How Cognitive Dissonance Breaks the Brain

(what cognitive dissonance in a hurtful marriage looks like)

I don’t really know what my marriage was like. 

I have two completely different narratives playing through my head.

 The good marriage. Loving. Practically soul mates. We could finish each other’s sentences. We could read each other’s minds. We were perfect for eachother. Nobody on earth could ever love me like this man. And I could never love another so strongly. We had a unique bond. Stronger than death. Stronger than life. Stronger than eternity. I had the best man in the entire world. In this version, I snuggle up to him at night, laying my head on his shoulder. Tracing my finger up his bare chest, and I fall asleep content. Protected. Safe. Loved. We were an unstoppable team. There was nothing we couldn’t conquer, together.

Then the dark narrative. The anger. The cussing at me. Threats to leave me and the baby. Everything is my fault. It was my fault he drank too much that first year, because I made him angry. My fault he drove after drinking. My fault he cussed at me. My fault he broke his stuff in anger. My fault the baby cries. My fault the baby got sick. My fault he isn’t happy. My fault he overspends.  My fault he lies to me. He wouldn’t have to lie if I wouldn’t get angry with his actions. When will I finally have my needs met? When will it be my turn to be right? When will it be my turn to dream? To choose? To live? Then there’s the women I’m supposed to be ok with. I want so desperately to believe the lies that it was all ok. To accept his version of reality, whatever it is. And when I don’t accept his version of reality? I regret it. Stonewalling. Punishing. Refusing to acknowledge our children. Staying out late without telling me where he’s going. Or if he’s coming back. Will this be the time he really leaves us? My world feels like it’s made of ice, and someday it will all come shattering down around me. I know this ends in heartache. Heartache ending in heartache. How many days do we have left? If I am the perfect wife. If I do everything I can to keep him happy with us. If I teach the children to do what they can to keep him happy with us. Maybe I can keep it all together. Maybe we will all be ok.

And as I sit here, thinking about the dark narrative, I feel a wave of guilt washing over me for even writing those things down. How could I think such things? Maybe I am really just silly, like he always said, and have a vivid imagination. Maybe he is right, and I just think everyone is abusing me. 

I mean, I KNOW him! Sure, the things he did and said would have been abuse if someone else had done or said them… But not him. Not possible. Everything has to have an explanation. And even if I don’t know how to explain it away, I have learned, trained myself, to trust that an explanation must be there. Even when I never know what it is. It’s there. Because this man, this husband that I love so much, could never be abusive. Not him. Sure, on paper it sure looks that way. But that’s not the reality. Our love is special. Unique. We understand each other on a deeper level than most couples could ever hope to imagine.

Using the word “abuse” to describe his actions and choices feels like a knife in my heart. I feel like I’m betraying him every time the thought crosses my mind. I feel wicked. Ungrateful. Biting the hand that fed me all those years. Is this how I repay his kindness? I turn on him like a rabid animal? When all he ever wanted to do was love me?

And so my mind says… Until again I remember a specific incident of abuse. A precious thing given to another woman, that I had asked for here. A cruel comment there. A humiliating violation over there. And I see the dark again. I see the abuse. Yes. Abuse. For a moment, just a moment, I see it as anyone reading it on paper would see it. And it is ugly.

Then the moment slips away. I remember how other people adore him. Nobody could ever fathom him as anything less than kind! I must be wrong! How generous he is with time and resources. My darling man! How proud I was to call him husband.He would quite literally take the shirt off his back for someone in need! 

But not me. Me… well, he could see me do without. And I was selfish for asking for what he gladly gave others. And often he would take from me and the kids, to give to others. And I was left with less than before.

And around and around my brain dances. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. Every waking moment. 

I really have no idea what my marriage was like.

And, my friend, that is EXACTLY why I should be believed.

So which experience was true?

They both are.

The fairytale marriage was what I was clinging to to stay sane and keep functioning. My mind was very truly experiencing 9 years of marriage through that lens. I believed it. I created it. I invested in it. I lived it. It was absolutely my inner experience. And I collected small moments in the outer reality to prove this golden marriage was real. Anything that disproved it I was careful to dismiss. I was very much in love with my soulmate in a love that can only be dreamed about.

But the outer reality was darker. Oh, not always. Abuse is rarely a 24/7 hell or it wouldn’t be sustained for decades. But the outer reality was very much a powerless situation, where the key to living peacefully was to take responsibility for keeping someone else happy, and never question his decisions, actions, words or treatment. I was good at that. So things were peaceful most of the time.

And both experiences are real to my brain. I have lived a decade simultaneously in two separate worlds. Living two different experiences at the same time.

It breaks your brain.

The fancy pants term is cognitive dissonance. Which pretty much means broken brain.

So how do I remember specific memories? That is where it gets weird. Sometimes I remember them in the golden marriage frame. Sometimes I remember them in the dark frame. Because bothe of the experiences are real to me.

But what gets really weird is when my brain cannot seem to pick between the two, and shows me both memories at the same time. Imagine trying to drive down a highway, but one eye is driving a truck north, and the other eye is driving a car south. It’s impossible to make sense of anything!

This is why journaling (like this) is sooooo important to people recovering their identities after abuse. Jotting down the snippets. The good. The bad. The jumbled. Whatever. Before they flick away again is so helpful! Not right at first, but over weeks, or months, being able to see it all emerge. 

Yes. There were two realities.

Yes, abuse survivors stories change. Wives who have spent years investing in keeping the marriage together and making it work… Well, they doubt themselves. They doubt whether what they experienced was real. They go back and forth in their own minds about what happened.

And that confusion is proof of abuse.

I have no idea what kind of marriage I lived in.

And if you don’t either… I believe you.