People often wonder why those they care about stay with romantic partners who hurt them. It’s a good question on the surface, but the answer is much more complicated.
When people are in abusive relationships, they consciously or unconsciously use many coping strategies. In fact, most such coping strategies involve the use of their strengths: forgiveness, giving (more than 50% in the relationship), tolerance, patience, accommodation, and other pro-social skills for adapting to a difficult situation.
Sometimes, though, not-so-positive traits are used to adapt to an abusive situation. These include minimizing, denial, rationalization, pretending/fantasizing, “spacing out,” alcohol and drug use, and developing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress.
And then there is abuse amnesia.
An exacerbating condition occurs if the person experiencing abuse grew up in an abusive household. In this case, the person may have been conditioned to adapt to an abusive environment by utilizing the above-listed coping styles. People in this situation do not typically respond to “red flags” because they have become accustomed or desensitized to them during their developmental years. They have most likely honed the art of abuse amnesia.
What, exactly, does abuse amnesia look like in practice? It occurs when a person has been abused—physically, verbally, sexually, or emotionally—and in a matter of minutes, hours, or days, it’s as if the occurrence of abuse never happened. The victim and the perpetrator carry on as if the incident never happened.
Why does abuse amnesia occur? One reason is brain chemistry. Here are the brain chemicals involved and their effects (in extremely simplified terms):
- Oxytocin: bonding
- Dopamine: craving, pursuing, longing, motivating, saliency
- Endogenous opioids: withdrawal equals pain, use equals pleasure
- Cortisol: stress
- Adrenaline: stress
When an abusive incident happens, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released, putting the individual in a heightened sense of readiness. After extensive incidents of abuse, the brain response has familiarized with a pattern: hyperarousal (abuse and abandonment) and then relief. During the hyperarousal phase, the individual experiences increased levels of stress hormones. Once things have calmed down, the body searches for relief.
During the abandonment phase of the cycle, the victim’s brain releases chemicals that cause the feelings of longing, anticipation, and the motivation to find relief. Endogenous opioid withdrawal causes pain, and the neurotransmitter dopamine motivates the person to search for relief in the object of desire—the abuser.
Once the chaotic encounter between victim and abuser is over, homeostasis sets in. The abusive relationship has become a system. All systems strive for homeostasis, which occurs at a state of equilibrium. Each person in the system adjusts in order to reach that “perfect” state of equilibrium. Abuse amnesia is an essential component of this balance.
It is distressing to think bad thoughts about a recent traumatic event. It is much more calming to remember the good times. Thus, a person who is in an abusive relationship trains their brain to “move on” and feel good again. Once the abusive partner comes back and stops actively abusing, the brain releases oxytocin and opioids, which have a calming effect. The stress hormones are diminished and the feelings of relief caused by the positive chemicals reinforce the victim’s ability to forget the bad and hold on to the good.
The pattern continues—minimize the bad, focus on the good. Forget the pain. Remember the positive.
Even with very little good, thoughts of hope are there to calm the senses. Memories from previous experiences of relief kick in and offer the promise of help coming in the form of the abuser—the beholder of the hope.
How to Heal from Abuse Amnesia
If you realize you have abuse amnesia, then action is required to change. Here are some practical steps to take to stop the patterns of abuse:
Realize you have value and should be treated accordingly. You do not deserve to be treated poorly by your partner. You deserve dignity and respect. Settle for nothing less.
- Get support. You need to find healthy relationships to be part of and safe people to talk to. Abuse is damaging to your personhood. In order to heal, it is essential that you be around people who will not abuse you under any circumstances. Find support from kind, compassionate people who are good listeners. Consider meeting with a therapist.
- Write a list of abusive incidents and keep adding to it. Write down what the abusive person is doing to you and keep adding to it. It might look like this: (1) Called me a name; (2) Blamed me for our last fight; (3) Didn’t follow through with a commitment; (4) Threw a cup at my head; and so on. In healthy relationships, keeping a “record of wrongs” is unwise because it is counterproductive to focus on a partner’s failings; however, in an abusive relationship, different rules apply.
- Write a recovery plan for yourself. To do this, you need to know what you want to change about yourself—not the other person. This list can contain as many goals as you want, but three may be a manageable start. For instance, you could have goals such as these: (1) I will pay attention to my needs and take care of them at all times; (2) I will not sacrifice myself for a relationship; (3) I will live in an abuse-free environment. Your list should contain personal boundaries and bottom-line behaviors. Carry these written goals everywhere you go.
- Stop pretending and live in truth. Tell yourself, “I will not push things under the rug anymore and instead will hold my partner accountable.” How do you hold someone accountable? You tell them, “I will not put up with this behavior one more minute. You either get help or I will not be able to invest my emotional energy in this relationship until you do.” Follow through.
- Value yourself. Realize you have value and should be treated accordingly. You do not deserve to be treated poorly by your partner. You deserve dignity and respect. Settle for nothing less.
- Find your voice. Start talking about your situation to others. Abuse thrives in secrecy.
- Set boundaries. There may be many boundary violations in an abusive relationship. Learn to identify what boundaries you need to incorporate in order to break the cycle of abuse and protect yourself. Remember: boundaries involve your behavior, not the other person’s. You can only change yourself. People who perpetrate abuse hate boundaries, so recognize the more you try to implement them the more you may be challenged.
- Learn abstinence. An abusive relationship is akin to an addiction. Both partners become addicted to the patterns and the brain chemicals involved in the toxic interactions. A primary ingredient for working a recovery plan is to implement abstinence. You must abstain from toxic encounters. One thing you can abstain from is abuse amnesia—refuse to allow yourself to just “move on” after an abusive encounter.
- Journal. As you attempt to heal, write your feelings in a journal. Keep track of what is happening in your relationship. Notice the patterns and write your feelings down so you can realize what is happening in your life. Journaling can help you feel your emotions, process your thoughts, and get to a place of healing.
The first step for any type of recovery involves awareness. As you become aware that you have been overlooking abuse, you actually implement the first step of recovery. Awareness precedes action and impedes denial. Awareness involves the idea of realization—that is, understanding that “this is really happening, it is happening now, and it is happening to me.”
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