Escalation describes the process by which controlling behavior becomes more frequent, less disguised, more damaging, and closer to lethal over time. Escalation occurs, in part, because the feeling of being in control is never stable for the primary aggressor. Events that do not turn out the way the primary aggressor wants or expects fuel the need for control. But on the other hand, success in controlling the survivor sensitizes the primary aggressor to any lapses of control and so also feeds the desire for control.

Most survivors try very hard to interrupt or manage escalation. Accommodating behaviors such as submission, covering up for the primary aggressor, recanting statements, and taking the primary aggressor back after a break up, are all also efforts at stopping or slowing escalation. To a casual observer, this can look like a relationship that is working well. Manipulation and dishonesty by the survivor in the service of increasing her options is an attempt to limit escalation. Refusing to submit or attempting to enforce boundaries usually occurs when the survivor “just can’t take it anymore.” Survivor violence is among other things, an effort to stop escalation by taking a stand or punishing the primary aggressor. This more direct resistance usually results in a more visible strife that can be mistaken by casual observers as ‘mutual combat.’

But experience has shown that abuse and control escalates over time regardless. That is why in recent decades the public safety (police and courts) and public health (therapists) communities have felt compelled to get involved in abusive relationships, over the objection of both partners at times—to interrupt escalation and lower the death rate. This intervention is sometimes called the combined community response. The combined community response is not an effort to identify who is morally good and who morally bad, but rather is an effort to interrupt escalation and save lives.

Most calls to police or survivor advocacy agencies only occur after survivors have experienced lengthy escalation, as well as the current violence, and have come to believe reluctantly, but very accurately, that outside help is the only option. While it is theoretically possible for a person to enter the criminal or domestic violence ‘system’ after a single isolated act of abuse without being a primary aggressor, professionals in the field have found this almost never to be the actual case. Neighbors and extended family also usually only intervene in the face of escalation. A effective response to domestic abuse is based on the presence of escalation and other risk factors, not necessarily the details of any one incident.

The criminal justice and family court systems now place the key responsibility for stopping escalation on the primary aggressor. Because mostly men are identifiable as the primary aggressor, it is sometimes felt that this response is gender biased. Domestic violence treatment, however, is focused not on ‘wrong doing’ by men or women, but on the dynamics of power and control which do tend to differ along gender lines.