Abusive relationships take on a clear power dynamic and involve coercive control.

This constant cycle keeps the victim trapped endlessly in a circular pattern of cognitive dissonance from unresolved conflict. This confusion creates a traumatic bonding, where the person becomes psychologically and physically addicted to cyclical abuse patterns. It is as if they had unknowingly been riding on an emotional rollercoaster, often leading to psychosomatic symptoms and problems within the body’s fight-or-flight stress response. These are made worse with increased exposure to trauma from ongoing abuse, since an abuser’s entire goal is to deliberately debilitate you. They will do this to maintain ultimate control and power in the relationship.

Step 1: They Idealize You.

The first part of an abuser’s trap is to trick you into believing they hold you in high regard. They will show extreme kindness and empathy, care for you endlessly, and will often give you compliments on your strengths. They will lure you in by mirroring the exact strengths they see in you to gain your trust and approval. Once they have you hooked, they will quickly commit, make pledges and promises, and engage in talk of creating a wonderful future with you. This stage happens longer and more frequently in the beginning of the relationship. They will do this so they know they “have” you, until they can finally make it difficult for you to leave. Once they are confident that you are in love with them, then they will also likely see that you are willing to sacrifice almost anything to make it work. They will then continue on to the second phase.

Step 2: They Devalue You.

They have built you up, so now it is time to begin slowly tearing you down. They will begin by making small, off-putting comments at first to test the water of your boundaries. As it turns out, they were mirroring you from the beginning to gain your approval and trust. It was almost as if you both had everything in common, from hobbies to personal values. After some time has past, you will begin to see the mask slowly fade as they reveal more of their true character, using multiple techniques to degrade, destroy, and demean your character and self worth. They will make life seem as if you were on an island only with them, isolating you so that you will believe the lies about yourself. They will use everything they learned about you in the beginning of the relationship to prey on your weaknesses, using abrasive techniques to wear you down until you have no identity left except the one they created for you. They will make you completely dependent on them, tie you down in commitments, and make it seemingly impossible to leave without suffering significant damages. Psychopathic abusers will use gaslighting, manipulation, coercion, projection, denial, minimization, and other defense mechanisms to a pathological level so they can deceive, harm, and control you.

Step 3: They Discard You.

Now they have you right where they want you; It is time to take the trash out. They will claim that you are no longer useful to them, you do not fulfill them or their wishes, or that you aren’t living up to their standards or expectations. They will bring out their biggest cards to play in this final stage, where they will push you beyond your reasonable limits. If you have family members who are ill or who have passed, they will come at you full force. If you are sick yourself, they will use this as an opportunity to show you how weak you really are. They will threaten to leave you, divorce you, tell everyone what you’ve done, report you to the authorities, withhold their affection to punish you, or they might say that they don’t really love you. If you are in a bad place financially, such as losing your job or income, you should be prepared to face extreme wrath, guilt, and shame. They will intentionally destroy every occasion or holiday that brings you joy, especially when it takes the attention away from them. They will focus on any and all changes in your appearance or physical attributes, such as your weight or body transformations while going through pregnancy. Lastly, if you call them out on their nature, they will become furious and lash out even more angrily and violently if they think they will lose face by being exposed publicly to others.

The Infinite Cycle Stops Only When Interrupted

These steps will continue to repeat indefinitely, until one day either party decides to finally act. There must be a significant change made to break the cycle of violence and control. Sometimes the abuser finds a new victim and moves on, while other times the victim finds a way to successfully escape. Many victims of abuse attempt to escape many times before finally being able to leave for good, as the abusers will quickly go back to the idealization phase by “hoovering” the victim, sucking them back into their game by apologizing or promising that they have changed. Each time the victim returns, the intensity and frequency of the cycle increases, with shorter time distances between occurrences within the stages of the cycle.

Please Note: If you are in this type of relationship, I encourage you to please reach out to your local domestic violence shelter to discuss your options in seeking legal remedies or alternative housing. If there is physical violence involved, do not hesitate to contact law enforcement if you or your children are in imminent danger. If you need to talk now, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1–800–799–7233.