Why the answer ‘I don’t know’ is helping me understand my partner’s dissociative disorder

There’s a recurrent conversation between my partner and me.

It goes like this. . .

Me: “Why are you doing that?” or “Why didn’t you do that?”

Him: “I don’t know.”

Me: “What do you mean you don’t know?”

Him: “I don’t know.”

Conversation stops.

Here’s what happens next. . .

Me: Anger, frustration, confusion, and hurt.

Him: Numb, blank, maybe a little confusion, and nothing.

But before the scene explodes, let’s pause and breathe.

Let’s look at this from a different angle. Let’s assume ‘I don’t know’ is his real answer. Let’s assume ‘I don’t know’ is a clue.

As the partner to a person with complex PTSD and a dissociative disorder, this is the stance I am learning to take.

I’m learning to pause and I’m learning to question. I’m learning that I don’t know is an answer

What is I don’t know?

While the implication of these words is an unknown answer, the truth is they do provide one. The answer lies in the term dissociation. This is not zoning out or highway hypnosis. In the clinical world, it’s called complex or structural dissociation.

In the workbook Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation by S. Boon, K. Steele, and O. van der Hart, the authors describe what dissociation from childhood trauma is, how it develops, and why it is often necessary for a child’s survival.

Please note: These quotes are from the book and are for informational purposes only. Please use this workbook with a skilled therapist trained to work with complex dissociation.

For this post though, I’ll share what has helped me.

What dissociation is: Definitions

To understand dissociation, it is helpful first to understand a bit about the opposite, that is, integration. In the context of dissociative disorders, integration can be understood as the organization of all the different aspects of the personality (including our sense of self) into a unified whole that functions in a cohesive manner. (p. 7)

Dissociation is a major failure of integration that interferes with and changes our sense of self and our personality. Our integrative capacity can be chronically impaired if we are traumatized. . .Childhood traumatization can profoundly hamper our ability to integrate our experiences into a coherent and whole life narrative…(p. 8)

Why dissociation develops

Dissociation generally develops when an experience is too threatening or overwhelming at the time for a person to be able to integrate it fully, especially in the absence of adequate emotional support…To some degree, dissociation allows a person to try to go on with normal life by continuing to avoid being overwhelmed by extremely stressful experiences in both the present or the past. (p. 9)

Dissociation and I don’t know

To simplify, early chronic trauma frequently creates dissociation. Dissociation breaks up the fluidity of one’s life experiences and one’s sense of self. If untreated, an adult with childhood trauma can develop a dissociative disorder. (Remember, this takes place because of the overwhelm of the trauma. It is not the person’s fault and it is not a willful choice.)

It is common for survivors like my husband to experience:

  • Gaps in memories
  • Memories out of order
  • Vague memories with few details
  • This is different than normal forgetting

It is common for survivors to feel disconnected from:

  • Parts of themselves
  • Past events
  • The environment
  • Others
  • A survivor might describe it as looking at oneself from a distance or looking through a fog

While this might sound unsettling, it demonstrates the ongoing impact of trauma on the person when they were a child. It also shows how amazing the brain is at keeping someone alive.

In the present, problems arise when a situation, person, emotion, or sensation pokes at an unknown (unintegrated) piece of the past. You might recognize these as triggers.

A trigger (or reactivating stimulus) is something that bears a literal or symbolic similarity to an aspect of an unresolved traumatic experience. (p. 168)

Reactions to triggers are unconscious and can happen in a milli-second (although with therapy and skills like mindfulness, this reaction can slow down.) In fact, many partners say they recognize their survivor-partner is triggered before the survivor does. Alternately, some partners describe the shock when their loved reacts out-of-context to what appears to be a neutral situation.

Here’s where ‘I don’t know’ fits in.

Maybe in that moment or maybe later, a partner like me will ask:

“Why did you do that?” or “What was going on?”

And the answer is often:

“I don’t know.”

What are partners and survivors to do when faced with ‘I don’t know’?

  1. Don’t panic when ‘I don’t know’ happens. I hope you are beginning to understand it is a common response.
  2. Learn to pause. Ideally, it’s great if both partners can do this. It takes practice, self-awareness, and the involvement of a therapist for the survivor and sometimes, the partner.
  3. If at all possible, please enlist a therapist who specializes in dissociation. I always hesitate to write this because I know how hard and how expensive therapy is, but it is needed. It took us ten tries to find one and we are finally getting answers to ‘I don’t know’.
  4. Partners, find support. While this post sounds simple, it has taken me years to get to this point. If I had had access to a support group where this was a topic of discussion, I am certain it would have helped.
  5. Find a way to laugh about it. My husband and I have several stories when the “I don’t know’ dialogue between us got crazy. There was that time when he wanted to go camping and we don’t camp. He did not know why he suggested it.
  6. Discuss dissociation and its impact on your family life. Sadly, this is not a dialogue families of survivors are taught to have. A good starting place for your family might be A Different Kind of Superhero by Tracy Werner. We have used it with our teens.
  7. It’s normal for you and your survivor-partner not to get the answer to ‘I don’t know’. At first, these answers will likely take work within the context of therapy. Later, a survivor may begin to get answers on their own. But don’t push it. Uncovering traumatic material before a person is ready is dangerous.

‘I don’t know’ is a challenging part of complex PTSD and dissociation. But it is normal and with treatment, it can get better.

There are answers to ‘I don’t know’.

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