We’ve been discussing gaslighting as an abuse tactic in two previous posts in response to this article by Yashar Ali who reassures us that we ladies are not crazy (thanks). In the first, Caperton dissects Ali’s message directly and the problems with male allies presenting problems analyzed by feminists as new and novel issues. In the second, I tried to clarify the definition of gaslighting and invited the readership to share their own personal experiences with this form of emotional abuse, for one because it’s a tool commonly used by abusers in abusive relationships, and two because it’s so often used against women. What bothered me was that Ali’s explanation of gaslighting chalked it up to what we commonly experience as everday sexism, when in reality gaslighting is a particularly insidious form of emotional abuse that primes abuse victims to accept increasing levels of abuse.
I discussed this briefly with Captain Awkward for her insight, in part because she so extensively discusses the importance of boundaries at her blog, and as she wisely put it in our correspondence, “You need a power differential (patriarchy, for example) for true gaslighting – it relies on power and stereotypes.” In a typical heteronormative abuse model, for example, this form of emotional abuse is often levied against women by men, and it works precisely because of prejudices about femininity and masculinity — that women are nervous, hysterical, less prone to intelligent reasoning, and need protected and corrected by a rational man who is not swayed by his emotions. Of course this isn’t true across the board — it happens frequently in abusive same-sex relationships and parent-child relationships (which exploits the child’s dependent status) as well.
Because gaslighting is part and parcel of a larger system of abuse, it can be difficult to tease out exact incidents and outcomes and differentiate them from the larger experience of the abusive relationship. Some commenters expressed confusion over lying versus gaslighting, and whether this is something that is always conscious or whether it can be subconscious as well. “Gaslighting” is a colloquial term and not a clinical one (Practitioners, is there an official recognition of this behavior?), so there is some disagreement on how it’s applied. For our discussion, I consider gaslighting to be a repeat, systematic series of lies that are designed to make the victim doubt her reality. It’s not one lie or two lies, it’s part of a pattern of abuse meant to make the victim more compliant to minimize the effects of abuse, accept blame, and accept the abuser’s version of events that are contrary to her own. In other words, it’s death by a thousand cuts.
Gaslighting can be intentional, such as with the example from the play and its movie adaptations, or the example I use here, where a partner purposely moves or hides your stuff to make you feel forgetful and untethered to your memory.
Gaslighting can also be an unintentional side-effect, as a classic outcome of living with a narcissist, or with a partner who is trying to cover up their pattern of abuse, or with the addict trying to cover up their addiction. It is done in order to preserve the … [gaslighter’s] vision of himself” as an honest and upstanding person without actually doing the things that would make it so.
Gaslighting can be physical or emotional. An example of physical gaslighting is the example from the movie or from my example in comments. An anonymous reader emailed me with this horrifying example of physical gaslighting:
I knew someone who lived in his mother-in-law’s house and would do things like reorder the kitchen cabinets (switching the plates to the opposite side of the room) to make her think she was going crazy in the hopes that he could have her committed to a home and he could get the house.
For a sidebar discussion, I’ve heard a practitioner say that this kind of gaslighting is so vindictive and insidious that if someone is pulling a physical gaslight on you and you’re able to identify it, drop everything and run the other way and never stop running from this person.
An example of emotional gaslighting is evident in the recollection of CurrerBell in comments, where the denial of abuse was encouraged in her childhood home in order to preserve peace with a trigger-prone mother.
It’s not limited to interpersonal relationships either. As smash points out in the comments, an example was highlighted recently in Ask Prudie where a guy is bullied by his coworkers, who tell him he has bad breath and harangue him about it at work, while his dentist and doctor tell him there is no issue at all.
Overall, gaslighting has the gradual effect of making the victim anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception, which makes you less likely to fight back or feel confident accusing the abuser of bad faith later when he’s siphoning money off of you, for example, or isolating you from your friends and family. And later, when your work and school performance suffers because of the nagging dread you have at home, your abuser blames it on the shortcomings he’s defined you by, so it’s your fault that you’re stupid and unreliable, which is why no one likes you and you’re ugly and you can’t even pick up the cat right. The pattern of lying and denial is meant to make you more susceptible to validating their version of events, and it’s almost always a version where the abuser is the sympathetic party and the victim is a dumb, petty asshole for concentrating on who did what when. It’s meant to tear you down and it’s often effective because you are trying to fight fair with someone who is intentionally slippery. As part of a larger system of abuse, it makes you vulnerable to accept escalations of abuse AND attribute them to your OWN failure and not the ill will of the abuser.
About a dozen women wrote me privately and anonymously to share their experiences, and they had so much insight and wisdom and humor that I hope I do them justice and crystallize their experiences here. Because I think it’s tempting for us survivors to focus on the abuser, which can be detrimental for our recovery, I also asked them to recollect how they put the pieces back together after leaving the relationship. What follows below are bits and pieces of these anonymous conversations, both about gaslighting and abusive relationships in general. While I originally intended to focus on gaslighting alone, there were too many invaluable insights to pare them down.
This is a giant beast of a discussion on emotional and physical abuse and its affects on our mental health, and as such this is your neon, flashing trigger warning.
One woman wrote in about the relationship between her mother and father, and how her father’s insistence that her mother was forgetful and incompetent colored the children’s opinion of her and allowed her father to dictate the terms of the household and maintain the upper hand:
…anything my dad asked you to do — picking up something at the grocery store or following up on a health insurance payment or whatever — was made more stressful than it should have been by my father’s anxiety and controlling behavior. …My dad was very concerned about doing things “right,” and never trusted anyone’s judgement but his own. So even if my mom remembered to do what he asked, he would often ask lots of questions to make sure she had done it “right.” This taught me, as a child, to believe that my mother was not as smart or competent as my dad…
[This] set the stage for my father to take the upper hand in every dispute. My father has never been obviously abusive, but he was subtly controlling, and his gaslighting seems to have been an end in itself. My mother can be very accommodating, as many women learn to be, and as a child I learned to blame her for how my father treated her. She would remember something one way, he would disagree; she would say, “Well, you may be right. I don’t remember for sure,” and I would be disgusted at how weak and stupid she was acting.
This “ambient abuse” helped the instigator create an atmosphere where he was the only competent actor and everyone else is not, so all other parties in the family took on a subservient role. In this situation, because the children saw that the father’s insistence was empty, they blamed their mother for being “weak”. We discussed how she deals with it now as an adult, and she said that distance and autonomy were the most helpful things she had to separate her from the madness:
…it took a couple of big fights with my parents, about other things, for me to distance myself from their influence enough to think critically about them. That was in college. I stopped speaking to my dad for a while, and I still avoid speaking to him very much. This is much easier now that I am mostly financially independent (if not very financially secure)…
My mom has recently started trying to change her relationship with my dad. She is being more assertive with him, and maybe also exercising more agency at home. We’ve never discussed my dad’s behavior in terms of abuse or dysfunction. I try to be supportive from a distance. I don’t know how much my parents can really change their relationship, but I wish them the best. …a lot of the most dysfunctional things were so subtle and easily disguised that the truth is unrecoverable. …I’d like to know what my mom would have been like if she weren’t married to my dad, or what I would think of her without his influence.
Another woman details how his father designed his abuse to make the children look like liars if they ever reported it. It was preemptive, preparing him with plausible deniability and a way to easily blame the children as unreliable reporters if he himself was ever reported:
My dad used to hit us (my brothers and me) with things, or throw things at us, but would make sure they were unusual things so that if we ever mentioned it we’d sound ridiculous. He had a long piece of splintery wood that he referred to as “the ugly stick” that he’d beat us with, and would throw 10 pound blocks of cheese, canned goods, and steel capped shoes (not steel toed, a steel plate running across the whole top of the shoe) at us as punishment. That shit hurts. Cheese doesn’t leave bruises, though.
One reader recalls being drawn into her parents’ pattern of particularly insidious gaslighting in an abusive household, saying:
Both of my parents extensively gaslit each other, and as I grew older I was frequently caught up in their…I guess…fantasies? The confusion was heightened by frequent moves, which accompanied denial of everything that happened at the last place. Today, I find it hard to create a narrative, to make logical sense of the first 10 or so years of my life because I can’t always sort out which things happened where, which things I remember and which things I was told happened that I don’t remember at all. …Like many people who commented on the thread, mental illness was used to reinforce the gaslighting. When I responded emotionally or disagreed with their interpretation of events, they would look at me with such concern and remark that I was delusional and wasn’t it so sad that someone so loved would be taken from them before she was thirty. Thirty was my expiration date, and for 20 years I believed it. I refused to consider having kids, to consider have long term relationship, to do much of anything because I believed I would be committed before I was thirty.
She says that with therapy she’s been able to piece together an explanation for her parents’ actions in the context of the abuse they themselves suffered, and has even been able to forgive them and have a relationship with them now. “But,” she says, “I still don’t know how to maintain a sense of my own perspective when I’m around them. A simple conversation with one of my parents can sometimes send me into a spiral of anger, panic, and self-loathing.” She went into therapy for stress management later in life, and the therapist decided to poke this bear. The writer says,
I think I learned five key things in therapy. First, I am not my parents which is a big component of the other lessons. Second, their perspectives are used to help them function in a world where they are intensely unhappy and its not worth the effort to try to help them change. Which is closely related to: Third, I don’t have rescue them from the hells of their own makings…they are adults and responsible for their own lives. Fourth, my relationship with them is about *me*, what makes me happy. If it isn’t working for me, I need to change the terms. Which is closely related to: Fifth, boundaries must be carefully maintained.
Meanwhile, I continue to try to rebuild my own sense of perspective, my own identity. Part of the “damage” is a warped sense of myself where I have a hard time fully believing that I’ve accomplished the things that I’ve done. This probably doesn’t make sense, but sometimes I feel as if I could never have actually finished college or law school. I still feel that sense of disconnect in perspective from time to time. My therapist recommended maintaining a diary of accomplishments but I’m intensely uncomfortable with that. Instead, I have a wonderful husband who reminds me of something that I accomplished over breakfast every single morning. Its getting better, but I know still have a long way to go.
Gaslighting was part of a system of abuse for the next woman, whose ex tried to exploit the writer’s socio-economic status to her advantage. Like many of the women who wrote in, she initially chalked up the strange behavior and manipulations to stress and depression:
I was lucky enough to already have domestic violence training and knowledge, so I did recognize some of the signs at the beginning, but I thought it was just stress and/or depression from some things she had recently experienced… However, we had already decided to move in together, and at that point, I couldn’t afford the apartment without her rent, so I went ahead with it despite my misgivings. The moment where it clicked for me was the morning she spent screaming at me for two hours because I was low class enough to put a pizza directly on the grill in the oven, instead of putting it on a pizza pan, like all other normal people do. Man, that was an overreach.
She continues, saying, “I was one of the lucky ones. I got out of the relationship fairly early, and despite the toll the emotional abuse took upon me …I was able to cut her free when I had the opportunity to do so. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like if I’d dated her for more than four months.”
One woman recalled an extremely scary situation with her ex, whose outright denial of events foreshadowed some terrifyingly abusive behavior:
There was the time he signed on to my AIM account and started messaging random friends of mine, telling them I was still in love with my ex, that I love sucking cock, and that I sucked 10,000 dicks. I had either been at band practice or at a craft group that night, and when I got home one of the friends IMed me and asked what was up. He sent me the chat log. When I confronted my boyfriend about it he said I must be lying, that I was the one who sent all those messages and was trying to use them as false evidence against him, and it must have been me because I had a complete chat log of it. He never admitted that he did it…
There was the time he logged in to my Photobucket account and deleted every single picture I had posted of a trip we took together. When I noticed the pictures were gone, I asked him about it and he insisted that I had taken the pictures down myself and forgotten about it, or Photobucket had glitched out and deleted my pictures automatically. Unfortunately, I logged in to my account once I saw the pictures were missing and was unable to get proof via IP address used to log in to confront him with. Not that it would have changed his story.
Eventually the fog cleared and she began to see this behavior for what it was. Thank god, because holy shit:
As weird as this may sound, I don’t think I kept going back to this guy because a lack of self-respect. I had never had to deal with manipulation on this level before, or anywhere near it, and couldn’t see it for what it was for a very long time. I thought I saw a good person underneath an angry exterior, and I held out hope that “good NAME” would eventually eclipse “bad NAME” when he grew to trust the relationship more – that I wasn’t going to go away, that I’m a good person and a pretty awesome girlfriend, and that I don’t play mind games. Once I realized that was never going to happen, I was able to disconnect myself from the idea of “good NAME” enough to break away from the reality, which is why it was so easy for me to file for a restraining order against him when he ramped up his harassment to shocking new levels. I couldn’t use my phone with all the text messages he sent, he filled my voice mail twice, followed me around on the internet, and showed up outside my apartment after calling me from an unlisted number and telling me he was going to kill me. When he did that, it actually kind of filled me with a sense of righteousness – this guy has major issues, nothing I did could ever warrant being treated like that, and I knew that if I didn’t get a restraining order he would stop for a week or two and then start right back up again.
He exploited her attempts to treat him with respect and love by softening her boundaries over time. She says, “I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that it is ok to ask for help from other people, and I don’t have to wait until I am at a breaking point to even mention to another person that something is going wrong.” We also discussed how invested we were in proving our gaslighters wrong:
It’s interesting that you say you were caught up in “proving” the truth to walk away. I had the same feeling. Up until the time I actually broke up with him and tried to cut off communication, whenever he made some false claim about me I was really invested in proving him wrong. The thing is, …I wasn’t able to do anything more than placate him for a brief time.
Another anonymous reader shared how her abuser gaslighted her to cover it up when he raped her, because he didn’t want her poisoning the well with truth among their mutual friends, even going so far as to tell their friends, “We are definitely going to get back together… we even had sex and made up.”
I was so confused. I remember nothing, but know from my text messages that I never gave him any indication that I wanted to see him. I waited for days for him to contact me so I could rip his head off and tell him I never wanted to see him again. He never contacted me. I felt like I was going crazy and I needed to confront him. So I did. I went to his apartment and demanded he tell me why he did this… to make him apologize for everything that had happened. And this man, who I had dated for a year, denied that anything. ever. happened. I couldn’t believe it. I was crying and screaming and listing exact details of the year long pattern of abuse and he stared back at me… looking legitimately concerned… telling me that none of this had happened. I had made it up. Or I was drunk and hallucinated. He talked about how maybe my anxiety disorder was the culprit, making me imagine things that never happened. …He was worried about me, he didn’t understand why I was making things up to push him away when he cared about me.
….and I bought it. I believed there was something wrong with me. I had exaggerated it, I reasoned. I had been drinking too much and the alcohol was distorting my memory. He did care about me. How did these incidents of “abuse” come from a man who so obviously loved me? So I buried it. I didn’t talk about it or think about it. I assumed my roommates and friends who had witnessed it were also wrong. They didn’t care about me. He did. The cycle just continued. Any time he would get violent or scare me, the next day I was told I over-reacted. That’s not how it happened, he would say. “What is WRONG with you? Do you think anyone believes you??”
This was just one example, she said, and relayed something that echoed throughout all of our stories: “Even though I knew these things happened and that I can trust myself and my memory, the scars of the doubt still linger.” When I asked how she feels about it now, she said, “I’m not always sure. It’s really conflicting.”
I also go back in forth with how I feel towards him, because sometimes I really feel sad for him. Sometimes I think he really believes these things never happened and was legitimately worried about me. Other times, I know that it was a manipulation and control tactic and that it was carefully calculated… I feel the need to justify and document EVERYTHING. It manifests itself in both my professional and personal life. I doubt myself alot and am always hypersensitive that I may be misinterpreting something or not perceiving it correctly. A specific incident at work comes to mind where a volunteer at one of our events was sexually harassing me. I reported it to my supervisor who reported it to our executive director. When she asked me to come in to make a statement, I went to my supervisor in tears because I wanted to make sure the other people who had been there would corroborate it. She was so confused as to why I thought our ED wouldn’t believe me and I really didn’t have an answer and just chalked it up to being upset/stressed about the incident. But I can definitely see now how that would be connected to my past.
Another woman wrote in about an abuser who gaslighted her for years, culminating in an experience where he coerced her into having sex and then claimed she’d been begging for it. This was the turning point in their relationship, and when she began to extract herself from his grip. She explains in retrospect how he primed her for abuse by taking her desire for self-growth and manipulating this personal work to his liking:
On some level, I always knew that at least some things were wrong. Not the gaslighting aspect in particular– but other elements in our relationship. As it seems is not uncommon, the gaslighting occurred in the context a relationship that was emotionally abusive in other ways as well. I’ve only very recently started to become comfortable with calling it that (maybe not totally comfortable? I don’t say it to most of my friends). I think I tried on “he had patterns of behavior consistent with abuse” for a while before…And I saw the red flags for some of these behaviors pretty early on, but I met him during a point in my life when I was vulnerable …while my mother was reaching the end of a long and difficult illness… and I felt like it was only an isolated thing here and there, it didn’t really mean he was abusive– life isn’t so black and white (actually, something he would say and encourage me to believe often) …And I trusted him. A lot. I can’t think of a very good reason for that, but that plus my desire to make some personal changes/work on personal growth (which I talked to him about) provided an excellent opportunity for him to gaslight me [so] he was very effectively undermining my confidence in my instincts and the way I interpreted my personal experiences. All the while encouraging me to trust my instincts and better develop them– except that he always determined when I was right about what I was feeling and when I was wrong…
Looking back on a lot of those experiences with this particular person, it’s difficult to look objectively and understand why I let it happen for so long, even after I knew something was absolutely not right, but in the midst of it, I felt like I was in this fog and could not for the life of me get out. …In a situation like this, I think that because your internal sense of what is going on has been so consistently challenged, the only way to get it back is to have independent validation of your experiences. …it’s still a work in progress. I feel angry sometimes — especially when I remember how, as gross as I found it at the time even, I internalized his constantly telling me how my career goals/interests were unwomanly, they were a symptom of my “broken-ness”, and I would never be able to find someone who would want to be with me while I maintained interests like those. I’ve only recently started pursuing those interests again.
This was a common experience among women who identified as feminist or who pursued “manly” interests. The abuser ridiculed their feminist aspirations and also held up their inability to reconcile their feminist beliefs with their abuse as “proof” that the women were weak or were complicit in the abuse. One woman writes:
Because now, being so far removed from it, his lies were staring me right in the face and it’s hard for me to see myself as a ‘victim’. I’m a super opinionated, headstrong, feminist so it feels like I should have been able to see that something wasn’t right, or at least to believe myself. That’s something I still have a hard time with because I can tell myself a million times that this wasn’t my fault, but I have a hard time believing that I wasn’t at least partially to blame.
Another woman recalls how her partner held up her feminism for ridicule, as a way to mock her for believing she was entitled to fair treatment:
When I started dating my first partner, I identified as feminist and considered myself to be a really strong person. He slowly chipped away that identify, bit by bit. He would beat me and, when I begged him to stop, he would stop long enough to mock me. He would always say, “well, you’re such a strong, independent woman. Surely you can make me stop.” He wanted me to fight back, to be more like him. The only time I ever fought back was when he drop-kicked my cat. I ran at him without landing a punch, and he beat me up. Afterward, he said, “now, you’re just like me. You tried to hit me and that makes you just as bad as I am.” For him, it was imperative to his abusive strategy that he first revert my identity as a feminist and a strong woman and second that he ‘prove’ that I was no better than he was. He wanted to make it so that I appeared to be the abuser or so that he could justify his own abuse by making it seem mutual or like his actions were in self-defense. Fucking strangely enough, I began to believe that I was the abuser[, and] that I was weak and stopped identifying as feminist.
Two women reported that their abusers gaslighted them into accepting poly relationships that were not mutually satisfying as a way for him to enact “sanctioned” cheating. One of them recalls how he justified it by only acknowledging the parts of a pro-poly text that validated his version of reality:
…my ex and I were in a poly relationship with a woman I worked with. I wasn’t exactly gung-ho about the thing, but I had agreed to it. …When he was around, he wasn’t very interested in our relationship. But it was supposedly okay because I had said, yes we can try this [poly relationship] out. I kept saying, this doesn’t feel right, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go, can you please go look at how other people do it so that the more monogamous partner (that would have been me) is happy? [Finally] he read it, but only the bits about how the monogamous person needs to get over their jealousy – and suddenly it was my problem that I had to deal with and not his.
For many of us, it’s difficult to believe that we stayed as long as we did or endured the levels of mind-fucking that we did. This woman recalls how the cultural truisms about relationships that get repeated to argumentative couples helped to reinforce his emotional and physical abuse and her acceptance of it. But not for forever. She recalls:
On some level, I knew this was bullshit. At least, most of the time. I was with him for seven years, so by the end of that seven years, I really had started to sort of break, but the breaking was also part of what got me out of there — I was no longer able to use all these aphorisms like “relationships take work” or “you have to compromise” or “you should be GGG” to explain the fact that I was in a cafe one morning, waiting for my bus, and couldn’t figure out what magazine to leaf through because it might be the “wrong” magazine, and I was so afraid of making the wrong choice that I had to lock myself in a bathroom to have a panic attack about it. “The first year of marriage is the hardest,” doesn’t really apply to that scenario.
But before I’d reached that point, my mindset was these two sort of twin thoughts that ruled everything: “I know he’s lying” and “It’s irrelevant that he’s lying.” I didn’t really feel like getting him to admit what he’d done was going to get me anything worthwhile. It would have been just this a week-long crying fight to finally get him to admit it, and then he’d maybe give me a half-ass apology, and then I would have to pretend I was okay with that, maybe even celebrate what an awesome person he was for apologizing, maybe pitch him some make-up sex, and then he’d do it again later and I would have to decide if I wanted to start all over again. It felt more “normal” to just accept that there were two realities, and his was the important one. I mean, that’s how relationships work, right? You compromise, and if something’s more important to your partner than it is to you, you let them have it. Totally normal, right? So I was able to go through that kind of mind-breaking experience because there were all these ideas and concepts and aphorisms out there that I could use to make this seem like a normal way to have a relationship. It’s only when I was so broken that I really was trying to accept his reality — instead of coexist safely with it — that none of those aphorisms could apply anymore.
Another woman recalls how her willingness to “work on the relationship” was exploited by her abuser:
I was extremely accommodating of him even though I had no reason to be, and I bent over backwards trying to be “fair” and “own my part” in the relationship.
[I thought] it must be my fault. If only I were prettier/skinnier/more compliant/more fun/a better cook/had better sex… he would love me and this wouldn’t happen. …So this enabling/struggling cycle started where I worked to improve the situation, failed because it would never improve, and then I mourned because I was such a failure. And then I got really depressed and really fell apart. The truth is that I wouldn’t have left because I didn’t see a way out, …but for the dumb luck that my mom happened to come by my house one night, saw me in a complete meltdown, and made me pack a bag and bring the baby to her house indefinitely. She finally realized that it wasn’t a mutually unhappy situation that just took a little relationship work — I was dying inside. I didn’t know which way was up. I never went back.
Recovery can be elusive, but it’s possible. Many of us — like me — went through a lot of therapy to rebuild our self-esteem and boundaries after the abuse. Learning how to reinforce reasonable boundaries — guidelines, rules or limits that you create to identify for yourself what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around you, and how you will respond when someone steps outside those limits — can be tricky because you’ve been through a relationship that purposely eroded your boundaries and manipulated respectful, rational behavior into disrespectful, irrational, abusive behavior. In addition, the gaslighter turned your boundaries against you, claiming that your reinforcement of these boundaries was irrational and crazy.
Almost everyone who responded to my follow up questions agreed that physical and emotional distance was crucial to their recovery. Many of us have had to learn how to disengage from the abusive cycle.
I stopped trying to “prove” my parents (especially my dad) wrong a few years ago, because he enjoys pushing my buttons and saying things to upset me, whether the upset is causing me to cry or causing me to get angry. So I stopped engaging. I’m just “Oh, really? Huh. That’s interesting. So, how’s the dog doing?” That was SO LIBERATING. just letting something drop. He’s going to think what he’s going to think and I can’t change that, why bash my head into the wall?
Some of us have to engage in “self checks” where we mindfully recall how we feel and why, while others do complete rehauls of their lifestyle to try and get back to the roots of who they were before the abuse.
As for my self-respect, just knowing I had the strength to leave that relationship, has been a way of regaining my self-respect. Knowing that in the end I did stand up for myself, I did look after myself and I was so incredibly strong to get through it at all. We have much more strength inside of us than we realize, and we should honour and respect that within ourselves. Just living in such a relationship takes incredible strength. Ending it even more so.
I’ve learned to speak kindly to myself, to listen to what I need. I’ve learned that when I’m emotional it’s usually because I’ve forgotten to eat or didn’t get enough sleep. I’ve learned to respect my own boundaries, and not let a guy run all over me, just because he claims to love me.
[When another guy manipulated me], I lost it. I took a vow of celibacy and I didn’t see anyone for two years. I simply didn’t trust my ability to protect myself. During that time, I read as much feminist literature as I could get my hands on. I talked nonstop about feminism and went back to school to major in women’s studies. After the two years, I started dating casually and began seeing women again. I kept extremely open relationships. I found that the open relationship structure helped me to regain my trust in other people and myself. I could keep a sort of distance yet still experience love with other people. I thought I would never love anyone again but found that, on the contrary, I could love several people. I could love people and not experience pain. I could also experience pain but not be devastated by it. I felt (and still do feel) like I could survive anything.
Others reported that helping women in similarly abusive relationships has been exponentially helpful.
After about 2 years, I began volunteering for my local rape and domestic violence crisis organization (which I now work for). That was so incredibly powerful for me because it helped me to step outside of myself and also to know that not only am I not alone, but there are so many people who experience abusive relationships. It empowered me to help other people.
Another found feminism after the abuse and it helped her name what had happened to her and put the abuse in a larger context of misogyny:
Now that I could label it, it felt more real. I learned more about it and joined an organization on my campus that gives presentations about sexual assault, stalking, relationship violence, and bystander intervention. For a year, I was giving presentations about those issues when I was still internally dealing with them, which made me feel like a bit of a hypocrite. Through this work though, I learned more about feminism. I discovered blogs like Feministe, Feministing, Ms, and others that made me passionate about helping women even more. I was seeing a therapist, and I had told some of my new friends my story. Sadly, they had their own stories of physical and emotional abuse to share with me too. I realized I wasn’t alone, which sounds corny, but it was a big deal to me to know that I wouldn’t have to deal with this by myself like I had been for awhile. This past spring, I made a shirt at the Clothesline Project about it, which had a huge cleansing effect. It was finally out there for all to see. I also volunteered for Slutwalk D.C. this summer.
It has been a long process. It’s still a struggle sometimes. …But for the first time I can remember, this past summer I finally felt all-around pleased with myself. I was okay with gaining a little weight, growing into my body, and spending more time getting to know myself. I realized who my true friends were, and I discovered I’m actually a cool person… I’m smart, healthy, people like me and trust me, and I’m a decent-looking person. I am everything that he told me I am not. I’m so happy that I finally know that, even if I have to remind myself sometimes.
For many of us who have been through this kind of abuse, it can feel ironic and sad that this kind of abuse is so common it has a name. You know that in the midst of the abuse, you are so sad and disoriented that you can’t imagine that people do this to one another, and you can’t imagine settling for this behavior again. I like how one woman put it:
Have you ever seen The Last Temptation of Christ? When he’s being tempted, at one point the devil shows up as a little girl to goad him into taking more than one wife, and by way of rationalization, she tells him, “There is only one woman, with many faces.” I kind of feel like there is only one abuse script, with many faces. That’s made it easier for me to shunt off the little bits and pieces of abuse that creep up in your life. I mean, you know, you can have it all focused in one horrible person, or you have that friend who never reciprocates, or the family member who insults you, or the boss who gaslights you, and it doesn’t really rise to the level of an abusive relationship, but it’s still abuse in small doses. Once I stopped thinking of these people as good people who were hurting me sometimes and maybe I should find a way to deal or fix them or act better, and started thinking of them as one [abuser] with many faces, it was a lot easier to be like, “Do you know what? I left my goddamn husband, I can leave you…”
For further exploration:
For abuse in parent-child relationships, Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers. While it’s specifically about the mother-daughter relationship, it’s applicable to a lot of childhood emotional abuse survivors.
For those dealing with addiction and the gaslighting that goes with drug and alcohol abuse, try the Sober Recovery forums for friends and family of drug addicts and alcoholics. And, as always, find a local chapter of Al-Anon.
The Gift of Fear, a book about learning to trust and act on your instincts, rewriting the social contracts that keep people, especially women, vulnerable to abusers.
Movies about gaslighting: Gas Light, Rosemary’s Baby, Dial M for Murder, A Perfect Murder.
Please leave your suggestions for other resources in the comments.
This is a guest post by Lauren Bruce, founder of and former resident blogger at Feministe.
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