The Psychology of Trauma

Domestic Violence

What is Lenore Walker’s model of the cycle of violence?

The psychologist Lenore Walker has written extensively about battered women. In an influential book entitled The Battered Woman, published in 1979, she introduced the concept of the cycle of violence to describe a consistent pattern in the violent behavior of batterers. Based on in-depth interviews with battered women, Walker described three phases of the cycle of violence: the tension-building phase, the acute battering incident, and the honeymoon phase. The tension-building phase precedes the acute battering incident. In this period, the batterer grows increasingly explosive and aggressive. There may be verbal abuse, temper explosions at minor frustrations, and an unpredictable building of tension. At this point, the battered woman knows that a serious explosion may occur at any moment, and she works overtime to appease her partner and avert what she ultimately knows is inevitable. She tiptoes around her partner, constantly walking on eggshells.

Over a period of time—the length of which can vary from a matter of days to several years—the tension escalates until it finally explodes into a violent assault, known as the acute battering incident. There can be punching, kicking, hitting with objects, and throwing down stairs. There can also be forced sexual activity. The abuse can go on for hours, sometimes ending only when the abuser is exhausted and has successfully released all his tension. In the honeymoon phase, the batterer expresses remorse, promises to change, and works hard to win back the woman’s love. Alternatively, he may threaten suicide if she wants to leave, or try to woo her back with heightened affection, gifts, and romantic attention. This continues until the tension-building phase begins anew. While Walker’s theory has been quite influential in the study and treatment of domestic violence, it has also been criticized as overly simplistic and not applicable to all cases of domestic violence. Nonetheless, most clinicians would agree that it is descriptive of some cases of domestic violence.


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