what is the narcissistic abuse cycle
Is the Cycle of Abuse a Myth?

What if you could spot a hidden emotional abuse right away? Elizabeth courageously shares her story to help you identify the cycle of abuse.

Although it might not necessarily look like a cycle, emotional abuse shows up in patterns. If you know what to look for, understanding the cycle of abuse can help you understand your situation.

“I felt like something was off…but I didn’t know what to look for.”

Elizabeth, like many victims of hidden abuse, felt unsettled early on in the relationship. But she didn’t have the language or professional support to identify that her abusive husband was putting her through the devastating cycle of abuse. Tune in and read the full transcript below for more.

This episode is Part 1 of Anne’s interview with Elizabeth.
Part 1: Is The Cycle of Abuse a Myth? (this episode)
Part 2:
How to Set Boundaries in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

The Cycle of Abuse Makes You Feel Crazy

Like many women, Elizabeth sought professional help early on in her marriage because she felt crazy in her relationship. If you are feeling crazy in your relationship, please know that gaslighting, blame-shifting, secret intimate betrayal (including porn use), and sexual coercion are abuse issues and must be treated as such.

Understanding the cycle of abuse can help you identify what’s really going on, early on.

What is the Cycle of Abuse?

Recover From Narcissistic Abuse

The Cycle of Abuse Consists of Four Main Phases:

  • Grooming: this phase is often called love-bombing. We also refer to it as “manipulative kindness”. This phase can last minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, or in some cases, decades. Abusers groom victims by presenting whatever version of themselves seems most safe, secure, “attachable”, and healthy to you.
  • Tension: this phase is often very painful for victims. Women experiencing abusive tension often blame themselves, feeling responsible for the abuser’s neglect and verbal abuse – because it’s starkly different from the grooming behaviors that the abuser used to manipulate them into the relationship.
  • Action: the action phase is unique to each abuser, but consists of the harmful behaviors that constitute hidden abuse, including: gaslighting, manipulation, intimate betrayal, financial betrayal, etc.
  • Denial: women are often on the cusp of setting safety boundaries, including separation or divorce, during the denial phase. Abusers use gaslighting, manipulation, and blame-shifting, to “erase” the harmful behaviors of the cycles before – but often, victims come to a place where they’re simply done with the pain and confusion of hidden abuse. Tragically, this is also the phase where abusers tap into a deeper level of manipulation and coax the victim into the grooming phase, where the cycle starts all over again.

BTR.ORG Is Here For You

The good news is that many, many victims are identifying the cycle of abuse in their relationships, earlier and earlier.

If you’re realizing, maybe for the first time, that you’re experiencing emotional abuse, please know that you are not alone. Consider attending a BTR.ORG Group Session today.

Full Transcript:

Anne (00:01): Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne.

We have a member of our community on today’s episode. Her name is Elizabeth and she is going to share her story. Welcome, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth (01:34): Thank you.

Anne (01:35): She’s been a podcast listener for a long time. It’s always an honor to have podcast listeners on, so thank you so much for supporting the podcast by listening to it. Let’s start with your story. Tell me about the beginning. Did you recognize your husband’s abusive behaviors at first?

“It felt like such a change from when we were dating.”

Elizabeth (01:54): I noticed some things before we were married regarding his behavior, specifically with social media. There was an instance when he omitted some information and I didn’t, of course at that point consider it abuse. I just addressed it with him, was honest upfront and he was agreeable and said that I was right, and I thought, that’s it, that’s solved. And I felt like he heard me and we kind of moved on.

Once we were married, I noticed that some of his responses to me, I just felt like there was a lot more contempt. He kind of was less agreeable if I brought things to him, and that’s when I started to have some questions and feel quite out of sorts because it felt like such a change from when we were dating.

Anne (02:46): Do you mind me asking what was the nature of the information that he withheld before you got married?

The Early Stages in the Cycle of Abuse

Elizabeth (02:52): We hadn’t been dating that long. I had a trip planned with a couple of my girlfriends to go to Europe. and it had already been for quite a while and I was going to be away for a couple months. I had felt like I wanted to pursue the relationship and he said, do you want to be exclusive? And it was a big yes for me.

So when I was away, I felt like communication was difficult. I felt like it was hard to pin down, and he had said he was going to go camping one weekend and I had this gut feeling that he may be going camping with someone he worked with who was quite a bit younger than him, and I don’t know why, but I just had this gut feeling and I asked him if he did and first he said he went with just my dog.

“At first he was understanding, but then he became quite pressuring that I get over it”

(03:36): He was taking care of my dog. And then he said, oh, I went with some coworkers. I found out the truth much later. 6 months later. He went on a one-on-one camping trip with a 21-year-old when he was in his mid thirties.

So that’s obviously a red flag. But I was already pretty invested. He denied anything happened and I kind of worked through it. And at first he was quite understanding, but then he became quite pressuring that I get over it in his words after a few days of him listening to my concerns that he withheld that information. That was the situation. But nothing had happened between them that –

Anne (04:17): You knew of.

Elizabeth (04:18): Exactly.

What Actually Happened on the Camping Trip?

Anne (04:19): Did you ever find out later that there was something that happened between them?

Elizabeth (04:23): He told me that she shot him down and said, no. Looking back now and the knowledge I have, I think there was a certain amount of grooming going on with that coworker and that she maybe saw him as an older brother type and in the reality there was a different motive on his end. So I think it probably confused her quite a bit if I was to put myself in her shoes.

Anne (04:48): Totally. So had he been able to he would’ve.

Elizabeth (04:51): Yes. And he said that.

Anne (04:53): He said that at the time, back in the day or –

Elizabeth (04:57): Six months later.

Is Lying Part of the Cycle of Abuse? (Spoiler: Yes)

Anne (04:58): I was going to say, that doesn’t sound like something he’d say right away. It’s really interesting to me when they decide to lie and not tell you information. Then when they decide to tell you the information, it’s almost this calculated time that is meant to hurt you.

Not necessarily a time to bring you closer when they feel like you’re maybe having a great day or something’s going well for you or something like that because it’s calculated to hurt you. So can you tell me the nature of when he told you this?

The “Trickle Disclosure” Can Keep Victims Stuck in the Cycle of Abuse

Elizabeth (05:31):I definitely identify. There has been times when that’s the case. I used to call it the trickle disclosure. That’s kind of what I got in my relationship was, oh yeah, this flashback came back to me and it would be gut wrenching for me. And looking back, I think he did do that sometimes in that way to keep me kind of destabilized a bit.

“He was afraid I was going to leave him.”

This particular instance for this situation, I think he was afraid I was going to leave him. So he told me about this camping trip and the fact that he lied, omitted and told me at that point that now we had everything out in the open. We were still dating. And so that was like, okay, now you know everything. It was a lie.

Looking back, he did that when I first met him two days in. He lied, but I thought, wow, how vulnerable. He told me this difficult part that he had cheated on a past partner, one partner one time, it’s grooming. I had no idea what grooming was.

It was a way to have me kind of trust him to say like, oh, he was upfront and told me this information, and it’s all there is. All the skeletons are out of the closet and they weren’t. But it was a way to kind of silence me a bit.

Manipulative Truth: A Key Piece of the Cycle of Abuse

Anne (06:42): I’ve been thinking of a name for this, but I don’t have one yet. But manipulative truth, which is never the whole truth, but they make you think, no one who is a liar would tell me this thing. So they must be telling the truth, but they’re telling a part of the truth that is the top of the iceberg.

If they were to tell the truth, they’d say, well, I’ve cheated on every partner. I still masturbate every day and I still look at porn and I have every intention of cheating on you because I don’t really want to be with one person. And then they say, now everything’s out on the table.

Elizabeth (07:19): So it creates a false sense of safety.

Why Do Emotional Abusers “Test” Victims? (Is This Part of the Cycle of Abuse?)

Anne (07:22): Exactly. And they do it on purpose. I think the other issue there, if it was before you were engaged, was it test? If I tell her this partial truth, that seems horrific and she’ll still get engaged to me, this is the kind of girl I want to marry. She believes me.

Elizabeth (07:38): Exactly.

Anne (07:39): So they’re going to tell a partial truth that feels really true in order to test, is this the kind of woman that I can exploit sometimes, and that’s not your fault. It has nothing to do with you. It’s really, really, really scary and sad and awful. That is their intention from the beginning. That’s what was always so alarming.

Elizabeth (08:03): It was mind blowing it to have that level of that it was that planned and calculated.

Anne (08:09): What types of reasons did you give in the beginning for this behavior that seemed kind of off?

Abusers Use GASLIGHTING to Stop Victims from Identifying the Cycle of Abuse

Elizabeth (08:14): Initially. I think there was some self-blame, and that’s kind of the work I’ve done in my own journey. I sort of thought, well, maybe the problem lies with me. And he agreed. He agreed that the problem was probably me. I had said, well, I had done counseling in the past and I think I should take it back up. And he said, yeah, I think you should too.

So he really let me kind of go down that road of I just need to do my own work, that it was my neediness or anxiousness or this or that, that was the problem. And that there was nothing had changed really on his end, but I just felt this sense of it was sort of night or day.

We moved to a different town and it was kind a college town. There was younger women around in this college town, and I feel like maybe he was triggered from his own past because before I met him, he’d kind of been in a city where it was a lot of college students, young women around, and he was in a kind of party atmosphere and I didn’t know all the extent of it.

When Therapy Harms, Instead of Helping Victims Identify the Cycle of Abuse

(09:14): So when we moved to this new city and we were newly married and his behavior towards me changed, he helped me in that way of thinking it was me. So I started counseling and he did come to some of those early counseling sessions as well with me, and that’s when we found out there was an addiction.

Anne (09:29): He came to confirm to the therapist that it was your problem. Did you find the therapy to be helpful in this particular situation?

“Something doesn’t feel right, something has changed.”

Elizabeth (09:37): No, I’d say no. I think she was just trying to figure things out as well. Also, I was pregnant, so the goal was to kind of help reduce my anxiety. I was feeling very anxious in the pregnancy and I wasn’t able to put my finger on what was going on.

So it felt very crazy making, and that’s what I internalized was coming from within me and that I had nothing to worry about. And here I was quite worried and that impact on my unborn child, and so she was just basically trying to support me with my anxiety.

Well, turns out my gut is pretty sensitive, and so then I kept picking at the wound kind of thing and just bringing my concerns to him over and over. Something doesn’t feel right, something has changed.

Anne (10:23): Did they diagnose you with anxiety or anything like that?

Pathologizing Victims Instead of Helping Them Identify the Cycle of Abuse

Elizabeth (10:27): No. Okay. No. We used it as a diagnosis just for insurance purposes, but I’ve never had a diagnosis of anything.

Anne (10:34): Okay. That’s good. So many women get diagnosed with something during this time because instead of their therapist saying, oh, this is your internal warning system telling you something, something’s wrong. You are reacting in a totally normal way.

You are great. Let’s figure out why your warning system is going off. Instead of saying that they’re happy to be like, oh yeah, you’re just another crazy woman who’s having too much anxiety and you’re hysterical for no reason.

Elizabeth (11:06): That’s the only message I was getting.

Is Secret Pornography Use Part of the Cycle of Abuse?

(12:25): The therapist doesn’t help you figure out what’s going on. She doesn’t help you figure out that he’s abusing you. And then you realize he’s addicted to pornography without the help of that therapist. How did you discover his pornography use?

Elizabeth (12:40): I kept asking, something has changed, what has changed? And I thought, is it because I’m pregnant? Again, a lot of focus on myself, but I knew something was different. I asked him. It’s never been on my radar. And I said, do you look at pornography?

Because something in the conversation led me to ask the question and he said, yes, I do so that I don’t bleep other women. And it shocked me. It’s a moment kind of etched in my memory because I was in shock that he had never offered that information. That conversation had never come up.

Odd logic 😳

Anne (13:15): Also, that his opinion or his viewpoint was that if he did not look at porn, he was not in control of himself enough and he did not have the integrity or the ability or the adult skill of not having sex with someone that wasn’t his wife.

That was his reasoning. Otherwise, if he didn’t look at porn, Hey, Elizabeth, you are lucky. I’m such a giver. I’m looking at porn for you because if I didn’t do this, I would be out having sex with other women and you don’t want me to do that.

Elizabeth (13:52): It was kind of progress in his mind.

Anne (13:55): I’m doing great kind of a thing. Oh, that must’ve been devastating. I’m so sorry. So you find out, when does the word addict come into play?

Going the “Sex Addiction Route” Can Keep Victims from Identifying the Cycle of Abuse

Elizabeth (14:03): I don’t think until he started, he sought out the Sex Addicts Anonymous. I think it had been a decade since I’d even heard of the terms someone having a sex addiction. And I kind of laughed. I didn’t think it was a real thing.

Anne (14:14): Why did he seek it out?

Elizabeth (14:15): Much like when he confessed about the six months, the story about the girl, the 21-year-old, I think he could sense that I would potentially leave him or have him leave the house. And so he found an SA ad in the paper. He said, I’m going to go. And he went. I at that point started on the journey of thinking that was our only issue.

And then I found out it was a much bigger issue than just looking at pornography, the ingrained pattern of his character and everything. But at the time, once I started to learn about the world of sex addiction because of the group and my own support group, I thought that was the only issue.

The Problem with the COSA Model

Anne (14:58): It’s interesting to me that it is the issue, but the issue is larger than just that this is a systemic issue, and it breaks my heart when women don’t go the abuse route, when they go the addiction route first because it keeps women in the abuse so much longer.

And in a strange way, because the answer in COSA is stay on your side of the street, work on your own things, which is kind of the right answer a little bit, but only when you know exactly what you’re dealing with. If you know you’re dealing with abuse, then you realize, oh, I don’t need to work on my side of the street. I need to get off the street.

Elizabeth (15:40): Yes, I missed that point. That’s what I was seeking support from professionals, and I didn’t really get that direction.

🚩🚩🚩Chaotic Counsel

Anne (15:51): Did you ever go to a pornography addiction therapist?

Elizabeth (15:56): I did. I thought, okay, once I knew he had an addiction, I started reading and that was what was recommended. And she recommended after meeting with he and I that we do a 90 day separation, and she reported to me, she did not feel like there was any remorse or anything on his end is what she felt from meeting him and talking to him.

So that was devastating in its own right. I had a small infant and his counselor on the other hand was not certified sex addiction therapist.

Marriage Counseling Does NOT STOP the Cycle of Abuse

She was giving us conflicting information or conflicting direction, and she was trying to handle what was going on in a different way. So I was getting direction. I was still breastfeeding. I was getting direction like, You leave the house on a Saturday for 12 hours and then he can leave the house the next day for 12 hours.

The whole time I didn’t have safety. I didn’t feel safe in my home around him, but I was trying all these different things.

Question: Is his behavior an extension of the addiction, or another phase of the cycle of abuse?

Anne (16:50): Even if the person would’ve been a certified sexual addiction therapist, the likelihood of them identifying the abuse is next to zero because they don’t see it as an abuse issue. They’re not certified abuse specialists, they’re certified sexual addiction therapists, so they will identify anything he does as an extension of the addiction.

So he’s in addict mode, he’s not in recovery, something like that, rather than he is abusive, which is a totally different thing for a woman to hear. I applaud that first therapist though, for saying, I don’t think that he feels remorse or anything. So even though that was hard for you to hear, at least it was maybe a wake up call.

Elizabeth (17:36): It was definitely, we did try the separation as well, so we did separate for a short time.

Anne (17:42): So at that time you did separate based on her counsel and then you ended up getting back together?

Elizabeth (17:47): Yeah.

“He raged and tore things apart.”

Anne (17:49): Tell me how that happened.

Elizabeth (17:50): He wanted to separate from me as well, definitely, but he didn’t want to leave the comfort of the home. So his idea was that he would sleep in the living room. We had a loft in our garage. He’d go sleep out there, and I took a trip four day or five day trip to California to visit a friend and to kind of have some space.

I had my daughter with me, and when I came back, he picked us up at the airport. He barely acknowledged me.

There was a lot of feeling of contempt, and I was like, you know what? I want this separation, but I want him out of the home. I told him and he raged and tore things apart in the house, and I did call the police accidentally. I said, I will call nine one one, called the number.

They came, he left. After that for two months, he still had access to my daughter. He’d still come and get her, but we really had no interaction.

Anne (18:42): Did you get a protective order at that time?

6 More Months of The Abuse Cycle

Elizabeth (18:44): I did not. So fast forward a couple months, he’s still coming to get my daughter, but I kind of try to have little to no contact with him in that exchange.

Then we’re at church on Easter and I go out to use the bathroom or something, and I walk by where my daughter is in the playroom and he’s standing at the doorway of the playroom. I thought it was this reconciliatory event in my mind. From there, he doesn’t move in right away, but we start communication again.

I don’t even know if he ever said he’s sorry, maybe once. But I thought this is where we both take accountability and we start to move forward and repair our relationship. And he eventually did move in after about a month. We were together for another six months, and it got worse. It got much worse.

The Isolation and Emotional Abuse Escalate (This is Part of the Cycle of Abuse)

(19:36): Looking back, he cut off all communication that I had with his counselor. She would allow me to call her. He wouldn’t allow me to talk to her. He wouldn’t talk to anybody in the church with me. And he wouldn’t let me be around if he was talking to his sister, who was quite a bit older than him who had been kind of a support.

For those six months he completely isolated me. I would say definitely the abuse escalated. I don’t think he really wanted to be there. He just wanted to change the narrative of the story so that when he left, it was because I was crazy and unstable versus what was the initial story. He kind of looked like the bad guy.

“This is it.”

Elizabeth (20:18): After that six months, he left and I said, this is it. He was going on a trip to see his family. I just knew. I knew that this wasn’t something we were both invested in repairing. and so I just kind of said, when you leave this time there, you’re not coming back in the home.

Then I move forward on my own pretty quickly to pursue divorce because I was going to move back to Canada.

So it was kind of, part of it was that I had to kind of secure my future because when he first left, all I could think about was, how do I keep my daughter close to him? How do I make this work for him? My whole way of thinking was what would he want? And then I started to think about, what do I want and what brings me peace, and that led me to make some choices for myself and my daughter.

Anne (21:12):
We are going to take a break right here, but stay tuned. Elizabeth and I are going to continue her story next week.


  1. Crystal

    My story is almost identical. It’s so scary that this is so prominent in our society and there’s almost no real help. BTR and Dr. Minwalla’s model are the only true help for women like us.

  2. K D M

    Hi! What is COSA? I’ve tried googling it. 🙂

    • Anne

      COSA is co-sex addicts.


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