Thursday Thought — The Cycle of Abuse

In his book, Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church [Affiliate link], Pastor Crippen describes each phase of the cycle of abuse.  Understanding each phase and how they work in sequence may help victims be able to avoid or lessen the confusion that abusers want to create.

The buy-back

Some people call this the ‘normal’ phase or even the ‘honeymoon period,’ but in an abusive relationship, nothing is ever really normal, and any honeymoon feeling is a deception. ‘Buy-back’ names what the abuse is doing: trying to manipulatively buy back, through apparent peace and pleasantness, the affection and loyalty of the one he seeks to control. When it suits his purposes, he can pretend to be quite caring, even loving. The buy-back phase will give the victim false hopes that thing are better now, that he really does love her, that he has truly changed. But like almost everything the abuser does, this is ultimately all for himself.

The buildup

In this phase, tension builds. The abuser begins to see everything his victim does as a challenge to his power and authority. He begins to plan how he will deliver his next explosion of abuse to bring her back under his control.

The setup

The abuser looks for ways to set up his victim, an excuse to strike. Like an evil dictator looking for an excuse to start a war, he may create the incident, using one of the tactics described in the next chapter. Because his ultimate desire is to exercise control, the victim will fail in all her attempts to please him.

The blowup

The abuser now launches his all-out attack in one of several ways. His goals will be to intimidate the victim to remain small and in her place of subjection and servitude, and to convince her that she is entirely at fault for his abuse.

The cover-up

An abuser at this state may put on displays of guilt and remorse. He may feign empathy, shame, and sorrow for his wrongdoing. He may express his love for his victim in what appears at first to be a very genuine way. But it is a sham, often simply mimicked and mirrored from outward behavior that he has observed in others. One giveaway is that there will almost always be some form of excuse and blame directed toward someone else, usually his victim.

The buy-back

The abuser will cycle back to the beginning, to what some call the ‘normal’ phase, only to repeat the cycle over and over again. But remember, what some call ‘normal’ is really manipulation in disguise, or ‘buy-back.’ Great damage can be done to victims during this state, as it increases the victim’s confusion.

Just remember, in every phase of this abuse cycle, abuse is operating.

(From Unholy Charade, pp36-37)


Here is a diagram of The Cycle of Abuse developed by ARMS (Abuse Recovery Ministry Services) that may be helpful.


UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.


23 thoughts on “Thursday Thought — The Cycle of Abuse”

  1. Just remember, in every phase of this abuse cycle, abuse is operating

    And also remember that everything the abuser does is deliberate. We give evil people the benefit of every threadbare doubt, over and over again, because we tend to assume that others are like us, people with empathy.. Abusers lack empathy and their abuse is not “a mistake” or “an accident”.

    1. Abusers lack empathy and their abuse is not “a mistake” or “an accident”.

      So very true. It’s amazing how others will make excuses for the abuser’s behavior.

  2. Boy oh boy, two of the four counselors we saw, both male, never believed what I was telling them, and my abuser has gone on to try to convince the Catholic Church (his new wife is Catholic) that he should be a Deacon! Fortunately some people in the Diocese see through his charade. What a mess this man is, and he TRULY needs God’s intervention. So do I!

  3. I went through 3 years of emotional abuse and confusion created by my new wife who had, I found out afterwards, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She skipped the Cover-Up stage in every cycle of abuse because a narcissist is always and forever right and has no empathy or conscience. She didn’t apologize even for her most outrageous unrealistic behavior. She didn’t need to fake looking good because she managed to isolate us from family, friends, co-workers, and church. She would come to the Buy-Back when she figured I had suffered enough, or learned my lesson, or God had changed me. Except for the Cover-Up, the Cycle of Abuse matches what I went through over and over.

    1. Hello John, welcome to the blog. 🙂 I altered your screen name for your safety and I removed the link to a website which was attached to your WordPress ID. I couldn’t remove the photo which is your WordPress gravatar. If you want to comment here without giving your photo, you will have to either go to your WordPress account and remove the photo, or create a different WordPress account from which to comment here. If you create a different WordPress account, I suggest you don’t put a photo or visible URL on it.

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    2. John, I would love to hear more about your experience. My wife of 4 years sounds very similar to what you are describing, just to a lesser degree. I would say about 20% of the time she is in the Cycle of Abuse, and her Buy-Back is exactly as you describe. The abuse is yelling, cursing, name calling, “you always” and “you never” statements, and then several days of pouting and bitter statements, until she thinks I have learned my lesson. She likes to make rules that must be followed whether you disagree or not, and if you break them the cycle starts.

      I had always figured she had a bad anger problem, but you can be angry without trying to hurt your spouse. The Narcissistic Personality Disorder you mention sounds much closer to her behavior, but I have never heard of it in that form before.

      I am 50 / 50 on getting a divorce, and really don’t know what to do. When she is not in the Cycle, she is fun, loving, hardworking, takes great care of the house, and the sex is great. But the 20% is pretty brutal. The Set-Up step can be something so trivial, or something that someone else has done that had nothing to do with me, and can occur anywhere at any time.

      She recently kicked me out of the house (I have a rental property that I was able to move into), but she is now in Buy-Back mode, as she knows I am contemplating divorce. She is open to counseling and tentatively acknowledges she has an anger issue, but I wonder how much is genuine and how much is Buy-Back manipulation. She believes she is genuinely trying to save our marriage and professes her great love for me. She has two teenagers that I love, which makes it harder to leave, because I would be losing a whole family.

      Any links or resources or further insights would be very much appreciated.

      Barbara, I have learned a lot from this site, but I would love to learn more about how to help your spouse if they are open to it (e.g., can this person change their behavior, where do you go for help, etc). I am ready to walk away if there is not progress toward genuine change, but I do not know how to get her help.


      1. Hello Dennis, welcome to the blog.

        We are not mental health professionals so we tend to be cautious about glibly using the term Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Properly speaking, only a licensed mental health professional who is licensed to diagnose mental health conditions, can ascribe that term to someone after they have seen them clinically. We know the term is bandied about a lot on the web, on pop-psychology sites. And on those sites it is used more loosely than professional clinicians use it. So just be cautious about that.

        Anyway, what use is it to have a label like ‘NPD’ or ‘Narcissist’ to label a person who is an abuser? Some victims find it easier to say “my spouse is a narcissist” than to say “my spouse is an abuser”. But apart from that, the labels can have downsides — they can make it seem like the behaviour of that person is something which can be ‘explained away’ by mental disorder.

        We find it generally more helpful to use the term domestic abuser, or abuser. Look in our sidebar for our definitions of Domestic Abuse and Domestic Abuser.

        You may also like to check out our FAQ page. There is a question there about ‘can an abuser change?”

        We always tell the person who is suffering intimate partner abuse this: If your spouse is open to change, they need to seek help themselves and do the work themselves. If you do the work for them, they are likely just expect to keep being spoonfed which will not be conducive to them changing.

        For abusers to change, they need to do a lot of long hard work. Educational groups (programs) for abusive men exist. They are called Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs or Behavior Change Programs. I believe there may be a few group programs for women who abuse their partners, but those programs may be few and far between… as a result of that, if a woman is an abuser she might (my guess) be more likely to be helped if she got into individual counseling with a professional who TRULY understands the dynamics of domestic abuse. Many professionals are not adequately trained in domestic abuse. 😦

        You might find it helpful to read our tag mental illness in abusers, not because your wife has a mental illness, but because the posts in that tag may clear away some misunderstandings and prevent you from going needlessly down unfruitful paths.

      2. Dennis, something to consider….she may be willing to agree to counseling because she thinks that she can manipulate the counselor, as she may have done this successfully in the past and many professionals still seem to be uneducated as to the true nature of these people.

        You didn’t mention what her previous relationships were like and she may not tell you the truth anyway but you may be the “type” she prefers….someone who is invested in her kids which she uses along with the good sex and nice house as tools to keep you hooked. If you’d gone for quite a while without these things and they are something that you value, she has quite a powerful arsenal at her disposal to keep you imprisoned.

        As far as the use of Narcissism or other terms, keep in mind that even the experts don’t agree on the differentiation between them.

      3. Hi Dennis,

        I appreciate the feedback from Barbara about using the term NPD or narcissistic. One counseling couple we saw, who my abuser walked out on, used the term ‘spirit of Jezebel’. We don’t all agree what that means either and if we’re not careful, as victims, we can get caught up in name-calling along with our abusers.

        I would like to share an experience regarding sex as a tool of the abuser. I was crying out to God, “Why is this happening?!” He said, “Your desire for her is a hook in your nose.” Yikes! His answer used a phrase I did not know but sounds bad. I had to look it up to know what the Lord was describing to me. Roman officers would put a hook through the nose of a captive, a new slave, and tie the hook with a rope to their horse’s saddle. The captive would have to trot behind the horse or get his face ripped off. That’s what was happening to me as I stayed in the marriage. Think of this when you feel ‘hooked.’

        I would also like to say that I was in a church whose pastors and counselors understood abuse. They did not tolerate it. I was told I could, even should, divorce her by five different pastors or counselors. They believed what I told them. Some of them knew her. One associate pastor said he wouldn’t have stayed married to her for three months, that she was showing she was not really a Christian and, in his words, she had effectively abandoned me. (Except for the sex – the hook.) I could use 1 Cor 7:15-16 for guidance in this case.

    3. Thanks, John. 1 Cor 7:15-16 has been very confusing for me because she seems to be very religious. She goes to church every Sunday, does Bible study, and participates in charitable events. So it is confusing to call her an unbeliever. And yet when she is in the cycle, I believe if Jesus Himself appeared and tried to talk to her, she would start yelling at Him.

      1. Hi Dennis, thanks for your comment. 🙂

        You may be aware (forgive me if I’ve forgotten that I’ve already told you) that in my book Not Under Bondage I argue that 1 Cor 7:15 is THE key text which gives liberty to a victim of abuse to divorce their abuser.

        And here is our FAQ page about divorce, which has links to the most important posts we have about divorce on this blog. 🙂

      2. UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.


        Jeff Crippen thinks that the religious abuser is one of the worst types of abuser. The monumental hypocrisy of professing to be a follower of Christ, while practising an evil and wicked pattern of conduct to one’s spouse… It’s worse than a non-Christian abuser because on top of all the usual wickedness of abusers, it is taking the Lord’s name in vain.

        Jesus’ harshest words were directed to the Pharisees – the hypocritical religious people who were puffed up on a mindset of entitlement.

      3. Dennis, yes, that confused me too. How can someone so spiritual be so wicked? The Bible provides the best interpretation of itself and helps to clear up confusion. A text that shines light on the true nature of a person is James 3:13-18.This passage compares the conduct of those who operate with heavenly wisdom (the Christian) vs those who are guided by earthly, even demonic, wisdom (the abuser). You could use these verses as a checklist to compare the pattern of your spouse’s behavior to the general conduct of a believer. Also, notice that both this passage and the I Cor 7 passage contain God’s call to peace.

  4. My adult daughter who had to grow up and witness my abusive marriage before I divorced, is currently in her third abusive relationship.
    She always finds herself making excuses for this abuser’s behavior even when it is way wrong.

    He regularly stonewalls her, and has isolated her from friends.
    She sometimes comes to her senses, and gets fed up with being ignored – and has threatened to leave him.
    But every time she does this – he goes into the buy-back stage.
    She then believes him, and continues to give him endless chances.
    It is painful to watch her stuck in this cycle. She does not recognize that he is an abuser because of her very own exposure to continual abuse in her upbringing.
    I send her lots of helpful articles like this one and hope someday she will see the truth.

  5. I encourage other readers here to look at the diagram linked at end of this post. This combined with love avoidant thing is very clarifying.

    I’ve been feeling clear…getting more comfortable with intimacy and autonomy, vulnerability and courage (because my choices are truly free…I don’t let my choices in sharing or not sharing my heart, soul or body feel guilted or accused or assigned-false-meaning-by-others). I realize I am a part of others in various relationship ways, but I am still always distinctly myself…like a cell in the body: I exist (God the Father initiated my existence), and I have a purpose to exist, to exercise my God designed function even as I ‘receive’ and interact and ‘give’ to every cell around me, but hopefully only always directed by the Head (Jesus my Lord) and empowered by the Heart (The Holy Spirit, my convictor and comforter, the One who applies and embodies all the redemption, justification and cleansing of the Lord in His dying and living for me.)…I may need to reread this 1000000 times. 🙂

    1. Hi annthelen, welcome to the blog. 🙂 I really like your description of the cell in the body. Thanks!

      We always like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog.

      If you want us to change your screen name to something else, just email The woman behind the curtain: — she will be more than happy to assist. 🙂

  6. The more I read / research, the more convinced I become….

    ….when the cycle of abuse is perpetuated by multiple, disparate sources, there is no cycle to identify.

    1. Not every victim of spousal abuse identifies a ‘cycle of abuse’. Some women who have been abused by a male intimate partner for years say that they don’t feel the ‘cycle of abuse’ diagrams fit their experience. Over the years I have read this several times in books or journal articles by secular professionals who work with abused women.

      And they were just talking about women who have suffered abuse from just one man. So what you say about your experience — where the abuse was perpetuated by multiple disparate sources and you can’t identify a cycle — that makes sense to me.

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