There are two cycles of violence often referred to in the literature on interpersonal violence. One is the “intergenerational transmission of violence” and the other is the cycle of intimate violence that escalates to violence and then subsides only to escalate again. This essay focuses on the cycle of escalation and de-escalation during violent incidents between intimates.
The best known proponent of a cycle of violence model is Lenore Walker, whose landmark 1979 book titled The Battered Woman devoted an entire chapter to a “cycle theory of violence.” In this chapter, Walker suggested there are three phases that couples move through in this cycle of violence: (1) tension building, (2) acute battering incident, and finally (3) kindness or contrite loving behavior. She also suggested that the full cycle varies greatly and that treatment may be more successful in one phase than in another.
Walker suggested that a series of “minor battering incidents” occurs during this phase. As these so-called minor incidents occur battered women react through a variety of coping mechanisms, including working harder to please the batterer and managing children toward the same goal, denying the seriousness of the violence, and making other efforts to restore stability to the home. As these battering incidents accumulate, Walker noted, the batterer increasingly escalates his battering behavior and this increasingly overwhelms the battered woman’s ability to cope with it.
Acute Battering Incident
A period of increasingly escalating tension will eventually lead to a severe violent incident in which, Walker wrote, “an uncontrollable discharge” of tensions takes place. The cycle of violence theory suggests that this phase is the shortest of the three and both the batterer and the battered recognize that this violence is significantly different from the violence in the earlier, tension-building phase. Walker also noted that occasionally a battered woman will “provoke” an acute incident in order to get past the tension that has been building to the inevitable severe event.
Kindness And Contrite Loving Behavior
The final phase in Walker’s cycle of violence theory is a period of calm following an acute violent incident. She suggested that it immediately follows the acute incident and is seen as a relief by both parties involved. The battered woman will often seek help during or immediately after an acute incident and this is when, Walker suggested, many battered women come into contact with service providers. The batterer is also likely to seek help during this period and he is often on his best behavior, promising to make changes so he is not violent again and aiming his affection and behaviors in a way to win back his partner’s affection and loyalty. His positive behavior often creates confusion for his victim. Walker also suggested that this phase is usually longer than the one immediately prior to it but shorter than the first, tension-building phase. Sometimes this phase can be extremely brief, and others have suggested that chronic batterers stop trying to make up for their behavior, thus eliminating this phase over time.
The cycle of violence, learned helplessness, and battered woman’s syndrome, all originally promoted by Walker, have been heavily criticized and are discussed elsewhere in this encyclopedia. Many, including Walker, have argued that the cycle of violence is not automatic and does not always follow a predictable script by moving from one phase to another. Walker’s use of the term minor battering incidents and suggestion that battered women learn helplessness as part of the cycle are problematic in the view of many. How does one define “minor” incidents? A slap or a shove can have severe consequences if one looks at it in context. Terms like learned helplessness have been countered by the use of the term survivors of violence and a greater focus on women’s strategies to resist violent behavior.
- Stith, S. M., Rosen, K. H., Middleton, K. A., Busch, A. L., Lundeberg, K., & Carleton, R. P. (2000). The intergenerational transmission of spouse abuse: A metaanalysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 640–654.
- Walker, L. E. (1979). The battered woman. New York: Harper & Row.
- Widom, C. S. (1989). Does violence beget violence? A critical examination of the literature. Psychological Bulletin, 106, 3–28.
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