The “I Don’t Know” Curse

The I Don’t Know Curse

I work with a lot of women and girls who have had rough relationship experiences. They come in, eyes downcast, ashamed of what someone else has done, and embarrassed they tolerated it. They offer excuses for someone I’ll likely never meet. “He had a hard life/his parents acted like that/I could’ve been more understanding.”

They have no vocabulary for their experiences. “He screamed at me/lied to me/cheated on me/insulted me,” they say as shoulders hunch forward and their bodies fold inward in protection.

I use a chart, called The Cycle of Abuse. It’s clutched in shaking hands and sometimes denied, but later it is folded and put into a purse or pocket. Seeing a pattern we participate in on paper is both helpful and jarring.


Is this you and your (former/current) significant other? I always hear, “I don’t think of it as abuse – I mean, I wasn’t beaten or starved!”

But many times those who say this were. They were starved of the ability to experience a healthy relationship; starved of genuine care, equality, and affection. They were beaten with low-blow psychological warfare like gas lighting.

I Don’t Know

One of the worst of these tactics an abusive partner (or any manipulative and abusive person) will use is The I Don’t Know.

The I Don’t Know is offered up by abusive people of all types and stripes. Here are some examples:

I don’t know…

Why I cheated

Why I lied

What came over me to cause me to _________

Why I hit you

Why you make me so angry

Why you can’t just believe me

Why you make me _________

Why you don’t trust me

“I don’t know why” is the fallback position of the abuser because it affords them the opportunity to escape accountability. They don’t have to self-reflect or answer with explanation to the people they have hurt. It’s a form of gas lighting that leaves the recipient with no information other than their own self-reflection which will ultimately be, “It’s my fault.”

This unhappy go-round is what causes the downcast eyes and the self-blame masqueraded as excuses for the abuser issued by the abused.

The Other Side of I Don’t Know

The other side of “The I Don’t Know” from the abused’s standpoint is the desire to understand behavior or actions so that they can make sense of it. This inherent and human quest for understanding is the root of frustration and the root for continuation of abuse. This desire to understand why an abuser did a horrible thing affords the abuser the opportunity to not know why ______. Their response furthers their hold on the victim by ultimately leaving the victim to believe 1) they weren’t worthy of consideration 2) the victim somehow caused the incident rather than the abuser’s decisions or behavior 3) the victim is “blowing it out of proportion” or overreacting or even worse – the incident is “all in their head”.

Let’s unwrap this further by examining some of the abuser’s common words towards the victim. “You make me…/You should’ve,” being common and sometimes implied when an I Don’t Know is issued.

No one makes anyone do anything. No one is responsible for any behavior that isn’t his or her own. Every person has the ability to decide how to react.

To quote my favorite therapist, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Viktor Frankl)

The abusive person’s weakness is the inability to discover and seize that space in order to select a response. When an abusive person gives their victim responsibility over their actions, they’re showing a hand and it isn’t a good one. They forfeit personal responsibility and accountability. They freely state, “I’m not flying this plane, someone else is.”

Now we’ve come full circle. The abuser seeks to control by forfeiting all personal responsibility and handing it to someone else, and when we accept it, we become abused. This tactic is true for any relationship.

The abusive and manipulative are suave, though. They’re backed by a cultural perspective that typically frowns on personal responsibility. Every TV show and movie out there has a line with, “She made me so mad!” Or something similar. It’s part of our vocabulary and our very human tendency to refuse to accept our space of choice. We may feel angry, but we choose to yell or blame, hit or throw things.

The oppositeend of this spectrum are those of us who are willing to accept blame for someone else’s behavior. We’re taught by people early on that we make them angry, and over the course of time, exposure to this behavior in popular media and personal life, a pattern is set. That pattern makes it easy for people to take advantage of this characteristic.

If this is your pattern, here’s what you can do to help break up this cycle:

  1. Seek the support of a professional counselor, asap. It is always helpful to have an outside third party to help you get things in perspective.
  2. Give yourself the correct vocabulary: you are abused and taken advantage of. Part of it may include being lied to, insulted, etc. – but it is abuse. That word is uncomfortable for those in this situation. Why? Because it relieves the constant blame you experience from the person doling out the abusive actions. If your relationship fits into the chart above, you’re with an abuser. Experiencing the discomfort of this reality is an important step to growing away from it.
  3. Write this down, say it out loud, read it and say it every day, as many times as you can remember to: I am not responsible for other people’s behavior.
  4. Make a plan of action. When the next honeymoon period ends and tension is rising, A) observe free from judgment – you did not cause someone else’s behavior B) free yourself from the desire to understand by repeating the mantra from step 3, C) talk to your counselor or trusted support system D) seek additional help and resources as needed.

Up next on the blog is a follow up on support systems for people in abusive relationships – how to build one and ways you can help if you’re a member of that support system.

Happy healing!


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