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Memory loss as side effect of emotional abuse?
March 22, 2012 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Is it common to forget specifics of emotional abuse? (potential triggers inside)

I think I was emotionally abused by my husband during the first year of our marriage. Unfortunately, I remember no specifics, and he wants me to give him specific examples of the abuse. It's a really big charge to level against someone, so I can understand that he wants to understand what was going on.

We fought every day and he would say horrible things to me. I remember nothing specific. He remembers lots of horrible things that I said, but also remembers nothing that he did wrong. He has changed. I know people say abusers don't change, but he legitimately has. Now he thinks that I still see him as an abuser, and I'm not sure how to explain to him that I know in my brain that it won't happen again but when he says certain things or acts a certain way it triggers me. I don't want to go through that again.

However, I can't remember it at all. I remember a few choice phrases and events. Him telling me that I was unlovable. Him saying that I was too fat to be attracted to. Him telling me that I was holding him back. Him telling me that I was emotionally cheating on him by talking to a therapist. He was crazy, and I know that it's over. I do remember thinking that maybe he was abusing me at the time, but now I'm not even sure.

Is it normal for me to be unable to remember anything more?

And how can I get over this? How can I learn to let triggers just roll off my back? Everyone says mean stuff sometimes. He's no longer abusive - if he ever was - but occasionally (once every six months to eight months at most?) he does something that makes me feel like it's all going to happen again, and I flip. the. fuck. out. It makes me majorly depressed for weeks and also makes me really mad at him.

I can't go back to that time in our lives and he can't either. What can I do to handle this if I can't really remember it very well?
posted by sockermom to Human Relations (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
I also should have added that I was no saint. I did and said some awful things. I always thought that I was reacting because of how he was treating me, but that's not really an excuse. Anyhow, I'm sure that he feels similarly about me.
posted by sockermom at 8:45 AM on March 22, 2012


It is absolutely normal for trauma to affect your memory. Speaking with a professional trained in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and violence could be very helpful. Trauma and Recovery is a 1992 book that was considered "ground breaking" at the time. I am sure others on Mefi or a professional counselor/therapist could give you more contemporary reading recommendations.

And as a side note but related to something you wrote, not everyone says "mean stuff" to people that they love. My partner and I never belittle or put each other down, we generally try to treat conflict with love or space (until we can treat the conflict with love). Knowing that you deserve kindess, love and respect is also something that you can talk through with a professional.*

Best of luck.

*I recognize that seeing a therapist/counselor is not appropriate/the right decision for everyone but it can be helpful when trying to work on deep rooted trauma.
posted by anya32 at 8:51 AM on March 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think you should maybe see a counselor, by yourself, who is familiar with emotional and verbal abuse issues. I wouldn't go with him as many counselors aren't familiar with abuse issues and tend to make it worse.

If you aren't already reading Patricia Evans' books, get them. I would keep them away from him and read them on your own - your husband's input won't be helpful until you have digested them.

It might help to memorize her scripts for responding with impact (in the moment) to specific types of abuse, and when he asks for past examples, just say "that's the past and I forgive you for it."

I would also second that not everyone says "mean stuff" to people that they love. It's unfortunately more common than it should be. But it's not inevitable.
posted by tel3path at 8:56 AM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


However, I can't remember it at all. I remember a few choice phrases and events. Him telling me that I was unlovable. Him saying that I was too fat to be attracted to. Him telling me that I was holding him back. Him telling me that I was emotionally cheating on him by talking to a therapist.

Actually, it sounds like you remember quite a bit.

Have you told him those things as examples?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:56 AM on March 22, 2012 [19 favorites]


What can I do to handle this if I can't really remember it very well?

Tell him that you remember how you felt. There is no question that it happened, so there's no need to prove anything. The end result is you felt emotionally abused. In the future, document things. (I am currently doing this due to a verbally abusive co-worker. It really is the only way I will remember what is being said to me--my brian simply doesn't want to retain that information). A therapist could help you sort this out. As for learning to let things 'roll off your back', there is a good reason that things like this hurt. That pain is meant to alert you to harm and help you protect yourself.

I have a good memory but, it's been my experience that if a comment is delivered to intentionally hurt me, I will have a difficult time remembering what was specifically said later on. I will, however, remember exactly how it made me feel. I think this is fairly common.
posted by marimeko at 9:07 AM on March 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Lots of people dissociate during or after painful events, so the memories become foggy or even disappear. Therapy can help, because a therapist can sit with you and help you stay "grounded" while you talk about things that happened. She or he might be able to jog your memory a bit by asking well-framed questions.

The thing is, when you say your husband is no longer abusive ... that doesn't tend to be how it works. You can't be crazy and then just Get Better with no help and no recognition that you've been abusive. I mean, I suppose it is technically possible, but it's highly unlikely.

What's more likely is that your husband is still emotionally abusive and you're no longer interpreting his behaviors that way, or maybe you're in a lull of sorts. That fear you have that everything will revert to the way it used to be, where you're waiting for the other shoe to drop? I lived with that fear for sixteen years, and without exception, things always got better and then worse again. Sometimes it would be months and months before another Bad Thing happened, but the shoe always dropped eventually.

This is another reason I'd suggest seeing a therapist again, if you've stopped since the accusation of emotional cheating. (Which, by the way, WTF?) You need to have someone on your side who can help you figure out (a) if your husband was abusive in the past, and how, (b) if he's still abusive -- which you may not even realize if it's become part of your everyday experience, (c) if he's not still abusive, what has changed, and (d) what you should do if he becomes abusive again. You can also, after seeing a therapist for a few sessions, try doing a few family sessions to talk all of this through with your husband.

Here's a kind of janky emotional abuse checklist that you might find helpful. Remember to apply all the questions not only to the first year of your marriage, but also the present.

::hugs::
posted by brina at 9:08 AM on March 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


I remember a few choice phrases and events. Him telling me that I was unlovable. Him saying that I was too fat to be attracted to. Him telling me that I was holding him back. Him telling me that I was emotionally cheating on him by talking to a therapist.

Isn't that enough?

I think he's being abusive right now by insisting on more examples and discounting the impact of the ones you have. If he never said anything cruel to you other than those things, that would still be abusive.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:09 AM on March 22, 2012 [25 favorites]


Yes, it is normal to have difficulty remembering traumatic events. Abuse is trauma, and verbal insults like the ones you discussed above would constitute abuse to many, many people.

Emotional abuse isn't just about "saying mean things," either. There's a general pattern of attempts to control that occurs in many relationships, and the things you do remember really highlight this. The content of the message is "you're not a worthy person" but the intent is to keep you from feeling good enough about yourself to imagine that you might deserve better than to be told such things, so that you will never leave him and he can treat you however he wants. If there is even a tiny thread of this still happening in your marriage, I URGE you to consider that the abuse is not actually past tense, and those "re-triggering" events you're talking about are actually continuing abuse. The way you say that you're overreacting could be a signal that you have internalized the idea that your feelings and worth are somehow worth less than they are. Here's the thing: your feelings and thoughts ARE valid and worthy, because you're a human being.

And, as has been said above--no, not everyone tells their partner things like what your husband has told you. Most people actually don't attach each other's worth.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:13 AM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


(attach should be attack)
posted by so_gracefully at 9:13 AM on March 22, 2012


Don't force it. There's a reason you've locked those memories away from yourself, and it might be because they are too strong and too painful for you to process right now. They might always be that strong and that painful. That's okay.

Can you get to a place with your husband where you can say, "John, when you say things like [blah], it trips one of my wires and I go into a seriously bad place. I don't know why it does that, but I need you to understand that that's what happens." It's okay for that to happen: self-awareness is sometimes just about understanding where you are and taking responsibility for that, without having to recall the specific steps that got you there.

Consider that your husband needing to understand your response might be his own wires getting tripped. Like, he might find safety in knowing the steps, and feel exposed without that knowledge. I'm kind of like that sometimes. Or he might be trying -- consciously or not -- to undermine your response, to make it something that's out of bounds because you can't explain it. I don't know.

But your response is a fact. Your explanations for the response are just a story anyway. You feel how you feel, and so does he, and a relationship is less about finding out whether those feelings are justified or can be explained, than it is about finding ways to live with them and share them in supportive, responsible, mutually beneficial ways.

I hope you and your husband can do that. Good luck.
posted by gauche at 9:15 AM on March 22, 2012


The thing is, when you say your husband is no longer abusive ... that doesn't tend to be how it works. You can't be crazy and then just Get Better with no help and no recognition that you've been abusive. I mean, I suppose it is technically possible, but it's highly unlikely

--------------> THIS.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that he's *still* abusive even though you feel like he's changed. I think by insisting on specific examples beyond what you mentioned to us, is still a form of being emotionally abusive.

I had an emotionally abusive ex who did exactly this - and when I couldn't give him clear-cut examples (because with therapy I learned it was because I completely dissociated/checked out during these episodes) that he was not abusive. But he was. Very much so in fact. This continued to paint him to himself that he was doing nothing wrong when in fact he was killing me from the inside outward. Thank goodness I got out of there.

I'd be really, really careful with all of this, honestly. I'd suggest finding a therapist on your own and really do some soul searching. People don't change. They just...don't. They can act differently for awhile, but beneath it all, we are who we are.

Good luck.
posted by floweredfish at 9:16 AM on March 22, 2012 [8 favorites]


Please see a mental health professional (ideally a psychiatrist) and they can help you figure out what's going on.

It is a possibility that you have disassociated because the experience was far too difficult and traumatic for you (understandably so).

Difficulty remembering traumatic experiences is something commonly associated with disassociation. I mean, who wants to remember traumatic events?

There isn't a way to "get over this" there is only a way to work through this. You can't ignore triggers and let them "roll off your back" because this does not solve the problem. A mental health professional can help you develop tools for coping with triggers though.

Yes, people say mean things sometimes but this doesn't mean that it's okay. Nor does it mean that you should be able to be okay with hearing these mean statements.

I once said something similar to someone that I'm working with and she said: if I say that I'm very hungry right now, does that mean that I am actually not hungry because there are other people that are starving? Our degrees of pain may be different, but really, HOW much you can handle is what matters.

These statements hurt you and seem to give you these specific overwhelming feelings which is why you flip the fuck out.

Please see a mental health professional. It does get better, but this isn't something that you can work on by yourself or simply "get over."

This also isn't something that you or we can figure out in terms of what's going on with your brain and the processing of these events. We can only make assumptions, but this is by no means a diagnosis.
posted by livinglearning at 9:20 AM on March 22, 2012


Please see a mental health professional.

Second this, emphatically. There is no way AskMe can work this out for you. It's a great first step to post here, but a step down the road should be talking to a professional you trust. I don't think it needs to be "ideally a psychiatrist" because many (not all) psychiatrists focus on prescribing medicines over talk therapy and it sounds like you should start by talking this out.
posted by sweetkid at 9:32 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a really big charge to level against someone, so I can understand that he wants to understand what was going on.

Your reaction is empathetic: you are able to put yourself in his position. I do not see him doing the same; he's making it all about him.

he thinks that I still see him as an abuser, and I'm not sure how to explain to him that I know in my brain that it won't happen again but when he says certain things or acts a certain way it triggers me.

There's something that's not clear here (which could also be due to disassociation and/or taking on responsibility for issues that are not yours, which is generally something abusers tend to do to the people they're abusing). Is he the one bringing this up because he thinks you still see him as an abuser? Because that's uncool in several ways. First: if he knows it bothers you, and sees that you're making a conscientious effort to explain it to him, then... he would stop bothering you with it. But he doesn't. From the way you word your question, it sounds like he brings it up a lot himself. That's... strange to say the least.

Anyhow, I'm sure that he feels similarly about me.

To better understand why I think it's strange, ask yourself why, despite being sure he feels similarly about you, you don't badger him about him thinking you're abusive. (Although if you do badger him, that would render the exercise moot, but it doesn't sound like you've ever thought to address it with him the way he has chosen to do with you.)

As for this part:
I'm not sure how to explain to him that I know in my brain that it won't happen again

That's because it's not up to you to convince him that he won't do something. HE is the one who needs to convince HIMSELF. When you say this I worry that he has in fact not stopped:
when he says certain things or acts a certain way it triggers me.

What things is he still saying, and what is he still doing that triggers you? When you're triggered, does he offer you emotional support and understanding?

Is it normal for me to be unable to remember anything more?

Emphatically YES, for reasons others have given. And especially if you're still feeling stressed out, not being listened to, and not given emotional support.

Nthing that therapy would be a good idea. It helps a lot.
posted by fraula at 10:50 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you were speaking with a therapist during this time, would it be possible to book an appointment with them and talk about this? They should have notes on what you said, and if you described the fights they'll be able to help reconstruct what happened.

I also don't believe your partner has changed as much as you appear to believe. What is likely happening is he's not under stress the same way he was then, so his behaviour is different. Are there major life changes that have occurred between then and now? If his surroundings go back to what they were then, his actions will repeat.

I'm a normally a calm and drama-free person, but if my brother needles me I still have a fit like a 12 year old. (I'm 30). It's really really hard to change, even when you desperately want to.
posted by Dynex at 8:10 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe keep a diary online that's severely password locked? Where you can write down what happens as it happens and then go back to it. I've got great swathes of time I cannot remember clearly that I have journal entries for and re-reading them, I can see why I don't want to remember that period clearly.

It kinda sounds like he may be gaslighting you, in that he's training you to perceive the problem as you being crazy, not you living in a crazy situation. I can't find the main piece on this but here are two shorter pieces: Gaslighting overview and ">HuffPost.

My mother firmly believes she never laid a hand on any of us during our childhoods. I am profoundly grateful to have four siblings who can verify the opposite, because in conversations with her previously, she would push for specific dates and details and I would have only foggy memories of fear, especially when questioned on the spot because it felt like I was the abusive accuser, upsetting her by insisting on "my" version against what would make everybody happy if I just kept quiet and let it go, why was I so mean and dramatic.... It's a classic strategy of emotional abuse because it's effective at keeping victims silent and confused.

Against that, I have a wonderful marriage that has been through the ringer at times, and it is possible that your husband has changed because in a good long-term marriage, that's what happens - you both change your behaviours, figuring out how to become better versions of yourselves with each other. And every now and then, something happens to remind me of a bad time in our marriage and I get an echo wave of emotion from back then and we briefly argue. But it's very much framed as an accidental echo, because we can remind each other that we resolved and moved on from that. If you or your husband are still full of anger over that bad time, then it's not fully resolved.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:07 PM on March 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


On a different track, fairly recent research shows your memories are not fixed, but you recreate them anew every time. This months Wired has a fascinating article about it. So yes it is very well possible for your husband and you to have different memories of the same event. The classic Japanese film Rashomon has this as its subject.
posted by Eltulipan at 6:45 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks for everyone's comments, suggestions, support, and thoughts. I really appreciate all of them. I'll be seeing a therapist as many suggested.
posted by sockermom at 11:15 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, it's normal.

I experienced this.

I have theorized that maybe one of the reasons the things are so hard to remember is because they make no sense. The abuser is saying things to manipulate you, and for no other reason... so the actual words that are coming out of their mouth don't stick to the brain very well because they're not logical. There are probably other (trauma-related) reasons, but that's one theory I've come up with in the 9 years since I left my verbally abusive spouse.

I will give you two book suggestions. They were recommended to me by a counselor, and I found them both to be extremely, extremely helpful. I have read them many times. I cannot recommend them strongly enough. They are The Verbally Abusive Relationship and Why Does He Do That?. The first book is shorter, easier to digest, and gives some good examples of common verbal abuse techniques. The second book is more in-depth, sometimes painful to read, and includes more about other kinds of abuse, not just verbal.

If you even sort of suspect that you've experienced some of this, they would probably be helpful to you, too.
posted by eleyna at 1:21 AM on March 30, 2012


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