Beyond Tainted Memories

by Michael Taylor

Your memory is more about your future than your past. This is one of the assertions that Christian psychiatrist, Curt Thompson, makes in his book Anatomy of the Soul. He explains how our implicit memory affects how we interpret the present and drives our predictions of what is about to happen. I think that we often see what we expect to see, whether it is the truth or not. And, our predictions of the future can easily become self-fulfilling prophesies.

While this is an interesting explanation of how implicit memory drives us, when I first read it, I found it difficult to understand the practical implications of it in Lisa's and my own journeys. However, I think God gave me a new piece of the puzzle.

Remembering is an active process

For what follows, it is important to understand that remembering is not a passive process. You do not simply walk into the static record archive of your mind and pull out the folder of data that you are looking for. Rather, remembering is an active process. When you remember an event, you strengthen that memory and you also change it. For better or worse, you cannot remember something without in some way affecting the memory. That is because remembering is as much about what is going on right now as it is about the past event.

In the bible, God tells us of the importance of being very intentional about the process of remembering. The Israelites were given instructions to remember His commandments and to keep them on their hearts (Deut 6:6-9). We are reminded "be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Deut 6:10).

Tainted memories

Those who have experienced sexual betrayal will understand intimately how such betrayal can taint every memory of time spent together. Happy memories are transformed into painful memories as they are connected to the hidden acting out behaviours that were going on in parallel. Partners are left wondering what, if anything, was real. The process of coming to terms with betrayal involves reprocessing all of the memories collected during that season of betrayal and reprocessing them. This act changes all of those memories, colouring them with the revelation of betrayal.

For the addict, the memories were already tainted with some level of shame. The recovery process can exacerbate that as one looks back at oneself in a more accurate light. When I look back at who I was, I realize that I do not like that person. In fact, at times I hate that person and the consequences that he has brought on my wife, myself and my children.

So, in the wake of betrayal, our memories that should be beautiful, change and become dark and painful.

Tainted predictions

So, if our memories are tainted, what future do we predict? Partners will naturally predict more of the same betrayal and/or unhealthy relational and emotional patterns – the ones that usually characterise a marriage harmed by sex addiction. I often hear men who are beginning to break free of sexual addiction complain that their wives cannot see their progress and how they have changed. Those wives are simply living out of their newly modified memories. When they see any hint of the old destructive patterns in their husbands, their memories scream a warning about a dire future. Trauma amplifies this natural process. These predictions of the future can drown out the present.

Likewise, the addict will suffer from their own distorted predictions of the future. It is very easy to let our memories predict a future of failure in which we disappoint those around us. Those predictions can too easily become self-fulfilling. They can bind us to an old shame-based identity that we would be better to leave behind.

Restoring the future

So, how do we move forward? Where is God in this process? If our memories predict our future, how do we let God redefine our memories?

For partners, the process of reclaiming tainted memories can look like inviting Jesus into those memories. We know He was there with us in the past and that His is a faithful and untainted love. After a time, those remembered moments can begin to take on a perspective that includes His peace and joy. It may even be possible, eventually, for Him to reveal His compassion for the one who's sin removed your ability to enter into the full blessing that could have, and should have, been yours in the past.

For those of us who have betrayed, we can invite Jesus into those damaged memories so that He can grieve with us and tell us our true identities. But, we need to be intentional about choosing to let God rewrite those memories. If we are not intentional, we will fall back into the rut that takes us down the well-travelled road of shame and self-pity. Forging new neural pathways takes consistent effort and a a determination to "take every (distorted*) thought captive." But, the living God is pursuing us with His gentle whisper. We can let His compassion and grace direct our thoughts to remembering His ways. I like what Gregory Boyle says about God, "Your ways are not our ways...but they sure could be."

*my addition to make the point

As many of your will already have heard, my Masters of Counselling study on PSAs and domestic violence is now underway. Please consider participating whether or not you have been a victim of domestic violence. Visit the website for more information.

This article was written by:
Author image

Lisa Taylor

Lisa is a PSA trauma survivor, counselor and award-winning author living with her kids & recovering husband in New Zealand. She runs groups and sees international clients via Naked Truth Recovery.


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