Abuse-logic and Memory

I find it extremely difficult to talk, or write, or think clearly about the fact that I spent some years in an abusive relationship (which I’ve written about before, here and here. And it’s not that the thoughts are clouded by emotion – I can be dispassionate about most of my memories from that time. It’s something else entirely that’s going on.

Here’s the thing – the ways in which that relationship was abusive were definitely kind of nebulous, and not clear-cut examples of your standard after school special an abuse. And even now I’m often like “well, you know, it was kind of abusive, but not like super abusive” with whatever caveat I might have about it. One of those caveats is “I mean, it’s not like he raped me or anything.”

Except that, you know, I can actually point to a whole litany of occasions when he did sexual things to my body without my consent (up to and including penetrative acts, in case you’re a purist about these kinds of things).

So, honestly, I have no idea why I kind of just (conveniently?) forget about these things all the time.

I know it took me years (literally, *years*) after the fact to actually link any of these incidents with the way I felt about him and about our relationship. But it’s still hard for me to actually integrate them into any narrative of things – it’s like the way they’re stored in my memory is incompatible with the way other memories are stored, and they just don’t fit together. They’re random isolated islands of memory, oddly context-less, and my brain resists attributing any sort of causal relationship to them and anything that happened to me since, or any feelings that I have.

Even at moments like this, where I explicitly remind myself that actually, you know, he did rape you, I mostly don’t feel the truth of that statement. It’s not internalized in any way. Or rather, I suspect it’s already really deeply internalized, but that it’s somewhere that I can’t actually access consciously. Part of me resists it very strongly, to the point that I am entirely uncomfortable providing any kind of details about the incidents I’m referring to above.

I mean, I guess it shouldn’t matter what the details are, and it’s not like I feel like I have something to prove*, or that somehow sharing the actual story would allow me to get external validation on the fact that what happened was fucked up**.

I really think a lot of this links back to the kind of thing I was talking about in my post on “abuse-logic”. Being gaslit has a distinct effect on the ways that you understand the things that are happening to you in an abusive relationship. If, every time you have a moment of clarity, every time your brain wakes up enough to tell you that this maybe isn’t ok, your experiences are denied, ignored, and minimized, you’re told that your memory is incorrect, or that you’ve misinterpreted things, over time you develop an inherent distrust for your memories of the events in question. I don’t know why so many of us fall for it, either. But we do.

And unfortunately, the effects last well beyond when we manage to escape the cycle. Even though I know, intellectually, that my memories are accurate, and that my refusal to interpret them in the ways he insisted I should is valid, still I can’t interpolate these things into my existing narrative in any real way. Still, I can’t stop instinctively second-guessing myself, and doing the kind of generous rewriting that I had started doing as a matter of course when I was in the relationship. Because that’s the other thing. I was gaslit so much in that relationship that by the end, I never even confronted him with things, because I could have his side of the conversation with myself. I could tell myself exactly what was wrong, and exactly why I was being unreasonable, and I would do so because it was less emotionally draining than talking to him about it. And, by the time the relationship had developed to that point, the largeness of the pile of things that had been shoved under the rug to keep me in the relationship made me more and more reluctant to even look directly at each new piece of the puzzle.

The narrative is clear when you actually look straight at all of the facts pieced together, but the full picture is also just too scary to contemplate, and so I usually don’t put the pieces together, and certainly never more than one or two at a time.

And so it’s hard, but I’m getting better at reminding myself that it actually was that bad. It’s far enough away from my day-to-day life now that it looks smaller in the distance, and I’m processing it and putting the pieces together. And maybe one day I’ll stop minimizing my own experiences of it, I’ll stop second-guessing, and I’ll trust my interpretations. But I don’t think that day is quite today.

*Of course, I very often do feel like I have something to prove. This is exactly why I’m so often internally dissembling about whether it was “real” abuse.

**I’m actually perfectly comfortable framing the whole thing as fucked up, and that’s a depiction I can feel the truth of. It’s just the words abuse and rape that I can’t get to really stick in a way that’s convincing to myself, even though I would have no trouble if the same story was told by someone who wasn’t me.


  1. I was never in a sexually abusive relationship, but my father was emotionally and verbally abusive, my first attempt at a relationship was also, and y stepfather was physically and verbally abusive.

    And you’re totally right– remembering those periods in our lives is different from the way we remember the other parts. To me, at least, it’s almost like remembering a dream… and curious that it should feel like remembering something that didn’t happen. Especially if no one around you calls the situation what it rightly is, and uses other language to describe the abuser. “He’s mean” or “he’s an ass” or “he’s a liar”. They sort of dance around the thing, and they shaped the way that I’m not able to look back on and think about my experience. Dissociation also makes it hard to feel the full brunt of the emotions.

    I like what you said about gaslighting, though, You put its intended result so succinctly: it makes you suspicious of clarity.

    1. I’m glad this wound up making sense to at least one person! I wasn’t totally convinced that it would.

      And yes, I think the dream comparison is definitely apt. Talking about abuse is like talking about dreams, a lot of the time, and the story only makes sense to other person is they have the context that you’re talking about an abusive situation, or that it’s a dream you had.

  2. Make that two people this makes sense to. I also was in an “abusive” relationship where things were clearly fucked up but the abusive behavior wasn’t super clear-cut or obvious. It still feels weirdly like a dream to me, the whole thing. Can’t believe I let things get that bad without even realizing it at the time.

    But then, I grew up with parents who were entirely too fond of gaslighting me, so I’ve NEVER lived in a world where I don’t constantly question my own rememberances/experiences of events. Which goes a long way to explaining how I got into the abusive relationship, actually.

  3. I read this post ages ago but it resonates in a new way now since 6 months ago when my friend & podcasting partner murdered his wife, and then killed himself and especially in the past idk, 3 months or so when I started trying to figure out if my 2 year friendship with him was abusive or not… I’m comfortable framing certain things about our friendship as unhealthy or toxic but abusive seems like it may be going way too far..? And idk this can be so hard but I think he gaslit me about select topics and somehow I fell for it even though I thought I’d be smarter and stronger and whatnot after “knowing better” ahead of time… idk.

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