Dissociation during violence is a common psychological defence strategy which is activated, for the safety of the victim during distress.
Dissociation can become a primary defence mechanism if you grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive, addictive, or violent home. A child is easily overwhelmed and can check out or dissociate, which helps them to cope with the psychological and emotional overload they are experiencing. This ability to disassociate during conflict as a child, can be a pre-determined conditioning factor, for women and men, who then go on to be abused domestically. Basically, the childhood environment created the foundation for living with, and acceptance of, violence.
Disassociation is similar to amnesia in that is affects the memory. However, unlike amnesia, dissociation is where the person involved is awake but not fully aware. It is similar to daydreaming, where mentally, your not engaged with the environment or what is actually happening. An internal splitting off from a group of mental processes from the main body of their consciousness. Where we separate out from our memory, things that we don’t want to face or, can’t deal with. However, during trauma (like abuse or rape), dissociation becomes your major defence and coping strategy during the event itself.
Disassociation is then used to separate a memory, from its components such as the emotions, sensory stimulus, words or phrases and any pain, sexual or physical leaving a distorted snap shot of the event. This is then, further complicated by cognitive dissonance and compartmentalising.
After the event, the victim tries to reduce the pain, by dissociating as much as possible from the trauma. An example would be spousal rape, where the victim would dissasociate from the act that had occurred and replace the story with denial, excuses or rationalisations as to why her husband, who declares to love her, would never do something like this. Cognitive dissonance becomes a stranglehold in the emotional entanglements and a contributing factor in how the event is laid down to memory. On one hand, it wasn’t forced, on the other hand, she said no, but was overruled by his authority and justification, and the earlier imprinting from childhood. The victim is left to summarise their traumatic experiences from biological and sociological imprinting rooted in childhood – previous early experiences. The truth about the event goes to memory in fragments, clarity and confidence is further distorted, justifications and denial then adds to the event, convuluting the original version.
‘After a while, you don’t even realise you’re dissociating. It’s just automatic’, this is how victims of abuse dissociate away a lot of important signs like discrepancies in his stories, his verbal atrocities that he successfully says to you, his tone of voice, or other behaviours that should cause you concern.
Some people report feeling spacey or numb. Spacey meaning, not fully aware, like their surroundings are surreal, and they are not part of it. They don’t feel completely in the moment. An example is when we are thinking something else during a conversation, or everyone is discussing a certain topic then the speaker asks your opinion, you immediately return your awareness to the room and your response, ‘oh sorry I was miles away, what did you say!’ Day dreaming or disassociating!
In the middle of a traumatic event like sexual abuse, spacing out and numbing is a life line for the victim. However, if this isn’t managed, dissociation can develop into a full blown personality disorder, because it robs of our ability to be aware and vigilant to the environment. Alters or alternative identities are created to enable the person to function, disassociation is now protecting the vulnerable psyche and replacing it with an alternative identity to enable functioning.
Domestic abuse victims who also experienced childhood abuse are adept at dissociation. Women separate from their awareness, ‘details’ of an event. It can begin as early as the first date, with a sociopath or other types of dangerous men. By not registering the alert of the red flag or paying attention to intuitive hits. We are dissociating their messages away from our awareness because if we truly became ‘aware,’ of their real motivation, we would run. That’s why women get these very skewed ‘snap shots’ of just the good times, the bad times are an entanglement of emotional and psychological manipulation tactics designed to keep the victim under control. The whole snap shot would look very different indeed if she incorporated all the senses in the memory.