Family Violence — Domestic Violence
Family Violence (FV) is the term now being used for what used to be called Domestic Violence (DV). The new term recognises violence is not always confined to the home and the people living there. Family violence usually occurs between people who are related. It can be a once only incident but, more often, it is a regular method the family uses for dealing with issues.
In this article I will use my own terms for perpetrators and victims because I don’t like either of those terms. I prefer to call those who perform family violence “performers” and those who are the target of family violence as “targets”. These terms are appropriate regardless of gender or relationship.
Family violence can occur between couples whether they are the same sex or opposite sexes with either, or both, partners being violent but family violence is not confined to partners. Children can become violent towards parents, grandparents, brothers or sisters. Other relatives may enter the home to assault members of the family on a regular basis too and this also falls under the heading of family violence.
The Family Violence Cycle
Regular Family violence has a number of phases, or stages, and tends to be cyclical in nature. A cycle usually includes all the phases but, in some very abusive cases, some steps are skipped. Sometimes a target of this type of abuse is so beaten down and accepting of the abuse that the performer does not bother to show remorse, pursue the target, or even have a honeymoon stage. They are so sure there is no risk of losing the target they just move from explosion straight to the build up phase. Whether all the steps are included or only some the one thing you can be sure of is that the cycle will repeat over and over again until the target stops it by either leaving or, in the worst cases, dying! A diagram of the cycle is pictured below.
In this stage of the cycle tension builds up in the performer for any number of reasons – family pressures, work stress or even the person’s own thought patterns. Other individuals and couples have a range of ways to deal with tension that do not include being violent but, in the abusive relationship, it can lead to the stand-over phase.
Because the performer has gained power over them through past threats, emotional manipulations, and violence the target of family violence may feel they are under the other person’s control and they have no way out.
The performer may threaten to hurt the target, kill themselves, hurt or take away a child, kill or give away a beloved pet or destroy prized possessions for example.
Verbal attacks like name calling erode the self-esteem and self-confidence of the target making them feel they deserve what is being done to them. Often the target will not seek help because they are hoping everything will be all right if they can just stop “provoking” the performer or if they can just “help the performer understand”.
Sometimes the target may believe trying to leave will only make things worse. They may even believe it will be their fault if the performer hurts them, their child, their pet, a friend or family member or anyone they ask for help from because the performer has “warned” them that is what will happen if they leave.
At some point the tension in the performer becomes unmanageable as their range of coping skills fail them and they resort to acting out their anger with an assault of some kind.
In the beginning of the relationship an explosion might be quite mild. The performer might yell at the target or slam doors but, over time, explosions get worse and more serious. Nobody whose partner has hospitalized, or killed them, ever saw that side of their partner in the first few weeks of the relationship. Neither one of them knew how bad it could get until it was too late. If they had known the cycle always, ALWAYS, gets worse over time they might have been able to prevent the worst from happening.
After the assault is over the performer may enter the remorse phase.
One or both of the participants may feel guilty for what has happened. They may try to rationalise what has happened to minimise its effects. The performer may tell the target, or the target may believe, alcohol, drugs or stress were to blame for what happened.
One or both parties may believe the target caused the violence. In some cases there may even be an element of truth in this belief. Targets often get tired of living with the tension of the build up phase. They may sense the approach of an explosion and grow tired of living in fear of when, where, and how it will happen. They may try to take some control over their lives by making the explosion happen at a time when they feel ready to cope with it. This can make it easier for everyone to rationalise, or even excuse, the violent behaviour.
In many cases the performer knows the target well enough to be able to select words or actions that will provoke the target into doing or saying something to give them the excuse they seek to explode.
In other cases the performer will make an apology of some kind. Sometimes saying sorry will not be enough to win the target’s forgiveness. Then the performer will move into the next phase of the cycle. They will pursue the target seeking forgiveness and a return to “normal”.
The performer may try to buy the target’s forgiveness with gifts, promises, or both. If this doesn’t work the performer may revert to threats. They may threaten to hurt or harm people or possessions the target cares about. They may even threaten to commit suicide if the target leaves them.
Targets may believe the performer is truly sorry, will never do it again, cannot live without them or they may simply not have the strength to resist the pursuit. Often they lack the resources to get away.
Performers can spend a lot of time sabotaging their target’s support networks. They may have taken the target to live in another city, state or even country so the target will not have access to the friends and family who could support and help them.
On the other hand, the performer may have developed a relationship with members of the target’s family or friends and they may repeatedly give the performer information on where the target has gone. This can make it impossible for the target to get away from the relentlessness of the performers pursuit.
If the target does agree to stay with the performer the relationship may move into the honeymoon phase.
After coming so close to separation and the destruction of their relationship the parties may cling to each other for comfort. This is often a time of intense intimacy where the earlier difficulties are denied. The target may feel more loved, wanted, even adored or desperately needed in the honeymoon phase than any non-violent relationship could ever make them feel. During the ‘pursuit’ and ‘honeymoon’ phases the target may seek the withdrawal of applications for orders and become angry with people who don’t believe things will be all right now.
Sadly, this cycle is not about the target or their relationship with the performer. This cycle is about the performer and how he or she copes with inner tension. Once they have put things back to “normal” the problems and issues that caused tension to rise in the first place will come back into the picture and cause the same tension to rise again. If the performer has not learned new ways to deal with the tension it will, once again, explode and the cycle will continue.
Research indicates the phases outlined in this cycle are a common pattern in family violence. It is, however, important to realise that not all stages of the cycle occur in all family violence relationships. If the performer and target both believe the target is completely to blame for what is happening there may be no pursuit or honeymoon phase at all for instance.
Sometimes the performer may find another way to release tension so the explosion does not happen that particular time.
The time it takes to complete a cycle of violence can vary hugely. The cycle may take years for enough tension to build up in some performers and days for others. Periods of time in which cycles are completed may also vary for different circumstances. If the cause of some of the tension goes away or increases things may improve a little or get worse.
One thing does not change. The cycle will not stop for good if the performer does not learn new and better ways to manage their inner tension. All that will happen is they will, in time, stop trying to avoid exploding. The more convinced they are that the target will not leave them, or cannot leave them, the less incentive they have to stop the cycle.
The only way a target of family violence can stop the cycle is to leave the relationship for good. The only way a performer of family violence can end the cycle is through taking full responsibility for their behaviour and seeking counselling that focuses on learning communication skills and better ways to manage their inner tension (coming soon).
It is worth mentioning that, unfortunately, research also shows the cycle of violence does not improve if the performer does not learn new skills or does not apply them.
Quite the contrary. If left untreated the performer of family violence tends to settle into a cycle of violent behaviour that becomes more frequent and increasingly more violent, even fatal, over time.
If you are performing family violence don’t make the mistake of thinking you can stop using will power alone or by giving up alcohol, getting a better job, reducing your stress. You have learned this behaviour and you will need to un-learn it as well as learn other ways to cope when things go wrong.
If you are the target of family violence don’t make the mistake of thinking the performer will stop. He or she cannot stop until they un-learn the behaviour and learn other ways to cope. All you can do to help is leave. If you leave the performer might get the help he or she needs. If you don’t leave the cycle will continue.