Stages and Patterns of Physical and Emotional Spousal Abuse
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June 15, 2022

Stages of Spousal Abuse

Domestic Violence

Stages of Spousal Abuse

On their wedding days, few people imagine that their new, loving spouse will one day subject them to spousal abuse. Living happily ever after is the idea most people have in mind, but instead, some people find themselves in a relationship that leaves them feeling unheard, unappreciated, and unsafe. Spousal abuse can be defined as a more narrowly focused version of domestic violence and can happen in both heterosexual and same-sex marriages. [1]Tesch, B., Bekerian, D., English, P., & Harrington, E. (2010). Same-sex domestic violence: Why victims are more at risk. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 12(4), 526-535. … Continue reading

Spousal abuse often entails a variety of tactics that one partner uses to control or manipulate the other partner. [2]Miller, E., & McCaw, B. (2019). Intimate partner violence. New England Journal of Medicine, 380(9), 850-857. http://dx.doi.org/10.1056/NEJMra1807166 Most cases of spousal abuse involve one spouse as the sole abuser, but in some cases, both partners actively engage in abuse of each other in one (or more) ways. Spousal abuse develops as a pattern of behavior over time. However, the stages of abuse often happen in a sequence that can go unnoticed by those unfamiliar with how intimate partner abuse functions.

From the honeymoon stage to the reconciliation stage, those experiencing spousal abuse may feel as if they are on a rollercoaster of emotional (and possibly physical) trauma that has long-lasting detrimental effects on personal well-being. The length of each stage of spousal abuse will vary depending on whether the abuse is physical, emotional, or both, so it is vital to understand what is considered spousal abuse, and what is considered emotional spousal abuse.

After learning about the stages of abuse, those in abusive relationships can take early steps to safely exit the relationship. In fact, anyone experiencing spousal abuse should know what options they have for ending their marriage and feel empowered to seek help for leaving their abusive situation.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the intentional infliction of bodily harm from one person to another that may result in physical pain or impairment. [3]O’Leary, K. D., Barling, J., Arias, I., Rosenbaum, A., Malone, J., & Tyree, A. (1989). Prevalence and stability of physical aggression between spouses: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of … Continue reading In situations of physical spousal abuse, the abusive spouse will use physical force to batter, overpower and dominate their spouse through acts of violence.

Physical abuse tactics may include but are not limited to:

  • Striking
  • Hitting
  • Beating
  • Pushing
  • Shoving
  • Shaking
  • Slapping
  • Poking
  • Pinching
  • Kicking
  • Burning

Physical forms of spousal abuse occur during the incident of the abuse cycle and can have extremely damaging effects on the physical well-being of abused spouses. Physical abuse in any form is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Please seek support for yourself or a loved one as soon as possible if physical abuse is present in the marital relationship.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional Abuse

Emotional spousal abuse can be a bit more complex to identify than physical spousal abuse because it can take on many forms. Furthermore, emotional abuse can occur alone or in addition to physical abuse in marriages. [4]Follingstad, D. R., Rutledge, L. L., Berg, B. J., Hause, E. S., & Polek, D. S. (1990). The role of emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships. Journal of family violence, 5(2), 107-120 … Continue reading Types of spousal emotional abuse can include social isolation, jealousy/possessiveness, verbal tirades, verbal threats of abuse or harm, threats of divorce or abandonment, and threats of affairs or cheating.

Emotional abuse in all of its forms can be especially insidious, comprising a large part of many married and cohabiting couples’ lives. [5]Hazrati, M., Hamid, T. A., Ibrahim, R., Hassan, S. A., Sharif, F., & Bagheri, Z. (2017). The effect of emotional focused intervention on spousal emotional abuse and marital satisfaction among … Continue reading Emotional spousal abuse can lead the abused spouse to feel worthless, or deserving of abuse, and in extreme cases, lead to the abused spouse engaging in self-harming behavior. Hurtful words spoken in a marital relationship have the power to negatively impact self-esteem and well-being, so if there is a recurring pattern of emotional battering in a marriage, it should be taken as seriously as physical abuse.

Stages of Spousal Abuse

Honeymoon Stage

The first stage of the abuse cycle is referred to as the honeymoon stage because most abusers are very charming and endearing at the beginning of the relationship. The relationship starts with the abusive spouse appearing to be a safe space for their partner with the normal loving courting behavior found in healthy relationships.

Many abused spouses look back on the initial honeymoon stage of their relationship often feeling confusion and sadness because their partner showed little to no signs of being abusive. The abused spouse remembers a kind, gentler respectful version of their spouse and often longs for the days of that person and wishes that their spouse would be the way they used to be again.

Unfortunately, in emotionally and physically abusive marriages, this form of thinking leads many abused spouses to stay much longer than what is safe, because they believe their spouse can and will change. At the beginning of the relationship the abusive spouse behaved lovingly, and those memories can be very powerful in influencing abused spouses to continue in the relationship.

Tension-Building Stage

The stage that follows the honeymoon phase is referred to as the tension-building stage because this is the period where an abusive spouse gives signs that he or she is stressed or otherwise angered. An abusive partner may give verbal warnings, or their body language may signal to their spouse that they are irritated.

Initially, an abused spouse may not notice this change in behavior but over time, many abused spouses begin to look for clues that they should be careful of how they interact with their spouse to avoid upsetting them. In the tension-building stage, keeping the abusive spouse appeased is usually extremely scary and stressful for the other spouse and over time it can feel like little to nothing actually works to keep the peace.

Many people refer to these feelings as “walking on eggshells” because abused spouses often feel like they should be extremely careful with their words and actions. A spouse looking to avoid marital conflict may engage in extreme people-pleasing behavior in an effort to stay in their mate’s good graces, or they may try to avoid their spouse for similar reasons. The peace-keeping methods often depend on the abused spouse learning what types of things trigger abusive episodes. Marriages where abuse is present can feel like being on a rollercoaster of emotion, where abused spouses feel trapped and disempowered to change their circumstances.

Violence Stag: Incidence of Abuse

Eventually, the tension boils over and the abusive spouse engages in abusive behavior to release tension and may be emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or both in an attempt to maintain a sense of power and establish control over the other spouse. This stage of abuse is by far the most dangerous because it can involve physical attacks or emotional battering that leave the abused spouse seriously injured and emotionally shaken.

The incident of abuse can include but is not limited to the following:

  • Name-calling and personal insults
  • Threats of bodily harm or damaged property
  • Physical (or sexual) violence
  • Emotional manipulation
  • Attempts to control actions such as how their partner dresses, cooks, spends money, etc.

The incident of abuse is often extremely unnerving and traumatizing and if experienced for years, eventually erodes feelings of hope and safety. If you or someone you loved is on the receiving end of spousal abuse, please remember that even if your spouse blames you for the abuse, it is not your fault.

Experiencing tension may explain why your spouse is behaving abusively, but it is never an excuse for them being abusive toward you. Abusers choose to abuse others, so never blame yourself for your spouse’s poor emotional coping skills. Recognize that their behavior is problematic and take steps to free yourself from abuse.

Reconciliation and Calm Stage

Reconciliation and Calm Stage

The reconciliation stage of spousal abuse occurs immediately after the incident of abuse. In the reconciliation stage, the built-up tension that resulted in the incident of abuse gradually fades. An abusive spouse will often use this time to try to offer a form of affection in an attempt to move past the abusive episode.

This can include gift-giving, loving gestures or acts of service, or even meeting a need that has gone unmet previously (a long overdue date night for example). When an abusive spouse pours on affection to reconcile, it can stir feelings of hope in the abused spouse, and make him or her believe that the relationship is not as bad as it seems, and a new honeymoon period sets in.

A period of calm follows where both spouses will attempt to maintain a sense of harmony to explain or otherwise justify the abusive episode and frame it as something that can and should be put in the past. Some abusive spouses often use this time to apologize for their actions and may point to outside factors to explain away their poor behavior.

An apologetic spouse may make promises of never screaming or hitting you again and you may even want to feel sorry for them. More manipulative abusers may go to great lengths to avoid accountability, denying the abuse ever occurred or minimizing their actions to lessen the gravity of their harmful acts. When this occurs, an abuser is seeking to make their spouse question their own memory or feel guilty for being justifiably upset.

No matter which type of reconciliation is offered, please understand that this step is part of the typical pattern of spousal abuse and should be taken seriously. In abusive marriages, the stages repeat themselves in a cycle and tend to occur over and over again. As abuse escalates, the length of time for each stage often shortens and an abused spouse can find themselves going from the honeymoon stage to the reconciliation stage as frequently as several times a week, if not daily.

Solutions and Resources for Spousal Abuse

Spousal abuse in any form is a highly serious issue that impacts all members of the family. If you are on the receiving end of spousal abuse, you do not have to endure years of trauma in your marriage. It is always best to reach out to experienced social service and legal professionals who have the tools to get you to safety and guide you through the process of filing for divorce and orders of protection (sometimes referred to as a “restraining orders”).

These resources exist to assist you with the process of leaving your abusive marriage:

  • Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233
  • Arizona DES offers resources as well as a Maricopa County Shelter Line at 480-890-3039
  • Contact your local police department for assistance exiting your home safely
  • Reach out to an attorney to discreetly begin preparing to end your marriage.

References

References
1 Tesch, B., Bekerian, D., English, P., & Harrington, E. (2010). Same-sex domestic violence: Why victims are more at risk. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 12(4), 526-535. https://doi.org/10.1350/ijps.2010.12.4.204
2 Miller, E., & McCaw, B. (2019). Intimate partner violence. New England Journal of Medicine, 380(9), 850-857. http://dx.doi.org/10.1056/NEJMra1807166
3 O’Leary, K. D., Barling, J., Arias, I., Rosenbaum, A., Malone, J., & Tyree, A. (1989). Prevalence and stability of physical aggression between spouses: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(2), 263–268. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.57.2.263
4 Follingstad, D. R., Rutledge, L. L., Berg, B. J., Hause, E. S., & Polek, D. S. (1990). The role of emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships. Journal of family violence, 5(2), 107-120 https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1007/BF00978514
5 Hazrati, M., Hamid, T. A., Ibrahim, R., Hassan, S. A., Sharif, F., & Bagheri, Z. (2017). The effect of emotional focused intervention on spousal emotional abuse and marital satisfaction among elderly married couples: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Community Based Nursing and Midwifery, 5(4), 329. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5635553/
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