What Is the Cycle of Violence?

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While abusive behavior can be repetitive, it's important to note that abuse does not always occur in a cyclical pattern. In fact, assuming that violence occurs in cycles can lead to victim-blaming. Abuse can be unpredictable and it is never OK.

Some people who have experienced any type of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can attest to the fact that the abuse happened in very predictable cycles. In some instances, violence can be repetitive and may have generational roots.

People who experience trauma as children are likely to experience triggers that they don't understand when they become parents. These triggers may cause the parent to repeat old patterns that they are already familiar with.

One study suggested that one reason why children who have been abused are more likely to abuse children of their own when they become parents is because of the way that they've learned to perceive social situations as children. This research says that kids who experience physical abuse are more likely to be biased when processing social situations, even jumping to harsh conclusions when they initially meet people.

People who experienced physical abuse are more likely to doubt the intentions of new people, which can make it difficult to form healthy relationships.

This article looks at the (sometimes) repetitive nature of violence, the factors that predispose people to violence, and ways to prevent abusive or violent behaviors. It also covers important resources for people who are hoping to recover and heal from past trauma.

Why Does Violence Sometimes Repeat Itself?

One study found that exposure to family violence early in life drastically increases the chances of intimate partner violence (IPV) in adulthood. 

Another study even found that children that had experienced abuse were far more likely to be arrested for a non-traffic offense at least once by the age of 32.

In the past, it's been believed that domestic abuse follows a "cycle;" however, as we learn more about abuse and why it happens, we understand that abuse can be unpredictable. The cycle below is listed for informational purposes only and is not reflective of all cases of abuse.

When abuse is described as a cycle, it's often separated into four stages:

  1. Tension Building: This is when the abuser starts to get angry. The potential victim may try to calm their partner down.
  2. The Incident: This is the moment when an abusive event happens. Abuse can be physical, emotional, or sexual.
  3. The "Honeymoon" Period: In this stage, the abuser appears to feel remorse for their actions, and they typically ask for forgiveness or promise not to repeat the behavior. Some abusers will also try to push the blame on their victim during this phase or downplay the severity of the situation.
  4. The Calm: Abuse is absent during this stage. The person who perpetrated the abuse might pretend the abuse never occurred or will try to show the victim that they really have changed. Sometimes, the victim will feel as though they can trust their partner again.

Risk Factors of Domestic Violence

While violence can happen to anyone from any background, studies have shown that there are a few factors that increase the likelihood of perpetual violence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also notes that there is a variety of societal, community, and relationship-based risk factors that can increase the likelihood of perpetuating violence. Some of them include:

  • Experiencing abuse in childhood
  • Substance abuse
  • Young age
  • Lower formal education levels
  • Dealing with a mental illness
  • Social isolation
  • Lower family income

How to Prevent Violence

Once a history of parental childhood abuse has been found, studies have shown that certain social services, like mental healthcare and child care, can potentially curb the likelihood of repeating abusive behavior.

According to the CDC, the risk of violence decreases when people have high-quality friendships and social support systems, as well as supportive community agencies and neighborhood interactions.

In terms of helping victims of child abuse on a larger scale, the CDC lists a few things that would help to prevent abusive behavior:

  • Providing early options for childhood education
  • Early childhood home visits
  • Behavioral training programs for parents
  • Treatment for problem behavior
  • Increased financial security in individual households
  • Improved licensing and accreditation standards for child care facilities

Resources

If you or someone you know has experienced violence in either a relationship or as a child, it's important to seek help. For example, Safe Horizon provides short-term shelter as well as access to counseling services. They also offer multiple community services that can be helpful based on your specific case.

Support groups can be helpful because they can help you find community and feel less alone. They can also provide comfort for those that are also struggling after ending relationships.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Just because you experienced violence as a child or in a past relationship doesn't mean that you will repeat those patterns. If you are dealing with PTSD or other mental health issues, a therapist will be able to help you address your symptoms and triggers. They can also provide you with healthy coping mechanisms.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Chiang L, Howard A, Gleckel J, Ogoti C, Karlsson J, Hynes M, Mwangi M. Cycle of violence among young Kenyan women: The link between childhood violence and adult physical intimate partner violence in a population-based survey. Child Abuse and Neglect. 2018;84:45-52.

  3. Maxfield MG, Widom CS. The Cycle of Violence: Revisited 6 Years LaterArch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1996;150(4):390–395.

  4. The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Is Abuse Really a "Cycle"?.

  5. Rakovec-Felser Z. Domestic Violence and Abuse in Intimate Relationship from Public Health PerspectiveHealth Psychol Res. 2014;2(3):1821. Published 2014 Oct 22. doi:10.4081/hpr.2014.1821

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk and Protective Factors for Perpetration. Updated November 2, 2021.

  7. Dixon L, Browne K, Hamilton-Giachritsis C. Risk factors of parents abused as children: a mediational analysis of the intergenerational continuity of child maltreatment (Part I)J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2005;46(1):47-57. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00339.x

  8. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Intimate Partner Violence: Prevention Strategies.

By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.