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Hi Allison,

I’m sorry you’re struggling with this difficulty. Being a logical kind of person myself who likes to understand why things happen, I’m sure it must be very frustrating trying to sort out in your mind “what happened and why” in this past relationship when you can’t remember great chunks of the worst parts of it.

I agree with Donna that if you found yourself “blacking out” during these arguments with this woman, that could very well be a PTSD symptom. PTSD can cause the mind to “turn off” as an emotionally self-protective measure, a defense against emotional overload. The mind says, in effect, “Eeek! This is all too frightening, too terrifying, or too painful! I can’t handle this right now! I’m just going to shut down and stop processing any further input, while I find a good place to hide!”

As much as I regret to say this, I have a nasty feeling that a number of these incidents may in fact be lost to you. Please don’t take that for gospel: it’s only my amateur opinion, and I could easily be wrong. However, the reason I’m inclined to think so is that the mind needs to “process” information and “commit” it to memory, to one extent or another, if the memory of it is going to be retained. If we’re not “paying attention” when something happens, we don’t commit it properly to memory, and then we can’t recall it afterwards. A typical example is if we meet a guy at a party and he says “Hi, I’m Kevin,” if we don’t make a little mental effort to “register” that fact, two minutes later we won’t know what his name was! If we’re “reminded” of it we might say “Oh yes, his name was Kevin,” but we can’t access that information by ourselves. A day later it will be gone altogether—and we may be easily persuaded that his name was Keith, or Kenneth, or something completely different, if somebody tells us it was! So if the mind is “turned off” due to PTSD or some other cause, much of what was happening at the time may never have “registered” in the first place, and consequently may never have been memorized at all.

However, even if that’s the case, it does not have to mean “all is lost” in terms of understanding what was happening to you and why. To begin with, if you just “can’t recall” a number of these arguments, that doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with you for being unable to remember, or that there’s necessarily a painful memory of any particular incident lurking in your mind that you just “have” to unearth and process in order to heal. You may have no memory at all of many arguments because your mind simply “checked out” while they were happening and “numbed itself” to any emotional consequences on those particular occasions: possibly more of a blessing than otherwise. When the mind has been injured, it seeks to protect itself from further injuries of that nature.

But that doesn’t mean all such incidents are necessarily lost to your memory. There are most likely some that you can remember—and those are likely to be symbolic of all the rest, even if you can’t remember the later incidents. The point is that when something traumatic has happened in the past, if a later incident reminds you of it because it seems “similar” in some way to the original trauma (or series of traumas), that similarity can act as a “trigger” to the mind to react protectively, or shut down. We all know the classic example of the veteran who throws himself flat when a car backfires because it reminds him of the enemy shooting at him. But PTSD doesn’t have to be about gunshots. It might be about someone raging at you, or some threat you felt was especially terrifying, or a lot of things.

So if these blackouts were due to PTSD, a question worth asking yourself is “when and what was the original trauma (or series of traumas)?” If it was caused by this relationship, then digging back to the time these arguments first started, and the shock they caused you—if you can recall those earliest incidents, that is—may still give you the clue to what exactly was going on and the way this woman was treating you. You did say you “began” to notice throughout the relationship that you were “blacking out” during these arguments, which suggests it’s the later incidents you blocked out, while the earliest ones may still be accessible. The chances are the later ones were just “more of the same.”

However, it’s also possible that the “original trauma” predated this relationship. It might for instance be the way you were treated in childhood. Abusive “parenting” and dysfunctional family backgrounds can render many people vulnerable to falling into relationships with abusive partners in the first place. Once that happens, it’s more than likely you’ll end up being treated in the same abusive ways you were during childhood—which can reawaken and trigger ancient traumas. That’s something you may find worth exploring.

At any rate if all this is bothering you, I certainly echo Donna’s advice to seek help from a therapist competent at dealing with trauma, if you can afford to do so. He or she should know better than I do about issues with memory. And if the absence of memories is bothering you, some people have found help through hypnosis. That’s an avenue you might consider if you feel it could be helpful to you. Good luck anyway!

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