Someone posted an article today on Facebook (link here) which got me thinking about my own experiences of being gaslighted within a relationship.
Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.
Gaslighting as an experience is devastating to your sense of sanity and self esteem. It can creep into a relationship early on in such a mild form it is inperceptible. By the time it becomes entrenched as a way of interacting the victim already believes the abuser is probably right. It is hard to explain to others because the more you try to explain it the “crazier” you start to sound, even to yourself. Eventually you believe that maybe you are mad, so mad in fact, you need this other person around to help you keep your tenuous grip on reality.
Gaslighting is essentially a form of manipulation and control, and it is not exclusively perpetrated by men against women despite what the media may have you believe. It is a form of domestic abuse, but one that has only relatively recently been taken seriously by medical professionals. social services, and law enforcement authorities. Despite this, in my opinion, it is often still perceived as a poor relation of “real” abuse such as physical and sexual violence.
Before everyone starts picking over the last row they had with their significant other and wondering if his/her shouting “you’re a fucking crazy bitch/dickhead” counts as serious domestic abuse; it probably doesn’t. Sometimes a row is just a row. It’s not nice, but real gaslighting is much more subtle and is not something that exclusively happens when one person is angry at another. Although this can be the case, in my personal experience it tended to be a more normal part of the daily communications.
Many years ago I started to write a book on recognising when you were being gaslighted. I may resurrect it but in the meantime a few of my own experiences of gaslighting in a very small nutshell were:
Minimising my personal concerns: Always on the basis of a “caring” discussion, this would start with “What’s up?” and end in “You’ve got a bloody screw loose”, or “It’s all in your head”, and also for good measure “Well, with the history of mental illness in your family, and your depression, it’s not surprising you are so irrational, there really is no hope!”.
Ensuring compliance: If I ever objected to anything within the relationship eg, where the money was spent; sexual issues I was left in no doubt that these were my issues either with my parents (?!) during childhood, my own personal repression/hang-ups and so on. Not legitimate concerns. Really I should have been in the loony bin. Eventually you just do what they want you to do because what happens if you are really mad? They will come and take you away….
Taking Instruction: On every little thing. Nothing you do is ever right or good enough, in fact you are so stupid you even need to be taught the “right way” to cut vegetables. The subtext: If you can’t even do that right, you obviously can’t function in the real world without me can you?
You do ‘crazy’ stuff to try to prove you’re not crazy: In one particularly toxic relationship the man was being unfaithful. He swore blind that the affair had stopped. I could see all the evidence that it had not, but of course I did not trust myself to be able to process information accurately by this time: obviously I was imagining it all. In fact I was constantly being told it was all in my head. On one occasion I was literally acting crazy and got myself driven round by a friend (so he wouldn’t recognise the car!) to check where his work vehicle was parked. Lo and Behold! There it was where he said it would be, so obviously I was completely mad after all. Except I wasn’t. I just couldn’t see it, and then I felt guilty for doubting his word, and that maybe I was just mad after all. Even reading this makes me think “OMG bunny boiler!” and that is completely not me at all. I was literally being driven mad by someone who had no concept of anyone else’s needs but their own.
Often the manipulation and control is accompanied by standard “passive aggressive” communication techniques to make the victim feel bad, that they are in the wrong, and that they are actually the one who is abusing their partner. This is easy to recognise once you know what you are looking for, sadly during the worst of the gaslighting style of abuse you tend not to see what is in front of you; instead you supply them with the required platitudes to soothe their “hurt” feelings and end up feeling really bad that you “made” them feel so unhappy.
It really is only after you are not in the relationship any more you start to look back and realise the extent of what was going on and how the warning signs were there early on. For example, in one relationship at the very beginning I said I had no interest in a subject which the other person did. I was subjected to hours of sulking – the result being I still ended up being bored shitless by these endless ramblings. My needs were not important right at the start. This did not bode well for the future!
I ended another relationship after 3 months because passive aggression seemed to be his standard form of communication. Sadly for him I had learnt to say “no” by this point and mean it, so it was pretty much doomed from the start!
My experiences (and this is a very brief overview) were unpleasant and I would not wish it on anyone but it has served me well and I am pretty much impervious to passive aggressive forms of manipulation. Having lived with masters of the technique, everyone else seems pretty amateurish after that. I am not saying that they were “crazy” but I do think they had some pretty serious issues they need to deal with in terms of their attitude towards other people in general, and women in particular. Sadly, they are so wrapped up in their own sense of self importance I doubt they would ever feel the need to examine their own psyche to the extent to which they would realise this.
For my part, I just learnt to make better decisions concerning who I do and do not allow into my life. My gain.