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Domestic violence survivors often have mixed feelings after they end a relationship with an abuser. They wanted the abuse to stop. But they also remember when their partner was loving, thoughtful and even kind. Over time their minds can block out some of the bad memories as a way to cope with trauma, sometimes leaving them questioning whether they made the right decision to leave. They may also feel regret or shame about the end of the relationship.
Survivors have valid reasons for holding onto good memories. “Some people want to hold onto their childhood, or some semblance of their marriage, or some part of their relationship,” says Susan Bernstein, a Connecticut-based licensed social worker and marriage and family therapist with expertise in domestic violence.
Holding onto the good memories can be a way of justifying why someone stayed in the relationship for so long. And a survivor may want to hold onto some of the good memories if they have kids who spend time with the abuser, to lessen the worry they have about sharing custody with an abuser.
Abusers Used Good Times to Establish Control
It can be difficult for you to admit that an abuser orchestrated positive experiences as part of their cycle of power and control. Letting go of the good memories means acknowledging that you were groomed, manipulated, gaslighted or duped. “It takes additional grieving to let go of the good,” Bernstein says.
Letting go of your good memories can be part of the process of healing and growth. “People will let go of some good memories as they age and understand what they survived and what they are recovering from,” Bernstein says. They come to understand how the abuser manipulated happy times.
With time, survivors learn to reframe what they perceive as “good,” because living with abuse can color that perception. Bernstein has counseled survivors who are grateful that they never went without food, for example, even though they lived with emotional or physical abuse.
“A lot of times the good memories pepper over a traumatic day,” Bernstein says.
You Don’t Need to Let Go of All the Good Memories
If memories make you happy and aren’t causing you harm, you might want to hang onto them. Bernstein points to war veterans as an example. “Some people are so traumatized by their [war] experiences, but they taught kids how to play soccer. If they can remember a smile on a child’s face returning a ball they kicked to them, how do you tell them to let that go?” she says. “They hold onto what might bring them a little bit of joy or peace.”
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If you hold onto good memories, it’s important not to use them as a way to excuse the perpetrator. “Happy times can be savored. That doesn’t mean it excuses the victimization,” Bernstein says. “Just because someone put food on the table or made you laugh or taught you to play softball doesn’t mean they have to be in your life. They have not earned the right to stand beside you and your children now.”
Here’s What You Can Do
Here are some ideas for how you can put the good memories that no longer serve you in the past.
- Create a mantra that helps to bring your thoughts to a more positive mindset. For example trying telling yourself, “I was loved, but not in a way that was healthy for me.”
- Recognize that the earliest memories of the relationship can be strong, and your mind tends to return to those times when you were showered with love, gifts, and attention. Gently remind yourself that these memories don’t tell the whole story.
- Maintain distance. Exposure to the abuser can bring good memories to the surface. If you can’t avoid them because you share custody or visitation, keep your interactions brief and cordial.
- Practice mindfulness, so you can focus on the present and not on what happened in the past.
- Don’t force it. Be patient with yourself. Acknowledge that a part of you wants to hold onto some happy memories, and that’s okay.
- Create new happy memories. Spend time with the friends and family members who love and support you, and do things together that you can cherish going forward.
And remember, when old memories start to make you doubt your decision to leave, “Trauma-Related Guilt Is a Liar.”
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