Lenore Walker’s Cycle of Violence

May 4, 2023 By Isabelle Sophie Martinet

The “Cycle of Violence” theory of domestic violence was first introduced in the 1970’s by researcher and feminist Lenore Walker. She based her theory on interviews conducted with women who had survived abusive relationships.

The goal of the Cycle of Violence theory was to describe and predict the pattern that violent relationships often fall into. Walker identified three phases that these relationships tended to cycle through:

Honeymoon phase: This is where violent relationships often begin. The abuser is charming, caring, gentle and affectionate. He or she may present their victim with gifts, go out of their way to do nice things for them, and generally make their victim feel accepted and loved.

Tension building phase: According to Walker, acts of violence are generally preceded by periods of growing unrest within the relationship. The abuser may become increasingly jealous, short tempered or paranoid. The victim will often try to protect his or her self by placating the abuser. Unfortunately, an abusive person’s anger is often irrational and therefore cannot be reasonably calmed. In many abusive relationships, there is nothing the victim can do to avoid upsetting their partner.

Acting out phase: This is when things come to a head and the abuser becomes violent. In addition to physical attacks, a batter might use threats, intimidating behavior and emotional abuse to keep his or her victim in line. During this phase, victims are often too frightened to seek out the help they need.

Walker’s theory posits that in time the acting out phase will lead back into the honeymoon phase. This emotional manipulation is what makes it so difficult for many victims of abuse to escape the relationship. Batterers can be extremely charming when they want to be. According to Walker, as time goes by the cycle often becomes tighter and tighter, which each phase lasting a short amount of time until the victim either escapes or, tragically, is killed.

This theory has received a fair amount of criticism over the years. Some people believe that Walker’s sample size was too small and not diverse enough to provide an accurate portrayal of violent relationships across the country. Other people, based on their own research and experience, do not believe that domestic violence is as predictable as Walker first made it out to be.

Abusers can vary widely in their behavior, motivations and tactics. There are many, many different ways that a person can be manipulated. Some abusers rely mostly on emotional or verbal abuse, rarely if using physical attacks. Others do not cycle through phases of peace, tension and violence in the way that Walker described.

Whether Walker’s Cycle of Violence is strictly accurate for every abusive couple, it was still an important study. It shed a light on abusive behavior and suggested why some victims do not leave their abusers.