I didn't know there were four stages of abuse, so I couldn't escape. For so much of my life I lived with the unknown: walking on egg shells, always wondering what was real, and trying to gauge my husband's mood. This was life as I knew it, living with a husband who abuses alcohol repeatedly for 30 years. I didn't know our marriage was constantly cycling through the four stages of abuse. But thousands of people live with abusers who don't have substance use disorder.
Abuse comes in many forms. Hitting can be part of it, but doesn't have to be. Emotional abuse is negative and destructive conditioning that just goes on an on. My own life felt like a scary roller coaster ride I couldn't get off. We kept repeating the same scenario over and over without my ever learning what was wrong, or how to stop it. Now I know about the four stages of abuse. Finally, I was able to make sense of my life of insanity. Perhaps you will see yourself in one of the stages of abuse and will take action to end your own cycle.
Tension Building Stage
For me this phase lasted a week or two at best, then we entered the Tension Building Phase. During this phase I could feel my stomach start to become sensitive to the changed atmosphere. My husband would become aggravated for no known reason, and nothing that had previously worked to calm him down, now worked. Life began to feel like a building storm. I didn’t know what was happening I just knew it was going to be bad. Here are the markers for the Tension Building Stage to be aware of:
- Tension starts and steadily builds
- Abuser starts to get angry
- Communication breaks down
- Victim feels the need to concede to the abuser
- Tension becomes too much
- Victim feels uneasy and a need to watch every move
Acting Out Stage
This is the stage where the trauma and hurt happens. For me it was either it was an ugly scene in public, or a private session of unleashing his rage on one of the children or me. Police would be called or a neighbor would inquire because they heard the yelling. No matter how the Acting Out Stage looked it would leave all of us exhausted, embarrassed, and wanting to find an answer to end the nightmare. During this stage of abuse any of the following can occur:
- Any type of abuse occurs
- Or other forms of abuse
Just when I was looking for a lawyer or a counselor to help myself my husband would enter the Honeymoon or Reconciliation Stage. During this phase he would bring me flowers, write me notes of apology, promise that “fill in the blank” would never happen again. I wanted to believe him so badly that I suspended all sense of reality and continued to stay in the stages of abuse. It is fascinating to me how my brain wanted to maintain the status quo no matter how awful it was. The abuser often fuels that by doing the following to help the victim believe she is being unreasonable:
- Abuser apologizes for abuse, some beg forgiveness or show sorrows
- Abuser may promise it will never happen again
- Blames victim for provoking the abuse or denies abuse occurred
- Minimizing, denying or claiming the abuse wasn't as bad as victim claims
This phase is often blended with the Honeymoon Phase because they look similar. I would enter the Calm Phase and my life was somewhat "normal." My husband would go to work, there was food in the fridge, and the arguments were limited to normal everyday things, like bills and kids. During this phase there are often false signs that the abuse will stop forever:
- Abuses slow or stop
- Abuser acts like the abuse never happened
- Promises made during honeymoon stage may be met
- Abuser may give gifts to victim
- Victim believes or wants to believe the abuse is over or the abuser will change
I endured this cycle many times before I decided to “go for help.” Even though I reached out for help many times over the years to marriage counselors, they never asked us about my husband’s drinking. No one put the pieces together that his addiction was the reason for much of our unhappiness. I thought it was normal to drink beer in the shower, before breakfast, and when you mowed the lawn.
Like many people living in the stages of abuse, I just got used to it. One of my many fears was living a life without drama. Even though abuse is horrible it made me feel alive. In a sad way I was addicted to this cycle of abuse. It was my normal and a life without drama looked boring. In fact, if my husband stayed too long in the Calm Phase I would push his button to start an argument just to get a little excitement going. I didn't know how to live without the chaos. We were all sick.
Al-Anon was the first place I found that revealed there was another way to live my life without chaos and gave me the hope that I would grow to love serenity with time. I used the tools learned in Al-Anon: boundaries, choices, and self care to remove myself from the abuse. Over time our cycle of abuse died for lack of a victim. I pray yours does the same.
Abuse of any kind is wrong, and we all deserve to be safe in every relationship we choose to have.
If you need help call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224
Phases Referenced from Hidden Hurt
Abuse imprisons people with shame and secrecy. ROR’s Break The Cycle of Abuse Poster empowers victims with four steps to take towards freedom. This powerful poster is perfect for schools, doctors’ offices, and break rooms. Downloadable file keeps your cost down. Print as 8.5" x 11" or have enlarged.