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Domestic Violence: Breaking the Cycle of


bulletAn estimated six million women are assaulted by a male partner each year and of these, 1.8 million are severely assaulted. (Straus, 1993.)
bulletIn 1995, twenty-six percent (26%) of all female murder victims were slain by their husbands or boyfriends. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1996.)
bulletIn 1994, sixty-two percent (62%) of the victimizations of females (2,981,479 victimizations) were committed by persons they knew while sixty-three percent (63%) of the victimizations of males (3,949,285) were by strangers. (Craven, 1997).
bulletOf the National Women's Study sample of 4,008 adult women, over one percent (1.2%) or an estimated 1,155,600 adult American women, were forcibly raped one or more times by their husbands. (National Center for Victims of Crime & Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, 1992.) 


Domestic violence spans all racial, socio-economic, and demographic boundaries. Domestic violence takes many forms, ranging from battering, rape and homicide to threats of violence, verbal assaults and other forms of intimidation.

Historically, the abuse of a wife by her husband not only was socially acceptable, but often it was government sanctioned. Throughout medieval times, a husband was able to discipline his wife by corporal punishment, and even as late as the nineteenth century in England, husbands were not punished for murdering their wives. The United States, following English law, allowed a husband in the nineteenth century to physically discipline his wife without subjecting himself to prosecution for assault and battery. Thus evolved the colloquial expression "rule of thumb" whereby a husband could beat his wife with "a stick no thicker than his thumb" (Attorney General's Family Violence Task Force, Pennsylvania, 1989, p. 3). It was not until the twentieth century that U.S. courts began to uphold laws that criminalized wife-beating. However, a change in societal attitudes about domestic violence was slow to follow.

It has only been in the last twenty years that attitudes about wife and partner beating have slowly begun to change. The re-emergence of the women's movement in the 1970s brought the prevalence and severity of domestic violence to people's attention; the demand for shelters and resources for women who were victims of domestic violence followed. The first shelter for battered women opened in 1974. Since then hundreds of other shelters have opened to provide shelter to abused women and their children; however, they often operate at capacity (Attorney General's Family Violence Task Force, Pennsylvania, 1989).

Society continues to struggle with conflicting attitudes about the rights of husbands and wives. Unfortunately, the criminal justice system has often substantiated the attitude that what happens between married couples or between partners in romantic/intimate relationships is a private matter, and therefore, should be resolved by the parties themselves without any governmental involvement.



The lack of a single accepted definition for domestic violence exemplifies the misconceptions and conflicting ideas that exist. In relation to laws pertaining to domestic violence, current definitions include assault, battery, homicide, weapon use, kidnaping, unlawful imprisonment and trespassing (National Center for Victims of Crime, Legislative Database). From a clinical perspective, domestic violence can be defined as assaultive behavior involving persons in a dating and/or intimate, sexual, theoretically peer and often co-habitating relationship (Goolkasian, 1986).

According to the American Medical Association, the U.S. home is "more dangerous to women than city streets" (American Medical Association, 1991, p. 5). Domestic violence is a common presenting complaint among women seeking emergency medical attention, although most women who are either abused or at risk for abuse are not detected by physicians (Abbott, Johnson, Koziol-McLain & Lowenstein, 1996). Approximately 17% of the 1.4 million people treated in hospital emergency rooms for violence-related injuries were injured by intimates (Rand, 1997). With the identification of domestic violence as a national epidemic by physicians, public health experts and public policy leaders, recommendations have come from the American Medical Association, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the Emergency Nurses Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to improve methods of detection, counseling, and referral for domestic violence in emergency treatment settings (Marwick, 1994).

While domestic violence, including threats, physical assaults and homicide, continues to be one of the most frequent crimes in our nation, it remains one of the most under-reported. Too often in the past, when the victim did report, the incident was not thoroughly investigated because a determination was made that it was a "family" or "personal" matter, and thus, did not warrant the urgency of other crimes (Goolkasian, 1986). Law enforcement has greatly improved its response to domestic violence over the past decade, taking a pro-active approach to the arrest of the batterer and the protection of the victim. Yet, improvements still need to be made not only by law enforcement, but by the entire criminal justice system, as such deficiencies may often deter victims from reporting incidents and filing criminal charges.

The Victim and Abuser

The violent behavior of the batterer has often been explained by the characteristics of the victim. Many studies have been done on battered women's personalities, mental health, and self-esteem, questioning "What makes a woman susceptible to abuse?" and "Why are some women abused?" These questions in and of themselves place a certain amount of blame on the woman, giving her responsibility for what has happened to her. It would be better to focus on the characteristics of the abuser.

Male batterers, while exhibiting many different personalities, do share some characteristics. Many batterers show a higher level of dependence on their wives than non-battering men. Their dependence conflicts with a fear of intimacy and loss of control. Batterers also exhibit higher levels of suspicion and paranoia, according to the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Batterers often will isolate their wives and are jealous to the point of suspicion of any interactions with other men, thus creating suspicions of infidelity. In addition, batterers have been observed to have an excessive need for control in the relationship. High levels of hostility, depression and anxiety have also been noted. Batterers tend to deny responsibility for their actions, blaming the victim for provoking them, or ignoring the violent incident altogether (Vaselle-Augenstein & Ehrlich, 1992).

While many factors may contribute to abuse, it is difficult to attribute a direct causal relationship to any one factor. Some batterers lack the ability to control their actions and do not know how to react appropriately and nonviolently to stress and dissatisfaction. A need for power and control, an abusive family background, feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and stress may all contribute to the abusive behavior.

Why Victims Stay

Often the beginnings of abuse are subtle. It may start with verbal put-downs and anger directed at objects breaking and throwing things. As it builds in severity and frequency, the victim is gradually conditioned to the situation.

Women often are brought up being taught that dependence on a male and affiliation with a family is the expected, preferred and most rewarding way of life for them. Once in an abusive relationship, a woman may not leave because she hopes or believes that the abuser will change. Many women will return to an abusive relationship as soon as their partner starts counseling, without waiting for a change in behavior patterns. Then when the abuser gradually stops counseling and the abuse continues, the woman finds herself in the same situation as before she left, and perhaps in even a worse situation.

Other reasons that domestic violence victims may stay in abusive relationships include:

bulletA belief in commitment;
bulletA desire not to hurt their partner;
bulletTheir fear of being seen as a quitter;
bulletThe need to protect children and parents;
bulletFinancial considerations; and/or
bulletReligious convictions.

Religious convictions are often an important factor in many victims' decisions to stay or leave the relationship. One research study showed that clergy were the second most often sought source for help after the police following the first battering incident. However, this study also found that of the women who contacted the clergy, most later identified women's groups and social services as most helpful, and none identified the clergy as most helpful. Another study claims that while the church is the institution most often contacted by battered women, clergy also had the highest negative influence compared to women's groups, psychologists, police, relatives, lawyers, and friends (Barnett and LaViolette, 1993).

Battered women are tied to their husbands by more than just emotional and moral obligations; many are economically dependent upon their husbands as well. Leaving their husbands and trying to support both themselves and their children can prove to be too intimidating a prospect for many victims. With no way to support themselves, battered women are reluctant to leave their situation.

Another factor in the decision to leave is the severity of the abuse. As reviewed in Barnett and LaViolette (1993), studies indicate that the more severe the abuse, the longer the battered woman took to decide to leave the relationship, but once she had left, she was less likely to return. Women in relationships of minor violence were likely to leave, but also likely to return to the relationship.

The Pattern of Violence

Battering is not usually an isolated incident, but rather it tends to be a cycle that increases in frequency and severity over time. This cycle of violence is usually broken down into three phases. The first phase is a tension building phase where anger builds and minor incidences of violence occur. It may include verbal abuse, threats, and breaking things. This phase lasts indefinitely but eventually builds to an acute battering incident -- the phase in which the actual violence occurs.

The level of violence of a particular battering depends upon many variables, including the level of violence previously evident in the relationship, the level of substance abuse, the state of mind of the abuser and other factors. Usually the batterer will blame the use of force on the victim. Regardless of the level of force actually used, the use of violence in the context of an intimate relationship is always frightening.

The acute battering incident is followed by a third phase, usually referred to as the honeymoon phase, where the batterer is remorseful or fearful of losing his partner, begging forgiveness and trying to make amends. Some abusers, however, may show little or no remorse during this phase. Often the honeymoon phase is only a short-lived period of no violence.

The victim may often become very protective of her batterer during the honeymoon phase -- believing that she has overreacted to his violence -- and she begins to have hope that their relationship will be restored and the abuse will never happen again. The cycle gradually returns to the tension building phase, however, as the batterer places all the blame for his actions on others and the victim internalizes all the blame on herself.

These different phases and types of violence and reactions combine to create what is known as the "cycle of violence." This cyclical theory was first set forth by domestic violence expert, Lenore Walker (1979), to describe the battered woman's syndrome, which occurs as a response to a series of severe and frequent assaults and encompasses the severe stress reactions and the fear, anxiety, depression, guilt, confusion, passivity and low self-esteem that accompanies it. Most battered women are blamed over and over by their batterers for the abuse; gradually, the battered woman begins to take responsibility for the beatings and learns that she is unable to stop or avoid them. This results in frustration, confusion and a reduction in her ability to effectively solve her problems.

Her situation and resulting mental attitude causes her to become more able to survive in the relationship and less able to escape. Much like the war victim or prisoner of war who is under constant stress and subjected to arbitrary and intermittent violence, the battered woman learns to feel that she is helpless and that the violence is unavoidable. She loses the ability to learn new avoidance techniques, thus making her situation more dangerous and more difficult to leave.

Domestic violence affects every member of the family -- even if they are not the ones being directly abused. Research has provided evidence that children who observe domestic violence may grow to accept it as a natural part of adult, especially intimate, relationships and may grow-up to become offenders or victims themselves. Children who witness violence learn that violence is an acceptable way of coping with anger and frustration.

Additional findings indicate that children of battered women may sustain some developmental delays as a result of observing abuse and battering (Widom, 1989). They also suffer feelings of loss, anger, fear, sadness, confusion, and guilt as a result of witnessing violence at home, disruption of normal coping patterns, difficult living conditions, and the emotional unavailability of their mother (Peled & Edleson, 1994).


Trying to Leave

Leaving an abusive relationship is not always the safest solution for the victim. Many domestic assaults occur as or after the victim tries to leave the relationship. A person who is being abused should consider the options available and work to find a way to end the violence as safely as possible. This may mean waiting to end the relationship, or it may mean getting out as quickly as possible. Only the abused person can truly judge what will be the safest and best option for them.

Once a person has decided to leave an abusive relationship, a plan should be made. The person should know where to go, how to leave, and how and if the children will leave with them. Before leaving it is good to pack a suitcase of necessities and put it in a safe place that is not in the home, but is readily available for quick pick-up. Include in this emergency suitcase:
bulletA change of clothes;
bulletMoney -- whatever is available;
bulletCopies of essential legal papers;
bulletImportant medication;
bulletPhone numbers; and
bulletOther important personal items.

A trusted neighbor or friend should be told about the situation, and a separate plan should be made with them in the event that the abused person needs assistance (i.e., decide on a visual signal to indicate the neighbor should call the police immediately).

(If you are currently in an abusive relationship, see FYI, No. 15, "Suggested Safety Plan Guidelines for Victims of Domestic Violence" for more information and suggestions.

Support networks exist in many communities. There are hotlines, counseling services, support groups, legal resources, and shelters which provide support, advice, financial assistance, counseling and legal help. There are also batterers' programs in almost every community which assist abusive partners in learning how to control themselves. Referrals for these programs can be obtained through the county's Family Court Division, and are often a court-mandated condition of sentences when batterers are convicted on domestic violence charges.

Restraining Orders

Restraining order application forms can be obtained from the local police department, county Family Court Division and/or local domestic violence programs or shelters. There are several forms of restraining orders. Some states have an emergency restraining order that a police officer can issue when responding to a domestic violence call. This is usually good until the end of the next business day and allows the victim time to apply for a more permanent order. Other restraining orders last from 30 days to a few years and can be indefinitely renewed. Each jurisdiction and community may differ in the type of restraining orders available and the process for application and issuance of orders.

The realities of restraining orders, however, are that they are not always effective. They are not always enforced, and it is sometimes difficult to catch a person in the process of breaking the order -- which is a requirement in many jurisdictions before the police can enforce the order. A person with a restraining order should keep a copy in a safe place and file another with their local law enforcement.

A person with a restraining order should keep a copy in a safe place and file another copy with their local law enforcement. Neighbors should also be alerted of the situation and informed of the abuser's identity. If it becomes necessary to call the police, the restraining order should be shown to the officers immediately upon their arrival.

(For more information regarding restraining orders in your jurisdiction, please contact your local law enforcement, your county Family Court Division, your local domestic violence programs, or the victim assistance program in your local county or city prosecutor's office.)

What can I do about this problem?

If you know someone who is being abused, support them in their efforts to end the violence. Don't blame them for the abuse. Give them the strength and emotional support to leave if they need it, but do not force them to leave . Support them in their decision to stay or leave.

Teach young people that violence is not acceptable. Support your local program for battered women, sharing time and resources. Encourage training in non-violent conflict resolution in the schools -- at every grade-level -- and curricula in social studies classes on domestic violence.

Victims of domestic violence, as well as batterers, need help and supportive services. An understanding of the violence in American homes and an acknowledgment of the severity and criminality of these offenses by local and national law enforcement, medical service providers and social service agencies may provide a foundation for breaking the vicious cycle of domestic violence.


Abbott, Jean, Robin Johnson, Jane Koziol-McLain and Steven Lowenstein. (1995). "Domestic Violence Against Women: Incidence and Prevalence in an Emergency Department Population," Journal of the American Medical Association, 273(22): 1763-1767.

American Medical Association. (1991). "Domestic Violence: No Longer a Family Secret." Five Issues in American Health. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association.

Attorney General's Family Violence Task Force, Pennsylvania. (1989). Domestic Violence: A Model Protocol For Police Response. Harrisburg, PA.

Barnett, Ola and Alyce LaViolette. (1993). It Could Happen To Anyone: Why Battered Women Stay. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Craven, Diane. (1997). Sex Differences in Violent Victimization, 1994. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Dept of Justice.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1996). Crime in the United States, 1995. Washington, DC: USGPO.

Goolkasian, Gail. (1986). Confronting Domestic Violence: A Guide For Criminal Justice Agencies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

National Center for Victims of Crime and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center. (1992). Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Arlington, VA: National Center for Victims of Crime and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center.

Peled, Einat and Jeffrey Edleson. (1994). "Process and Outcome in Small Groups for Children of Battered Women," in Einat Peled, Peter Jaffe, and Jeffrey Edleson, eds. Ending the Cycle of Violence. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Rand, Michael. (1997). Violence-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Straus, Murry. (1993). "Physical Assaults by Wives: A Major Social Problem," in Richard Gelles and Donileen Loseke, eds. Current Controversies on Family Violence. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Vaselle-Augenstein, Renata and Annette Ehrlich. (1993). "Male Batterers: Evidence for Psychopathology," in Viano, Emilio, ed. Intimate Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation.

Walker, Lenore. (1979). The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row.

Widom, Cathy Spatz. (1992). The Cycle of Violence. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

For additional information, please contact:

National Domestic Violence Hotline
(800) 799-SAFE
(800) 787-3224 (TDD)

Family Violence & Sexual Assault Institute
1121 East Southeast Loop 323, Suite 130
Tyler, TX 75701
(903) 534-5100

Michigan Coalition Against Domestic Violence
3893 Okemos Road, Suite B2
Okemos, MI 48864
(517) 347-7000 (24-Hour)

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Policy Office
P.O. Box 34103
Washington, DC 20043-4103
(202) 544-7358

P.O. Box 18749
Denver, CO 80218
(303) 839 - 1852

National Council on Child Abuse & Family Violence
1155 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036
(800) 222-2000
(202) 429-6695

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence
6400 Flank Drive, Suite 1300
Harrisburg, PA 17112
(800) 537-2238

Violence Against Women Office
Policy Office
Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 5302
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Your state Attorney General, county/city prosecutor, or county/city law enforcement:

Check in the Blue Pages of your local phone book under the appropriate section heading of either "Local Governments," "County Governments," or "State Government."

FYI: A Program of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

All rights reserved.

Copyright 1997 by the National Center for Victims of Crime.   This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice.


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