By David S. Prescott, LICSW
One of the greatest benefits of ATSA membership is the professional listserv discussions. We rarely discuss these discussions in the blog due to the listserv’s rules around confidentiality. It can be among the most helpful resources in our field; ask a question and others will reply with ideas and resources.
In the past week, a member described a situation in which a colleague asked whether a particular client might be “in their cycle,” given their recent behaviors. It’s a question that has been asked many times throughout the years. The range of responses at this time in our field’s development clearly illustrated the creativity and thoughtfulness of ATSA members. At the same time, it showed how little we actually know from research.
Obviously, if one is trying to prevent a behavior from happening in the future, it can help to know a bit about how it happened in the past and to develop skills for self-management at the times that it might happen again in the future. One might wonder reading the literature whether it ends there?
It's not entirely clear when the first ideas about “cycles” of abuse occurred. It has long been common to hear expressions such as, “We need to end the cycle of abuse” at the family, community, and societal levels. Many of the first client workbooks in our field included cycles: a visual means for understanding common patterns of behavior that end in abuse. The fields of domestic and intimate partner violence have also used cycle diagrams to explain how these forms of harmful behaviors happen.
To this day, however, no empirically validated “cycle” has been established. What does this say about us? And the cycles we use? I put this question to one of the progenitors of the field, who used it in her work with adolescents. Her answer was simple: The cycle is simply a way to help people understand their behavior. In other words, there is no cycle that has been carved in stone; it’s all based on clinical observation. The best answer to “Is my client in their cycle” might be, “which cycle?”
In 1998, Barry Maletsky wrote an article highly critical of the cycle. In 1999, Mark Carich wrote a response defending it. In 2002, Ward & Siegert described their “pathways model,” which hypothesized five pathways into offending. By 2012, this had evolved into the Self-Regulation Model, which Kingston, Yates, and Firestone said, shows the need for a “comprehensive and multidimensional offence process model that emphasizes multiple routes to offending in sexual offender treatment.” To this author’s knowledge, this remains the best study on this topic in our field. The next question really is, “Which cycle?” Isn’t it possible for a person to engage in different processes with varying motivations to arrive at the same behavior?
Another question is how many times a behavioral trajectory must take place before we can call it a cycle? If a person has only offended once or very rarely, is it still a “cycle,” since that term implies a return to offending? Is discussing cycles appropriate in that case since it can also cause clients (under the wrong conditions) to believe that re-offense is inevitable? Is our goal to help them “break the cycle” or pursue what Shadd Maruna has called “cognitive transformation”? Why do we only think in terms of cycles of abuse? Why not cycles of success? Many professionals have over the years, and yet this doesn’t make it into the literature.
In the end, it may not matter much what we call it if our treatments are working? Just the same, the questions are worth asking and the discussion is worth having, and ATSA members are having it!