Abuse Amnesia: Why We Stay with Our Abusive Partners

Rear view of person holding umbrella looking out at rainPeople 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Find your voice. Start talking about your situation to others. Abuse thrives in secrecy.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.”

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sharie Stines, PsyD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Freida

    October 5th, 2017 at 2:34 PM

    If you were raised in a home where this sort of behavior was common, even expected, then of course you will not have the same kind of reaction to it that someone like me who grew up in a loving home where we rarely even raised our voices at one another.
    I would definitely know when someone’s behavior was throwing up a red flag; whereas someone who grew up with that all around them may not understand that this is wrong and toxic to remain in that kind of situation.

  • Cole

    October 14th, 2017 at 6:21 AM

    Thank you for this article, it was a very helpful read as someone suffering from extreme abuse amnesia.

  • Anue N.

    December 20th, 2018 at 6:46 PM

    It’s very important to note that not all children who were subjected to domestic abuse will become domestic abusers and/or become victims of domestic abuse as adults. Neither is it true that all children who were never subjected to domestic abuse while growing up won’t grow up to be domestic abusers and/or victims of domestic abuse as adults.

  • Kay

    July 7th, 2019 at 4:21 AM

    The explanation of what happens chemically and physically is a significant help in understanding the remarkable power of abuse amnesia -a huge hurdle in my healing. And the list of suggestions for avoiding it and to healing are excellent and affirming. I do have a question about the suggestion in #8 to “refuse to allow yourself to just “move on” after …”. What does “not just move on” — safely and effectively — look like?

  • Jackson

    December 25th, 2019 at 11:10 PM

    My thoughts exactly. The chemical cycle, the withdrawal and relief.. I’ve been doing a ton of research over the last year and this is the first time I’ve found something explaining this exact process. The exact thing that has caused me to fail several attempts to escape.. I am very interested to hear suggestions on this. Because of course, the abuser relies on the cycle of amnesia to keep the victim coming back or from leaving at all. If part of not letting it go is confronting the abuser, holding them accountable, things can (and in my case always do) escalate. And if I’m not confronting or even just holding him accountable, then I’m left with only my internal dialogue, and I have complex PTSD so I’m already constantly reminding myself. So I’m interested to hear some safe and healthy ways to do this. I like the journaling idea, but I’ve already had two journals found, read, and destroyed (and 5 phones) so I’m still trying to find a creative solution to that one..

  • Beautiful36

    April 12th, 2023 at 9:07 PM

    The article doesn’t mention how standing up for oneself can be dangerous or deadly and how the victim can occasionally trade roles with the abuser and then take on all the guilt while forgetting they were also treated badly or worse. The victim/abused role is rarely ever perfectly divided between the two individuals – often, it’s whoever has that slight advantage – is better-connected, holds the purse strings, or is tougher. The victim is going to feel a lot of guilt and accept the blame if they did anything in anger or fear that would be considered inappropriate under normal circumstances. And a person suffering amnesia may be trying to say they were abused by acting out of their muscle memory or empathy for the abuser’s emotions and behavior, as though to speak the same language and reveal the secret pain they’re hiding. Once it gets there, the only sane thing is to leave, no matter who is right and who is wrong, who abused first, who abused last, and who abused the worst.

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