The most common question a survivor receives after exiting an abusive relationship is “why didn’t you just leave?” This question is wildly inappropriate and ignorant to ask because it discredits the survivor and makes the solution to abuse look fairly simple. The reality is, abuse is not simple. Nor is the solution. Abuse is not a one-time occurrence; it is typically a consecutive cycle full of psychological manipulation. The cycle of abuse, which SafeHomes uses to help survivors understand the abuse, consists of three main stages: the Tension Building stage, the Incident of Abuse, and the Honeymoon stage. To explore these stages further, they will be applied to the story of Michelle.
To anyone who knows Michelle, she is a hustler, a go-getter, and outspoken. She always had big ambitions and went on to earn her engineering degree to step into her dream role as an engineer. While she always considered herself well off and independent, Michelle still found herself within the grips of an abusive relationship. Michelle suffered from verbal and physical abuse. She met her abuser through family and started what she assumed would be a happy and healthy relationship. As the relationship went on, Michelle's boyfriend began to act controlling. Michelle had entered the tension building stage of the first abuse cycle she would endure. The tension building stage is defined by the abuser becoming angrier and anxiety rising within the victim. Signs of the tension building stage may include the feeling of “walking on eggshells”, isolation from friends and family, and physical expressions of anger. For Michelle, her abuser would make comments on the way she would dress and who she would see. At first, Michelle had assumed he cared about her and was being cute, however things gradually took a turn.
Eight months into the relationship, the first incident of abuse took place. While driving in the car, her boyfriend backhanded her. Michelle's first reaction was one of shock and she instantly stood up for herself and told him never to put his hands on her again. At the time, Michelle was naïve to what abuse was and who got abused. She never assumed that particular instance was abuse because she thought successful, outspoken women like herself never got abused. Assuming that she had done something to upset him, Michelle forgave her abuser and believed that he would never get physical again.
Together they entered the honeymoon stage of the cycle of abuse. The honeymoon phase is recognizable by the reconciliation after the fight. Abusers may shower their partner with gifts, express love, and beg for forgiveness with exaggerated promises. The honeymoon phase makes the relationship feel like new and puts the victim back in the control of the abuser. By having the honeymoon stage, the victim associates the incidents of abuse as separate scenarios and has a harder time realizing they are being abused consistently.
After her first incident, Michelle repeated the cycle of abuse hundreds of times before finding the courage to leave. She had denied that she was being abused due to how spread out the stages would be. She assumed for the acts to be abuse they had to happen consecutively over a span of days. It was not until she met with SafeHomes multiple times that she realized she was in an abusive relationship.
Michelle was recommended SafeHomes by Columbia County Sheriff's Office after they received a call about a domestic dispute from one of her neighbors. Shortly after, Michelle began going to counseling provided by SafeHomes to find solutions to help her relationship. It took multiple sessions for Michelle to realize she was being abused and learn the tools for a healthy relationship. Finally, after one particularly tiring argument, she decided to leave for good.
Today, Michelle is doing amazing things in her career and still holds on to the uplifting relationships she has made at SafeHomes. She has proved that her habits are more than a pattern and that she could do whatever she puts her mind to. When asked to give one piece of advice to others, she urged people to “listen to their intuition.” She claimed, “the body knows when something is wrong, and it is our job as people to act upon those responses.”
Michelle's story proves that the cycle of abuse truly could happen to anyone. However, while strong, the pattern is breakable. If you or someone you know identifies with Michelle's story and/or the cycle of abuse, please call the SafeHomes hotline at 7067362499 today.