“It Won’t Happen Again” – The Cycle of Physical Abuse

Once upon a time, two people met and feel deeply in love. They decided to marry and spend the rest of their lives together. After they got married, they never had any arguments and they never got angry with each other or tried to hurt each other through their words or actions. They lived happily ever after.

That is the fairytale we would all like to live out in our relationships. However, it is almost guaranteed that all couples will have to navigate through difficult periods in their relationship when they disagree with their partner about their values, decisions, work, parenting, finances and the numerous other areas that couples have to face together in their day-to-day lives. More often than we think, these arguments might turn physical and you find yourself losing control of your anger in a way you never expected yourself to. You might hurt your partner with your words; calling them names, swearing at them, or demeaning them in other ways. You might even shove them, slap them, throw a punch or worse because you feel there is no other way to get your point across or to end the argument. A recent study showed that 50% of couples between the ages of 20 to 35 yrs resort to these types of verbal, emotional and physical abuse in the US (Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). This means that one out of every two couples engage in this kind of aggressive behaviors. In my experience, couples in India appear to have very similar experiences.

Individuals often resort to physical violence in their romantic relationships when they feel unable to express their feelings of anger or hurt verbally. They assume that hurting their partner is the only way to get their attention or to stop an argument from escalating further. Physical abuse might also be a misguided way of trying to assert one’s power over one’s partner or trying to control them. For example, Sathish slapped his wife, Sandhya, because he felt she was blatantly disobeying his request to stop keeping in touch with her ex-boyfriend. His use of physical violence made Sandhya scared enough to obey him but it also caused Sandhya to lose her trust in Sathish and resulted in lasting damage to their relationship.

Risk factors for physical abuse

Research shows that children who have witnessed their parents being physically abusive with each other are more likely to either enter abusive relationships or become abusive themselves when they grow up. This may be because they see their parents express their anger through physical aggression and do not learn any other way of managing their own anger. They might begin to believe that violence is an acceptable way of reinforcing one’s desires. A study also showed that men who are physically abusive tend to be less assertive (Rosenbaum & O’Leary, 1981). In other words, they have trouble expressing their needs or standing up for their opinions or feelings within the relationship. Their inability to ask for what they want from their partners might eventually lead them to resort to physical abuse as a way to force their partner to fulfill their needs. Individuals who have clinical disorders like Bipolar disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are also more likely to become physically violent due to difficulties in regulating their moods. Alcohol and drug use are also connected to higher incidences of abuse in some cases.

Abuse cycle

A couple who experience physical violence in their relationship go through what is known as the ‘abuse cycle’. They begin to argue about an issue and tension builds in the relationship. The abuser might initially become verbally and emotionally abusive in an attempt to intimidate his/her partner into backing off. If this does not work, he/she might then lose control and become violent. After the physical altercation, he/she might recognize that they made a mistake and apologize profusely to their partner, promising to never become violent again. The partner often accepts their apologies, believing that things will now change. The traumatic episode might be followed by a more pleasant period where the partners are very loving with each other. However, this phase usually does not last. Another small argument might cause the tension to escalate again and the physical violence recurs. The cycle of abuse often continues until one or both of the partners break the cycle by seeking help to change their behavior or ending the relationship. It is also important to know that men are not the only perpetrators of abuse. While the instances of men becoming abusive are more commonly known, this does not mean that women do not initiate or engage in physical abuse themselves.

If you or your partner have experienced physical abuse or any other forms of abuse, it is important that you seek help immediately. People often tend to dismiss incidents of abuse as one-time exceptions that will not recur. They might even attempt to justify it as a fairly normal occurrence in our culture, particularly if it is a husband abusing his wife. However, we need to recognize that physical abuse is not acceptable, no matter what the provocation.

The first step towards change is to take responsibility for your own aggression and the impact that it is having on your relationship. This might mean that you have to admit to yourself and your partner that you have difficulty expressing and controlling your anger. If you believe you have a problem, you can consult a professional counsellor for more tips on how to manage your anger. TalkItOver provides individual therapy, couple therapy, and family therapy for people struggling with experiences of abuse.

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  • Rosenbaum, A. & O’Leary, D. K. (1981). Children: The unintended victims of marital violence. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 51(4), 692-699.
  • Straus, M. A., Gelles, R. J., & Steinmetz, S. K. (1980). Behind closed doors: Violence in the
    American family. NY: Doubleday/Anchor.
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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.