Power and Control
Why a Victim Stays
Effects on Children


To understand the changing dynamics of the cycle of abuse in domestic violence
To understand the key issues of power and control
To understand the reasons victims stay with their abusers
To understand the impact exposure to domestic violence has on children

The Cycle of Abuse

People often think of domestic violence only in terms of swollen black eyes and purple bruises that can be readily seen. In reality, domestic violence is a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors that abusers use to control their intimate partners. It does not just happen—it’s planned and calculated and studies show that there is a “cycle” of violence that moves through phases as shown below.

Queensland Police Service State Domestic Violence Coordinator

How the Abuser Uses Power and Control

The overall aim of abuse is to assert power and maintain control. Read the sections of the diagram below to see how that control is exerted. Although relationships may not be violent initially, the abuser will exercise more and more control over the victim. Without intervention, the violence can get worse and the end result can be fatal.

Why a Victim Stays

One who has never experienced repeated abuse over a long period of time will find it difficult to understand why a victim of abuse remains in the abusive relationship. These are common reactions from those untrained in abuse: “Why doesn’t she just leave? No one is stopping her. She must be a very weak person or she would.”

To maintain power and control, an abuser will wear down the self-esteem and self-reliance of his victim. Over time the victim actually believes she is worthless and incapable of doing anything on her own. Therefore, it is very significant when a woman does try to leave an abusive environment. On average, a victim of abuse will leave and return seven times before permanently leaving.

As one who will be ministering to a victim of abuse, it is crucial that you understand why she stays or why she returns. The following are some of the reasons:


Because of her feelings for her abuser
  • She still loves him.
  • She is concerned for him.
  • She believes his promises that it won’t happen again.
  • She really wants her marriage to survive.
Because of her religious beliefs
  • Her faith community is strongly against divorce.
  • She believes God must be punishing her for some sin.
  • She believes this must be her cross to bear.
  • Her faith community would ostracize her; not only would she lose her marriage, she would lose her faith community if she left.
  • She believes she is supposed to submit to her husband, regardless.
Because she is afraid
  • It may be more dangerous to leave than to stay. Research indicates that more battered women are murdered after obtaining restraining orders or orders of protection (or while in the process of leaving their batterer) than at any other time.
  • She believes his threats.
  • She fears losing custody of her children.
  • She fears more severe beatings if she tries.
Because she is distrustful of finding support
  • Her family is pressuring her to stay in the marriage and she does not trust having their support.
  • She lacks trust in the criminal justice or law enforcement system to protect her.
  • She does not know where she can go for immediate help or a nearby shelter has no vacancies.
  • She does not know about community resources available to help her.
Because of financial worries
  • She worries that she will not be able to survive financially on her own.
  • She worries about supporting her children alone.
  • Worries of the children resenting a reduced income and different lifestyle.
  • Because of the abuser’s financial control, she has nothing to take with her.
Because of her own social enculturation
  • “A woman’s place is in the home.”
  • “A wife should be financially dependent on her husband.”
  • “Being married has more value than being single.”
  • “The role of the wife is to keep the family together.”
Because of emotional reasons
  • She is ashamed.
  • She is in denial.

Effects on Children

AVA gratefully acknowledges the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence and the Child Welfare Information Gateway for information provided in this section.

Each year an estimated 3-10 million children witness assaults against a parent by an intimate partner. They may exhibit substantial responses, both immediate and long-term. The following signs may indicate abuse, though they could also result from a variety of stressful and disturbing situations:

Behavioral, social, and emotional problems in children
  • higher levels of aggression, anger and hostility
  • “acting out”
  • oppositional behavior and disobedience
  • fear and anxiety
  • withdrawal
  • depression
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • changes in eating patterns
  • poor peer, sibling and social relationships
  • low self-esteem
Cognitive and attitudinal problems
  • lower cognitive functioning
  • poor school performance
  • lack of conflict resolution skills
  • limited problem solving skills
  • pro-violence attitudes
  • belief in rigid gender stereotypes and male privilege
Long-term problems
  • higher levels of adult depression and trauma symptoms
  • increased tolerance for and/or use of violence in adult relationships


Factors that can influence how a child witness reacts and responds to domestic abuse include

Nature of the violence – Children who witness frequent and severe violence or do not see their caregivers resolving conflict may experience more distress than children who witness fewer incidences of physical violence and observe positive interactions between their caregivers.

Coping strategies and skills – Children with poor coping skills are more likely to experience problems than children with strong coping skills and supportive social networks.

Presence of child abuse – Children who witness domestic violence and are physically abused are at more risk for increased levels of emotional and psychological maladjustment than children who only witness violence and are not abused.

Age of the child – Younger children appear to exhibit higher levels of emotional and psychological distress than older children. Age-related differences might result from older children’s more developed cognitive abilities to understand the violence and select various coping strategies to alleviate upsetting symptoms.

Elapsed time since exposure – Children often have heightened levels of anxiety and fear immediately after a violent event. Fewer observable effects are seen in children as more time passes after the violent event.

Gender – In general, boys exhibit more “externalized behaviors” (e.g. aggression or acting out) while girls exhibit more “internalized” behaviors” (e.g. withdrawal or depression).


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