Pathological Relationships

Dealing with a problem partner

Dissociation Isn't a Life Skill

Dissociation is technically a defense mechanism.

Dissociation is described as:

1. The splitting off of a group of mental processes from the main body of
consciousness, as in amnesia.
2. The act of separating or state of being separated.
3. The separation into two or more fragments.

Let's talk about dissociation a minute: It's technically a defense mechanism—we separate out of our memory things that we don't want to or can't deal with. In trauma (like abuse or rape), that's helpful at the time. If dissociation becomes your major defense mechanism, it can become a full blown dissociative disorder which are very intense types of disorders. But outside of full blown dissociative disorders, there is still the ability to heavily rely on dissociation even if you don't have the disorder.

We can get trained to dissociate and use it against ourselves! Dissociation is when we separate from our awareness 'details' of an event. I think this happens with dangerous men as early as the first date when we 'choose' to not pay attention to our screaming red flags. We are dissociating their messages away from our awareness because if we truly became 'aware,' we might ditch him early on and we don't want to.

Dissociation can become a primary defense mechanism if you grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive, addictive, or violent home. That's because children can easily get overwhelmed and check out—or dissociate—because they can't handle whats going on. If you never learned adult coping skills then it's likely you use the ones you do know: which are from childhood. And if your primary ones were dissociation, then you're probably using that now, and it probably has gotten you into a lot of trouble in your patterns of relationship selection.

After a while, you don't even know you're dissociating. It's just automatic. So you can dissociate away a lot of important stuff early on: like discrepancies in his stories, his not-so-nice words he says to you, his tonality in his voice, or other behaviors that should cause you concern, but don't.

Any time we separate a memory from all it's components, you are dissociating from the complete or whole memory which is why remembering ALL the relationship issues are important—not just the good times. The bad times are a part of the memory or the memory is merely a fragment of what really was going on. You can also seperate out other parts of the memory like: sensations, words or phrases, physical or sexual pain inherent in the memory, things you tasted/smelled/saw, and various emotions that were prevalent in the relationship. That's why women get these very skewed 'snap shots' of just the good times—and long after those times. The whole snap shot would look very different indeed if she incorporated all the senses in the memory.

Sometimes women can dissociate or fragment off the 'meaning,' 'motive,' or 'intent' as well. So he uses all your money and your response is "He meant well, he just doesn't know how to handle money." That's not likely the situation so the motive or meaning of what he was REALLY doing is fragmented away from you so you don't have to take action. Dissociation can become an unconscious reason to stay "I didn't notice...." because underneath dissociation was naturally at work and it also 'worked' for the ability to stay in the relationship and 'not notice.'  How long can you live on the reasoning behind dissociation which is "I didn't know, I didn't notice...." which is why I say that dissociation is not a life skill. It doesn't help you move forward, it keeps you frozen in time.

Women describe dissociation as a numbing or a spacy feeling. They either don't feel something OR they are too spaced out to do much about it. In the middle of a traumatic event, spacing out and numbing is a good thing. Even as adults, I still advocate that there are times for 'therapeutic dissociation.' Like in a root canal—who wants to be 'present' and 'aware' for that? But the problem is that dissociation becomes largely un-managed. Then it becomes downright dangerous to us--robbing us of our ability to be aware, intune, and vigilant.

Look back over your childhood for patterns of dissociation. Look back over your adult relationships and see how influenced your choices were by dissociation. Look at your life today for signs of when you check out, become aware, drift off, or stuff feelings at the speed of light so you don't have to make a decision about something. These are all aspects of dissociation. While it might have helped you in a time of trauma, as an adult your recovery is about growing into healthier and stronger coping skills than mere dissociation. All of real life is happening now—are you missing it?

(There is more information about dissociation in my book 'Counseling Victims of Violence.')

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Gender Disclaimer: The issues The Institute writes about are mental health issues. They are not gender issues. Both females and males have the types of Cluster B disorders we often refer to in our articles. Our readership is approximately 90% female therefore we write for those most likely to seek out our materials. We highly support male victims and encourage others who want to provide support to male victims to encompass the issues we discuss only from a female perpetrator/male-victim standpoint. Cluster B Education is a mental health issue applicable to both genders.
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Sandra L. Brown, M.A., is CEO of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction and Public Pathology Education.

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