“One Abuse Script with Many Faces”

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…

She continues:

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:

On Boundaries: A long and harrowing tale of dealing with emotional terrorists; I’m worried about my sister — She is still very close to our abusive parents; Should I move away from my abusive family?

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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80 Responses to “One Abuse Script with Many Faces”

  1. h.g. says:

    Thanks for this post. I think it’s so important to talk about emotional abuse and emotional manipulation. I’m in the process of getting over a really bad gaslighting style situation. Basically, my ex spent our entire relationship attempting to convince me that I was sexually abused. I did have a difficult childhood and I am clinically depressed, but that never happened. Still, he would talk about it whenever I was upset, and insist that that was why I was depressed. At first I thought he was just misguided and that he was really trying to help me, but that he just didn’t understand mental illness.

    Over time he kept using this story to manipulate me. For example if I didn’t want to have sex or I didn’t want to do some particularly thing sexually, he would insist that it was because I repressed from this made-up abuse, while also claiming that it was responsible for me being bisexual. He would bring it up everytime we fought. I kept thinking that it was just a matter of convincing him he was wrong, but really, he never believed this story.

    When I finally broke up with him, he upped the ante by using this made-up story to blackmail me into seeing him or taking his calls.. He would claim that if I didn’t meet him, he was going to send a letters to my family telling then I had told him I was abused- for my own good, he claimed. It came to a head when I got into a new relationship, he threated to find out where my boyfriend lived and tell him I was “damaged goods”. It stopped because I finally got fed up with being scared. I realized that he was treating me like the liar and that he was actually a coward. He would never risk actual confrontation. He had managed to convince me that no one would believe me- that they would take the word of a vindictive ex over mine. That was the gaslighting that really worked. Eventually he stopped calling and he never carried through with any of his threats. I still get a text from him every couple of months. But I ignore them.

    Anyway, that was really long, but I needed to tell that story in the proper context. Thank you for letting me put a name to what happened to me. I am in therapy now, but it is still hard to not live in fear of being manipulated.

  2. Lauren says:

    h.g.: I am in therapy now, but it is still hard to not live in fear of being manipulated.

    Hey, thanks for telling the story. This last line here — living in fear of being manipulated — this was something I struggled with for a long time (and still do). One thing that was extremely helpful for me in my recovery was shifting this person who’d been so destructive in my life from this dark, overwhelming, looming force to just some guy. Some really sad messed up guy. One that I don’t have to live with or cater to anymore. If I told you how long it took me to realize this I would embarrass myself, but it was THE turning point for me. After that, I was free.

  3. terpsichore says:

    I wanted to write something about my experience with gaslighting on your first post, but after reading through all the comments, I found myself more confused than when I started reading. Looking back on it now, though, I wonder if that’s just the nature of gaslighting, that even when you try to put your finger on it after the fact, after you’ve worked to heal and whatnot, that it can still be elusive. Anyway, I want to write about it now, now that I feel more certain about it. There was a guy a pseudo-dated for a few years while I was in college. I say pseudo-dated because he “didn’t like labels” and “wasn’t ready to commit to anyone like that” and “it wasn’t me, it was him”. I was totally in love with him and figured that I could wait until he was “ready” and by sticking around and being so wonderfully accomodating, maybe he would be “ready” sooner. Well that didn’t happen. But what did happen is that for all practical purposes, we were a couple and my guess is that anyone looking into our “relationship” from the outside would have assumed that was the case. On the inside, though, I was miserable because I wanted a committment; that was important to me. But without one, he was free to flirt and fool around and have sex and be intimate with other women and I had no room to call it cheating. Even though in my heart, it was. So anyway, long story short, he was with other women and I wasn’t ok with it. At first, he didn’t hide it so well, even though he also wasn’t totally open about it. And when I would find out and get upset and try to talk to him about it, he would blow me off as over-reacting, over-emotional, sensitive, jealous. After awhile, he decided to just be better about hiding things and would outright lie to me about it and again, when I would confront him because in my gut, I knew something was up, he said I was crazy and I must not want him to have any girl friends at all and don’t I know that he’s really shy and he just wants to make friends and see, this I why I don’t tell you when I make a new friend because you’re crazy and jealous. AS

  4. terpsichore says:

    (crap, I accidentally hit enter too soon. This is a continuation of my first comment.) AS IF I DIDN’T HAVE A REAL, TRUE REASON NOT TO TRUST HIM. AS IF IT WAS ALL IN MY HEAD. My god, that shit really does make a person feel like she’s losing it. It took meeting a nice, respectful, kind man for me to break out of the bubble of being with Mr. Jackass. At the end of our pseudo-relationship, when I pseudo-broke up with him, he came clean about having sex with other women and that was really it for me. I confronted you about this, I knew something was going on, I knew you were being untruthful with me, BUT YOU MADE ME BELIEVE THAT I WAS CRAZY AND THAT IF I WAS JUST LESS CRAZY, YOU WOULDN’T HAVE TO KEEP THINGS FROM ME. Well fuck you, sir. Getting out of that bubble was more liberating than I can ever fully express.

  5. Amazing post, Lauren. I will be thinking about that “one script with many faces” thing for a long time, so thanks to the people who told you stories.

    The reason I keep coming back to boundaries (thank you therapists!) is that abusers tend to have some legitimate messed up mental health and/or self-esteem things going on. They have sad stories about why they are sad, and if they’re not treating or dealing with their own stuff it morphs into this thing where they feel “owed” things because of how they have suffered or they are narcissists who are acting out of some horrible, ravening self-protective instinct that demands that you hold up a mirror to them that shows only the person they want to see themselves to be, and everything you do has to conform to that reality (and reflects on that reality). Very few people wake up in the morning and say “I’ve got to take the car in for an oil change, buy milk, and destroy my partner’s self esteem.” Their inner narrative is more like “I am TRYING to be a good person and I would be a good person if YOU WOULD JUST do what I need you to do like WE AGREED also I can’t help it sometimes because I have SAD REASONS THAT ARE SAD.”

    Women especially are trained to nurture relationships, to bend, to forgive, to be the bigger person, to invest in relationships, to “work on” the relationship, to make it work, etc. blah blah….we’re supposed to carry the water for the relationships.

    So without boundaries, when someone treats you badly + has a sad reason for why they act the way you do, it’s easy to let your compassion for their sad reasons help you explain away what happened. “He only drinks and cheats on me because his father drank and slept around and that’s the only model he knows, but he’s trying.” Or whatever. One big giant red flag is if someone does something that hurts you, and they kinda sorta apologize, but they mostly delve into their (sad reasons) for why they are they way they are and by the end of the conversation you’re comforting them.

    Learning how to set boundaries is about honoring facts (He got drunk and cheated…again) and how those facts affect you (It made me feel crappy when he did that and I don’t want to take it anymore) before you start looking for explanations as to why the other person did what they did. It lets you say “I’m sorry about your (sad reasons), but you still need to obey the social contract.”

    It’s really fucking hard and takes a lot of practice and messing up, but it changes your life so much for the better if you get that time and distance and figure out how to do it.

  6. Lauren says:

    Captain Awkward: The reason I keep coming back to boundaries (thank you therapists!) is that abusers tend to have some legitimate messed up mental health and/or self-esteem things going on. They have sad stories about why they are sad, and if they’re not treating or dealing with their own stuff it morphs into this thing where they feel “owed” things because of how they have suffered or they are narcissists who are acting out of some horrible, ravening self-protective instinct that demands that you hold up a mirror to them that shows only the person they want to see themselves to be, and everything you do has to conform to that reality (and reflects on that reality). Very few people wake up in the morning and say “I’ve got to take the car in for an oil change, buy milk, and destroy my partner’s self esteem.” Their inner narrative is more like “I am TRYING to be a good person and I would be a good person if YOU WOULD JUST do what I need you to do like WE AGREED also I can’t help it sometimes because I have SAD REASONS THAT ARE SAD.”

    Yes, exactly. I feel like we need to condense this and get it on a t-shirt. Learning to say, “I’m sorry this shit happened to you, but you can’t [do X to] me. I’m done,” is so difficult because we’re so conditioned to do all the heavy lifting in the relationship, including the search for emotional resolution. For a long time I thought it was just a matter of sticking it out and hoping (ugh) that the abuser would resolve his mother/father/self-esteem/abandonment issues in time. He had no interest in doing such a thing and I (duh) couldn’t force him to do it.

    And that’s the key, I guess. You can’t make anyone do anything, so if someone is treating you poorly there is literally NOTHING YOU CAN DO to make it right. They’re going to treat you poorly until they don’t, and you have as much control over that as the way the wind is blowing. So GTFO if you can.

  7. jennygadget says:

    It has occurred to me, reading all these stories and experiences, that the cultural silence and victim-blaming surrounding sexual assault acts in much the way gas lighting does. It’s purpose is to make the victim question his or her knowledge and experience in favor of that of the perpetrator’s.

    I wonder too, if the often gendered nature of sexual assault contributes to women’s vulnerability to gas lighting, in the same way that Lauren and others have pointed out that sexist stereotypes and the conditioning to “play nice” and the like do.

    ******

    Also, reading all these stories is reminding me of the time my then boss, in the middle of a conversation about working styles, asked me – with all sincerity and concern – if I had ever had a head injury as a child. I kinda went through the rest of the meeting in a blur, decided after I got out that I needed to go home and get some perspective before bringing it up to her boss (who, luckily, knew me and trusted me), and then did exactly that the next morning. At which point it was determined that yes, my behavior that had necessitated the meeting with my boss was unprofessional and needed to be corrected. However I deserved more specific and achievable instructions than “don’t be stressed” and what my boss said to me was wildly inappropriate in any case.

    Just the very fact that the boss in question thought it made sense to try to dictate my emotions, rather than how I dealt with them or expressed them, makes me wonder either how much she gas lights others or if she grew up with gas lighting as the norm. Because to me, that instruction makes no sense. But I can see how it makes sense to someone who is comfortable with dictating “reality” to others – or who has lots of experience from the other side and doesn’t realize it’s not normal.

  8. Siobhan says:

    I really have to thank you for this series of posts. I still have trouble thinking about my experience with gaslighting because it was so traumatic. I could never figure out why the experience was so scarring for me, in a way that my experiences with rape and physical abuse were not. That fucker turned my own mind against me.

    I am incredibly thankful for a couple of very close friends who knew me well enough and held me in high enough regard to spot what he was donig. They both pulled me aside seperately to tell me I was being emotionally abused. I think getting out of the situation would have taken a lot longer and been a lot more difficult without their support.

  9. Lauren, it’s the flip side of victim-blaming – When someone is assaulted, we’re programmed to look at “why” the assault happened, and since we don’t have access to the assaulter’s reasons, we analyze the victim’s decisions in the hopes of “understanding” or “preventing.”

    Why: It’s overrated.

  10. FYouMudFlaps says:

    This was definitely a novel.

  11. anon says:

    Captain Awkward: One big giant red flag is if someone does something that hurts you, and they kinda sorta apologize, but they mostly delve into their (sad reasons) for why they are they way they are and by the end of the conversation you’re comforting them.

    This is the summary of every “apology” my mother has ever given me. To even get this far I have to get really mad and hurt, and make it clear that I’m not going to just hug and make up when she’s done venting her spleen.

    Maybe it’s that I’m about to turn 30, or being done with professional school and starting a career, or thinking about having children, or you know, all three. But I’ve been realizing a lot lately just how fucked up my relationship with her is. I have always doubted my judgment and felt that I couldn’t be trusted to do things right. I can’t decide where to plant the tulip bulbs in the flower bed without consulting with my husband; how fucked up is that?

    For so long she had me convinced that all of that was because of my father. And granted, my father has some real issues and is a bully. He basically was raised without emotional guidance or support from his parents, so it’s like trying to teach boundaries to someone raised by wolves. But at least by figuring out some boundaries to lay down, I can have a more or less positive relationship with him now. But my mother is boundary teflon. Any attempt to contradict her version of an argument (aka, not doing what she wants) is because I hate her, am ungrateful, and don’t care about all the many sacrifices she’s made for me. Or she just gets all sad and quiet and says something about how of course children grow up and make their own lives and she can’t really blame me for being busy. Sad sad, lonely and sad.

    I’m sure a significant part of her issues come from her own abuse, but I just feel like then she should go to damn therapy. She was happy enough to send me to therapists when I was “having problems” and pressure me into going on to anti-depressants when my stepmother was dying (I declined). I was on Zoloft for a year in high school and for 10 years after that I heard about how I had depressive tendencies, and she worried about me going off on my own, and would I be able to take care of myself. I mean, my husband is in school now and she’s surprised that I’m doing the cooking. Why? I started cooking for my self at 13 on nights when she worked late. But perversely, any attempt to take on household responsibility that wasn’t just my own care was totally discouraged or thwarted. I think because it would ruin her image of herself as a martyr and me as being totally dependent on her for everything.

    She’s constantly telling me in one breath how smart I am, how capable and talented, and then in the next breath, often in the same *sentence* that the thing I want to do is hard, or unrealistic, or that’s not how people *usually* do things. She even tries it with my career, even though of course I know more about my field that she does. The result of this is that my whole life, when people tell me I’m smart, I just think “yeah, but I’ll still fail.” My intelligence is meaningless, it really serves only to underscore my incompetence to take care of myself and my family, and to make that failure all the worse.

    I’ve never written this out before. This series has really gotten into my head and made me think about my mother’s behavior in black and white terms, rather than trying to justify it somehow. Thank you for this. Though at the time I was growing up it was a mother-daughter relationship, I’m a man now. I believe my mother’s undermining my confidence in my ability to make decisions probably delayed my transition. both because how could i decide i needed that if she disagreed, and because if i was so weak-willed and incompetent I could never be seen as a man because that’s not how men are. Ugh. I don’t really think that’s how men & women work, but those cultural narratives are so pernicious and hard to escape. It’s amazing, the horrible things we allow ourselves to believe about ourselves that we would never believe about or say about another person.

  12. Marie says:

    You know, it’s funny. It’s been years and years since I got away from my abuser, and I’ve come to grips with all the things I feel I’ve needed to come to grips with… but reading through this, I picked up so many new things that I was like, “Oh my god, he did that, too! I didn’t even realize that was a thing he did!” Still so much to learn from sharing stories, I’m surprised.

    It is really easy to get caught up in the, “Oh, but he has issues” thing. Lundy Bancroft, in Why Does He Do That, talks a bit about how therapy lingo is really helpful for abusers, because it’s a brand new language in which they can say, “Not my fault.” He talks about a group therapy session with abusers where a man concluded a long story with, “So I realized when I was hitting my wife, I was really hitting my mother!”. and then looked around with this beaming expression, waiting for somebody to congratulate his breakthrough. There was a long silence, then another guy piped up to say, “No, you were hitting your wife.”

    I really got snowed by a lot of therapy talk from my abuser. I wanted so much to be helpful and kind and good to people who are in pain, and he used that till I felt completely dried up, devoid of empathy, sick of people in pain, and then of course he used that to tell me that I was really a horrible person inside who was only pretending to have compassion. Years after I got away from him, I knew what he’d done was wrong, and I had given up trying to explain it to him, but I still wanted to explain it in my own mind. And it hit me one day like a bolt of lightning: You have a right to work out your issues, but you don’t have a right to work them out on me.

    That comes up so much more often than I would hope in a non-abusive day-to-day, but it’s been super helpful. Some coworker at work freaks out at me, then apologizes because they’ve been having a bad day, and I get to say, “That’s fine, but you don’t get to have your bad day all over me.”

  13. “It’s interesting that you say you were caught up in “proving” the truth to walk away.”

    This, exactly. I wasted four years with someone because I was trying so very hard to prove that I was not the person he kept telling me I was. It wasn’t until I finally came to accept that he would NEVER believe that I was not that person, that a mutually respectful breakup was just not in the cards, that he was always going to believe that I was a horrible person who had these horrible selfish motives for every single thing I did, that I was able to walk away. There was no way to prove the truth to him. I don’t know, now, why it took me so damn long, and so much pain and unhappiness. Partly I suppose because he had convinced me that if I weren’t such a selfish horrible person my happiness wouldn’t matter so much to me, but that’s all you care about, isn’t it? You don’t care about anyone else, do you? It’s all about you, you, you … it’s been more than 20 years and I can still have flashbacks. Like right now.

    Anything I wanted was selfish, but anything he wanted was just a normal thing to want, and if I weren’t such a selfish, horrible person I would be able to see that. He never grasped, ever, that this was twisted.

    It took me a couple of years after I finally managed to walk away from that trainwreck, and another couple of short-term but equally screwed-up relationships, that I finally got to the point where I thought, I would rather spend the entire rest of my life alone, and never have sex again as long as I live, than keep on doing what I’ve been doing, or ever be in another relationship like that, ever again. That was my freeing moment.

    I prayed a lot. I have to say. This helped me a lot; made me realise that I had value, it wasn’t just everyone else on the planet that had value but not me, and I had a right to courteous and respectful treatment just the same as anyone else. And I realised that the one question I had a right to ask all the time was “am I happy?” And if I wasn’t, it didn’t matter what the guy was telling me about myself; I had a right to leave. And, finally and absolutely, I was better off alone than I was in a bad relationship. That was my key realization. Before that I’d always been so afraid to be alone that I would put up with anything just to avoid that.

    One book I found very helpful at the time was “Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them”. I reread it a few times and it really resonated. Two I read later that I also found very helpful for making me understand the whole dynamics later on were “The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond”, by Patricia Evans, and another book by Evans a few years later, “Controlling People”.

  14. littlepitcher says:

    Thank you for a great post and useful links. This makes me feel, for the first time, that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
    The “one abuser, many faces” quote resonates. For me, it was the realization that this world contains seven billion people and, hey, a**holes, you can always be replaced by someone who behaves better. Reality is scientific, verifiable, logical. I give myself permanent permission to walk away from anyone or anything which hurts me, and the human race might damn me for it, but this is America and we are a free people.

  15. Oh, two more things I found helpful: an excellent (and female) therapist who could validate my perceptions; and the reason I did finally realise how screwed up this was was that two friends of mine actually saw him in action. Usually that didn’t happen; usually he only pulled stuff in private. But having friends who saw what was happening, even though they didn’t say anything to me, but having a witness – that made me see clearly that this was just not right.

  16. Jay says:

    Years ago my friend’s superior in the military – she was his sergeant at the time, he was a private – ran into him in a bar, fed him seven shots of liquor (she was buying them for him, he can remember that much), took him home, had sex with him, sent him home in the morning with a kiss and a wink, and then threatened to file rape charges the next day. She didn’t go through with the threat, but then came to him after a week and talked to him very seriously about how violated she felt and how she was traumatized at how he had taken advantage of her.

    He still can’t clarify his feelings on what happened, since what he remembers was consensual, if drunken, and she was the one to buy him alcohol, invite him to her place, and jump him after the door was closed. But he still wonders if he was the one to take advantage of her.

    I didn’t have a word for what happened to him when he told me the story – I eventually settled on “gray rape,” but it sounds to me like a form of gaslighting is more likely.

  17. Jay says:

    I guess I have another thought. Though this article was very informative – and I’ll make sure to be on the lookout for signs of this among my friends, as an ally – I feel like it’s exclusionary in its language towards men who are abused by female partners. You bring up parent-child and same-sex instances of gaslighting, but go no further. And then you posit that “the patriarchy” is one of the forms of dominance that make up the ingredients for gaslighting, thus neatly avoiding the possibility of female abusers altogether.

    My significant other was raped repeatedly by a female family friend who was his babysitter throughout his childhood and adolescence. She maintained her control over him for two years by telling him that he really wanted it, that as a teenage boy his hormones were naturally out of control and so clearly *he* was the one who was making her, a woman with lower sex drive, have sex with him. She also used her status as close family friend to silence him from speaking out. She told him over and over that since he was male, taller than her, and a teenager, there was no way that he didn’t want it. He still struggles to this day with the idea that men can be raped and that what happened to him was rape. I feel like this is a clear instance of someone intentionally rearranging reality around the victim, making him question his own feelings and perceptions – and additionally, she used existing tropes of a gendered society to do it – so this is an example of gaslighting where the woman was the abuser. I wish you wouldn’t ignore that completely.

  18. PA says:

    Thanks for this whole conversation, Lauren. It’s so incredibly helpful. And timely, for me. I’m in the process of leaving a relationship that I have, at times, considered emotionally abusive, and even while I’m writing this I’m torn up by wondering whether I’m doing the right thing.

    Everything my partner’s saying to me now feels both as a godsend – he’s talking about his feelings, which he almost never has, something I put forward as one of the reasons I’m breaking up with him – and an attempt to rewrite history in his favor. Maybe he truly feels like he’s done all that work and was always trying to give me everything and support me and all that jazz, but I know it didn’t feel like that at the time. Far from it. I can’t help feeling that I’m being manipulated, but then again, my father tends to do that and I’m both highly sensitive and allergic to it. There’s always this gnawing doubt… I tell myself, ‘too little too late’ all the time and I try to hold on to my experience of our excruciatingly painful conflicts, but I’m having a really hard time with it.

  19. Lauren says:

    Jay: Though this article was very informative – and I’ll make sure to be on the lookout for signs of this among my friends, as an ally – I feel like it’s exclusionary in its language towards men who are abused by female partners.

    Hey Jay — I hear you and I understand why it’s bothersome. This piece is intended to be about how women experience emotional abuse in response to an article about a man telling women how to feel about emotional abuse. That said, I feel like your friend’s experience is pretty typical of an authority figure’s abuse of the power differential between adults and children (which I clumisly lumped into parent-child — at some point, even in the spirit of inclusion, you just can’t cover every possible topic). I also think that an article about women abusers would look very different than this one because there are different cultural stories, stereotypes, and (typically) victims at play.

  20. The worst relationship situation in which I was a part unfolded like this. She was extremely jealous to the point that if I even mentioned another woman, she would either get angry at me or assert that I was going to leave her. Even if I looked at artwork or advertising where women were featured, she felt threatened and afraid. Later, that paranoia would lead her to hack into my e-mail account. She would have my incoming e-mails forwarded into an account with a cryptically titled username she created for the occasion.

    I would later take her to court, though I would drop the charges when I found myself outgunned from a legal standpoint. Still, I felt as though I stood up to her. That might have been a victory in and of itself. The language of confrontation was the only language she seemed to understand.

    When we were intimate, it was clear that she never believed that anyone could possibly ever love her without conditions. It is for this reason that I pitied her, though her love for me was also conditional. The fact that I was much younger than her was not a coincidence. She was afraid of growing old and kept me around, in part, to cater to that side of herself.

    She talked almost exclusively about younger days, especially those in college. Those were the memories she cherished the most and one felt as though her life had peaked at 21.

    I’m not entirely unsympathetic, even now, but I do see that she had significant personal problems that she was unwilling to address. When we were friends, she was an entirely different person. Once I became her boyfriend, she changed dramatically. And I knew to assign these problems to the way she was brought up, but like always, it’s tough sometimes to figure out the balance between a dysfunctional family and the ability to lead a healthy life in spite of it.

  21. Jgirl says:

    HOLY. CRAP.

    I’ve been out of my previous relationship for a few months now, and hindsight has been informing me that it was a bad relationship for a while. But after today, I have new perspective. I’d really like to thank your readers for sharing their stories. It has helped me identify some things that I went through so that I can do better about watching for them in the future.

    Basically, my partner got physical with me a couple of times. It wasn’t very intense and he didn’t actually hurt me, but it happened. At the time, I reacted pretty strongly but he INSTANTLY turned it around on me to tell me that it didn’t happen the way I was saying and how dare I accuse him of such a thing and we should just break up right this instant if I really thought he could ever do anything so terrible.

    He also mocked and belittled me for being a feminist and continuously told me that if I really believed in equality for everybody I should choose a different title, and that being a feminist meant I really believed in female dominance. It got to the point where I stopped blogging and stopped admitting to being feminist to anyone.

    As with a lot of people, sometimes I bang my head on the (figurative) wall wondering why the hell I put up with it for so long, but again, it’s an old story. He had a lot of admirable qualities, outside of our relationship and I could see the good person that I wanted to be with, just out of reach. But holy crap was he a terrible boyfriend.

    In the end, I don’t really regret the relationship. My list of deal-breakers has grown quite a bit, but it’s all for the better. I feel like I learned a lot about what I can and cannot tolerate from a partner. Mostly what I cannot tolerate, but sometimes that’s the important part.

    Thanks to everybody who has shared their story and helped my little light bulb switch on.

  22. GinnyC says:

    Lauren,

    Thank you so much for this series! Before reading it, I don’t think I ever would have identified some of the things that happened in my family when I was growing up as gaslighting.

    I would not describe my father as abusive; his parents were abusive. He just feels he must be in control at all times and is convinced that he is always right. When I was in late elementary school and middle school I was extremely depressed. I did not let it influence my school work; I was a model student, but I would get into screaming arguments with my parents at home. These involved me telling them that I wished I was dead. But of course, I wasn’t depressed, according to my father, I was pushing his buttons and seeking attention. He told me that I was a drama queen, that I was being melodramatic, and that I would end up in jail if I didn’t learn to control my temper. I’m sure he thought he was helping me.

    I managed to think myself out of being depressed in high school. I still have problems with lows sometimes. But I have never talked to a therapist, except once on my school’s phone hotline. I still feel like I am being melodramatic if I say my true feelings during emotional lows out loud. The funny thing is that I’m pretty sure this isn’t true, but neither me nor my brother is able to talk to therapists without feeling ashamed. I still feel like I am faking somehow, even though I know that I’m not.

  23. f. says:

    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.

    Oh. Lordy.

    I wrote a little bit about the gaslighting I just experienced in a shared apartment situation – one that I fled at high speed – and anonymous person who wrote to Lauren: my gaslighter did the same damn thing. THE SAME DAMN THING. Except it wasn’t a pizza, it was breakfast rolls.

    High five, fellow low-class dirtbag, and I’m so glad you don’t live there anymore, and that neither do I.

    I, like other commenters, feel like I need to address the issue of power differentials, which are described as a prerequisite of sorts for gaslighting in this post. For me, I would absolutely describe my abusive roommate as a gaslighter – for example, she insisted that I’d never told her I had a boyfriend, and so it was a serious violation of her trust for me to invite him to stay with me in the apartment. However, the only power differential between us is that I am a sensitive person and I fight fair, whereas she had absolutely no qualms about using everything and everything as an emotional weapon against me. It was amazing and disturbing how her lack of inhibitions allowed her to get the upper hand over and over again.

  24. f. says:

    Actually, now that I think about it, my gaslighting roommate did have language privilege over me. I speak a foreign language in my daily life, and she looked at me with absolute loathing whenever I would momentarily forget a word. It made me feel really stupid.

  25. Alara Rogers says:

    I don’t think the gaslighter *needs* to have social privilege over their victim, but it helps.

    All other things being equal, the average person subconsciously looks to the social privilege of a person they’re interacting with to determine how much credibility to give them. And if the other one has more social privilege than they themselves do, that subconsciously leads to the sense that the other one has more credibility than you do yourself. This is necessary for gaslighting to work or even have serious effects; you have to be willing to consider the possibility that your gaslighter is right and you really don’t remember things in order to be victimized.

    However, all other things are not always equal. For instance, we generally value multiple consistent stories over one inconsistent story no matter how much social privilege the person with the varying story has. Abusers and harassers in power generally don’t get taken down by one complaint, but many complaints often do work (and often, when they don’t work, it’s because each individual complaint from a socially less dominant person was suppressed and disbelieved, so it never entered a public discourse where anyone could see that multiple people were saying the same thing.) The fellow who reported being gaslighted by his coworkers would have been victimized even if every single coworker he had was a woman, because lots of people saying the same thing make us doubt ourselves.

    It’s possible to imagine a situation where a woman is the gaslighter and a man is the victim, because a man, despite male privilege, might well be shy and insecure, and a woman, despite female oppression, might well be strong-willed and decisive-sounding enough to make an insecure man believe that she’s the one who’s telling the truth and he’s just misremembering. It’s harder to imagine a reversed situation between parents and children, because by definition parents have more power (at least, as long as the children are minors), but one could imagine a younger sibling gaslighting an older one if the age difference isn’t too great and the younger one has the backing of Mom and Dad.

    I do think it is generally easier for men to gaslight women than the other way around, both because of the difference in social dominance and because of the *specific* nature of the prejudice against women, the concept that they’re less rational, more emotional, more prone to hysterics and misremembering things, and generally less reliable than men are. Because that stereotype exists, men are less likely to accept a woman’s word for it that they, the man, are wrong and the woman is right, than a woman is to do the reverse. And it’s easier for a man to escape, in general, because of the direction of social prejudice, so his friends and family aren’t generally inclined to tell him to believe his girlfriend instead of himself. But because there are men who are insecure and doubt themselves, and because there are women who project great certainty and surety, it’s certainly possible for a man to end up in a relationship with a female predator who gaslights him in order to maintain tighter control over him. It’s just not going to be as common as the other way around… which is pretty much true of all interpersonal abuse.

  26. Ros says:

    Thanks. So much.

    I got a job offer last week, and it’s good but not extraordinary, and the location of my current job is really convenient, so I was hesitating about it… and then I read this post.

    Um… That’s my relationship with my boss. The made-up requests that are my fault if they don’t happen, the “I never said you should do that” – “but I confirmed it with you in writing, see here?” – “I never wrote that, you must be making it up”… That, FYI, is why I haven’t gotten a raise in 2 years. Apparently I’m “too argumentative” and “don’t listen to what I’m told”. Which is really hard to do when even written instructions that are confirmed, in writing, are later dismissed as “false” and “never happened” and I should have done something else entirely.

    So, today, I quit. Onwards to a new job, with (hopefully) a boss who is capable of communicating. (I got a lecture on my lack of loyalty, and how they were meaning to get around to giving me a performance review and I should wait a few weeks before leaving the company, btw.)

    So, basically: thanks. I think this post has made an actual difference in my life.

  27. PA says:

    Merely Academic: Partly I suppose because he had convinced me that if I weren’t such a selfish horrible person my happiness wouldn’t matter so much to me, but that’s all you care about, isn’t it? You don’t care about anyone else, do you? It’s all about you, you, you …

    THAT. The times I heard that… and it always gets to me. But there was that one time during an argument, when he finished a ten-minute speech with ‘you’ve been talking all the time and it’s all just about you, like always’ because I asked for one minute silence to explain what I wanted to say, when I almost started to laugh because it was so ridiculous and obviously bullshit.

    It made it easier to shrug off the accusations. And still, while I’m trying to get out of a situation I know in my gut doesn’t make me happy, I can’t help but feel selfish for choosing life without him and giving him so much pain.

  28. Anne says:

    I’m confused about the way you relate this to Ali’s article. I can understand saying “Ali wants us to call a certain commonplace type of sexism gaslighting, but I want to stick with only the old definition of gaslighting, the one that’s about abusive relationships.” But I get the impression that you think he actually got confused about the definition of the word and/or emotional abuse itself. It seemed clear to me from the article that he knows it’s normally used in a more acute sense, and that he proposed using it for this more everyday problem (the “you’re overreacting” problem) because we don’t yet have a good term for it.

    I think introducing a term for the ubiquitous “you’re overreacting” problem is a really good idea, and I also think it’s a better idea not to use a term that already means something else, especially something more severe. And while you’ve clearly done a lot of good by getting people thinking and talking about gaslighting, the everyday stuff he talked about is also worth talking about.

  29. @Ros – I hope they do an exit interview. Even if they don’t, you would be doing your replacement a favour by speaking to someone over your boss’s head, or writing, to say exactly why you left. Examples of instructions confirmed in writing and then denied as things you were ‘making up’ would be helpful to them, and it sounds as if you’ve got it all.

    @PA –

    But there was that one time during an argument, when he finished a ten-minute speech with ‘you’ve been talking all the time and it’s all just about you, like always’ because I asked for one minute silence to explain what I wanted to say,

    Oh, I remember this. My persistent fantasy, while I was trying to escape that multitentacled thrashing misery of a relationship, was – and this is kinda embarrassing now – of tying him up and gagging him so that he wouldn’t be able to interrupt me with his interpretation of what a horrible person I was and derail the conversation yet again. So that just once I could actually explain what I meant and get to the end of a fracking sentence.

    This never happened by the way. I never did get to explain my point of view. In the end I had to accept that I never would, that he would never think I was a decent human being and I was just going to have to accept that and leave without that affirmation from him.

    It’s a lie, though, by the way. We fight fair; they only fight to control, and will say and do whatever it takes to get that control. It doesn’t have to be true. In fact it’s helpful if it isn’t true, because they don’t want you or your reality to get any traction in the discussion, which real data would provide. So they silence it with lies, with gaslighting, with emotional abuse, or just by not letting us talk without being interrupted; whatever works.

  30. GinnyC says:

    @ Alara Rogers 25: I think this is the case too. It also helps if the gaslighter can isolate their target and get other people to side with their fake stories.

    In my own life, I had a dorm roommate try to gaslight me into thinking that I was being emotional and unreasonable to want to be able to sleep and study in the room without constant bad tv or her coming in with her friends and talking loudly with the light on at 3 AM.

    She also accused me of being terrible to her and yelling at her. She just seemed awful and out of touch with reality, but she was trying to get me to believe that I was unfriendly and that sounding like I was going to cry meant I had lost my temper with her.

    I had a lot more social power in that situation than her and I think that is one reason her attempt at gaslighting failed so badly. I had been living there longer. My neighbors and the authority figures hadn’t rotated very much and all knew me as a nice, reasonable person. I got a room transfer, and she got a room to herself for the semester because no one wanted to live with her or trusted her after what had happened to me. So yeah, trying to gaslight without social power over the target usually doesn’t work very well.

  31. Angiportus says:

    THis sounds a lot like brainwashing, especially the part where the victim is isolated. Not sure if it’s ever deliberately been done to me, though some people have definitely messed with my head.
    If someone got on my case for not using a pizza pan, I think I’d ask them does that mean they are going to buy me one.

  32. James says:

    I’m really trying not to make this a “what about a menz” post, but I feel like I should talk about this from an abuser’s perspective. This isn’t intended as an excuse. Rather, I’d like to address any male feminist allies.

    That’s a hard label to swallow, isn’t it? Abuser. But first step to recovering is admitting the problem.

    Me and gaslighting started with my father. My dad gaslit my mom all the time when I was growing up; though at least what was visible to me wasn’t as drastic as some stories that have been told in these posts. Mostly it seemed lika joke, making ludicrous claims or obvious lies that everyone knew was false.

    But it set a tone, at least for me, especially in my interactions with others. Writing it off as a sense of humor puts on blinders where you can’t really see the effect it has on other people. But over time it get’s subtler and subtler. The jokes become less obvious, the pranks become less harmless. It becomes a slippery slope, and I hope that I’m catching myself now before I go sliding off the edge.

    What it probably stems most from is my own insecurity, insecurity about whether I’m “good” enough. I imagine I share this with most other abusers. See, what gaslighting allows you to do is put mental distance between you and your own mistakes, or to create situations and really, realities in which you are the better, more competent, more honest person in a relationship.

    The patriarchy is constantly telling men that women are petty, shallow, catty, and vindictive. Women play games. Men are straightforward. Men are taught that to be any of these things at any time is simply impossible. But no one’s perfect. We’re all small sometimes. This creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that only gaslighting can resolve.

    So what’s the fix here? I know what I’m going to do to try and stop it.

    Recognize the problem. I’m going to stop making any jokes that could possibly be gaslighting. Even if I think a ‘joke’ is obvious enough or silly enough to recognize and not do any harm, I’m not in a position to judge that.

    All men need to watch themselves for this, too. It’s too easy to slip into or write off as a ‘joke’. You may think because you’ve never done anything remotely close to the horribleness in the stories in this thread that you’re safe, but your really not. It’s a subtle, inching path to gaslighting.

  33. aboat says:

    @ PA

    I definitely get what you are going through. I am currently trying to leave my abusive partner of several years. There are a few things making it tricky – he controls every cent, I have two small children, all my family and friends live about 1500 miles away – but what is really making it hard is the guilt and ‘trauma bonding’ (google this i you haven’t already…it will explain a lot ).

    Even though I can go through the relationship with a fine tooth comb and identify clear and prevalent patterns of abusive behaviour, even though i know that if i look through my history with this man and ask myself ‘is it possible to ever, EVER trust and love this person ever again’ the answer is an emphatic NO, even though I know that even the days where no overt abuse is occurring it is still not something I can intellectually and morally agree on, every time I try to leave I end up being concerned about his feelings (despite the fact he is patently unconcerned with mine).

    My thoughts on this – the clear, undamaged part of my thinking – is this:

    – he does not actually love me, he loves the ability to control and abuse someone.

    -my attachment to him is due to trauma bonding, not any actual hope for change of his behaviour, or desire to have him in my life (because, if abusers weren’t so effective at isolating, their presence would not be important – there are a lot of lovely people out there to enrich your life).

    -staying with him is not because he will be so heartbroken without me. he won’t. he might think he will be, but that is just the shock of change – abusers define themselves through the reality they control, ie the relationship. to be honest, he will get over it. it is just that my self-esteem was so completely eroded that it prevented me from putting ANY importance on my emotional needs if it meant overriding his, however small. it is not that we need to protect a person from any of the worlds hurts, it is that we have been told our emotional and mental health is irrelevant. but it isn’t. you deserve it. it is really hard to accept that, but you absolutely deserve to be happy, and to be safe. you can care about somebody’s feelings, but you have to LOVE yourself, over and above. and that is not selfish, that is basic self-respect.

    stay strong! you can totally do this.

    thanks for this thread guys, it is really inspiring to see how people recover.

  34. Lauren says:

    Anne: It seemed clear to me from the article that he knows it’s normally used in a more acute sense, and that he proposed using it for this more everyday problem (the “you’re overreacting” problem) because we don’t yet have a good term for it. …And while you’ve clearly done a lot of good by getting people thinking and talking about gaslighting, the everyday stuff he talked about is also worth talking about.

    I agree. The everyday stuff is definitely worth talking about, and we do have a name for it: sexism.

    If you read the accounts above and compare them to Ali’s examples, the difference is startlingly clear. The examples Ali used are annoying and ubiquitous, but they aren’t gaslighting. In a cultural atmosphere where women have to fight to be believed when they report abuse, I question the wisdom in stretching the term to encompass everything from “hyperbole my partner uses in an argument” to “lies my partner maintains to prime me for additional abuse and accept the blame for it too”.

  35. Sheelzebub says:

    Anne: I think introducing a term for the ubiquitous “you’re overreacting” problem is a really good idea, and I also think it’s a better idea not to use a term that already means something else, especially something more severe. And while you’ve clearly done a lot of good by getting people thinking and talking about gaslighting, the everyday stuff he talked about is also worth talking about.

    Anne, as Lauren said, the term to use about the “overreacting” and “hysterical” rhetoric is sexism. And we talk about that every day stuff as well (in fact, the Feministe article that originally linked to his piece pointed out that we talk about this all the time but are ignored and how very frustrating it is to be ignored only to see people throw rose petals at a man’s feet for saying the same things we’ve been saying). The people posting on these particular comments threads are abuse survivors; it rankles to see a very specific strategy that is used to make us question our sanity and our interpretation of events to be lumped in with general assholery.

  36. Anne says:

    Lauren: Iagree.Theeverydaystuffisdefinitelyworthtalkingabout,andwedohaveanameforit:sexism.

    IfyoureadtheaccountsaboveandcomparethemtoAli’sexamples,thedifferenceisstartlinglyclear.TheexamplesAliusedareannoyingandubiquitous,buttheyaren’tgaslighting.Inaculturalatmospherewherewomenhavetofighttobebelievedwhentheyreportabuse,Iquestionthewisdominstretchingthetermtoencompasseverythingfrom“hyperbolemypartnerusesinanargument”to“liesmypartnermaintainstoprimemeforadditionalabuseandaccepttheblameforittoo”.

    I personally think more specific names for common forms of sexism are helpful, and I don’t think it harms more severe issues to name less severe ones. But I do agree with the argument that it’s unwise to stretch one word to cover two problems that differ in severity. My problem is that you haven’t said that until now. It’s honestly confusing – before I figured out that you were silently making the decision to reject the stretching of the definition and drive home the old one (a decision I support), I thought you were just erasing the less severe end of the spectrum, which is exactly the opposite of what people who are frequently told they’re overreacting need. So it’s useful, not to mention more fair to Ali, to be clear about this.

  37. I liked Ali’s original article, but I’m open to the idea that gaslighting is the wrong term for what he was talking about … although I myself have often thought about the things he was discussing using the words “cultural gaslighting”.

    Anyway, the real reason I’m commenting is to thank you, Lauren, for this post. One of my most significant partners gaslit the hell out of me, as I’ve written here and elsewhere. And I’ve often resisted using the term “gaslighting” or “abuse” for what he did … because the focus of my writing is usually to just try and get across how something felt, to everyone, and sometimes I find that using loaded words for those experiences makes people less open to understanding where I’m coming from.

    But those loaded words exist for a reason, and they’re important. I’m really glad to see such a detailed and careful examination of what gaslighting-type abuse is, and what it means.

  38. Also, relevantly, I really liked the following recent comment on a Tiger Beatdown post. The comment is by Sady Doyle; she’s writing about her experiences with trying to create an ongoing relationship with her abuser:

    I’ve been in some situations with people wherein every known instance of contact reduced me to tears, and I kept trying to “resolve” this. And I was this strong feminist woman, who clearly knew what abuse was, but every single person in my life was telling me that these people — it wasn’t just one instance, I had a pattern of being attracted to certain relationships for a while, both platonic (often female!) friends or people I dated, probably because of my background — were abusive to me, and that contact with these people turned me into, quite literally, a different woman, a very unhealthy woman. They could spotlight specific changes in my behavior over time, when I was exposed to these people, and they could also spotlight how I became healthier, happier and more confident when we did not have contact for a few days or for a longer period of time. They could isolate and specify instances in which they had quite literally witnessed the abuse as it occurred; sometimes, with less careful or more confident abusers, they would slip and do it right in front of my family or my friends. (Telling me stories about how “no-one liked me, they were the only people I could count on,” or whispering into my ear that my mother was “trying to turn me against them” — in front of my mother, that happened! — or just straight-up yelling at me for things I clearly hadn’t done wrong, like if a dish broke and it was my fault for not buying better dishes.) They could also point me to stories I had told them, about what was going on, that I had presented as “just normal conflict,” or the people “having a bad day,” and which were clearly instances of abuse. And I would keep going, because an essential part of some abuse is that it makes you unable to identify what’s actually happening.

    And I had to get help to identify that. I had to see that the strategic silencing and denial and double-binds or double-talk continued, so that I would begin the conversation all strong and ready to resolve the conflict and ask for some accountability, and end it promising complete “absolution” or begging for forgiveness. I had to learn to identify the silencing. (“I don’t mean to shut you down, but hearing about how I hurt you makes me really guilty, so I can’t talk to you.”) The clearly contradictory and untrue statements. (“I can’t recall whether I ever really liked you — I don’t trust my memory that much — but here’s what you ate for lunch and what you were wearing on the day that you pissed me off three years ago.”) The double-binds. (“I really want to be your friend, because I care about you, but when you ask me for support, or for a specific kind of treatment, that makes me not want to be your friend.”) The specific denials of accountability, and warnings against asking for accountability, framed as guilt-trips. (“I hear what you’re saying about how I hurt you, but it always really hurts my feelings when you claim the moral high ground by pointing out my behaviors and acting as if I’m hurting you; it’s like you don’t want me to be happy or feel good about myself.”) The blaming. (“I’m not saying you deserved it, but can’t you think of how you were actually way worse, and sort of made me do that to you?”) The gradual progression toward telling me outright what I thought or felt, and what to think or do next. (“I think what we both want here is to be forgiven, absolutely, with no conditions, and with a promise never to bring up what we both did again. Why don’t you go first, and ask me to forgive you?”)

    This isn’t the stuff that specifically takes the form of yelling at you for not wearing a bra, or making you quit your job, or calling you names, or hitting you. What it is, is the groundwork that prepares the way for those overt acts of abuse, and which makes you unable to identify the other person’s behavior as wrong over time — what makes you ready to blame yourself when the abuse occurs. Because honestly, if all of this didn’t happen first, you would notice that this person treats you like crap and you would respond. But when the narrative is re-written, and you’re being systematically gaslighted, there’s no way to know what is actually going on.

  39. renniejoy says:

    Just – Thank you for these posts.

  40. saurus says:

    Anne: But I do agree with the argument that it’s unwise to stretch one word to cover two problems that differ in severity. My problem is that you haven’t said that until now.

    I think Lauren has suggested this before – i.e., that she has an issue with Ali’s definition of gaslighting *AND* that it doesn’t mean we should police people when they say “I was gaslit” or that non-gaslighting behavior that still attempts to mess with someone’s reality can’t suck.

    In the “More on Gaslighting” thread, she said “Yassar Ali, the author of the article that Caperton deftly dissects below, doesn’t have his understanding of gaslighting quite right.”

    and “I like the Urban Dictionary (I know, I know) definition of gaslighting: an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim – having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception.”

    and regarding the idea of telling people “you didn’t experience gaslighting, gaslighting is worse than that”: “On the one hand I think it’s important to at least have a soft definition of the term (ex-English major, guilty), but on the other hand, trying to control how someone defines their experiences, especially in a healing context, feels weird and controlling. Talking about is part of the healing process, period, and it takes guts to do.”

    and “No, lying sucks and it’s mean, but it’s not gaslighting.”

    And so on. I’ve read and participated in all the threads and I never got the impression that Lauren was erasing other gaslighting-esque experiences (which are primarily what I’ve had…I think) so much as making sure there’s a space for gaslighting victims/survivors…herself included. Of course, that does not mean your impression isn’t valid – I’m not trying to disagree with you here so much as reassure you that there are definitely some of us in these threads that take not-quite-gaslighting very seriously and I would hope and expect Lauren is one of them, as no doubt she – like most of us – have experienced not-quite-gaslighting and know it can be traumatizing and shitty on its own.

    I do think it would be nice to have another thread devoted to the psychological effects and lived experiences of other behavioral phenomena on the “messing with your reality” spectrum, but because gaslighting occurs in a situation of fairly severe psychological abuse, I think it’s okay to focus entirely on it.

    At this point, my comment is more general, not just to you:

    I also want to note that I believe with certain oppressed groups – trans* people, disabled people, indigenous people, some folks in the prison industrial complex, people of color in their dealings with cops and government – what dominant society is doing overall is not actually “everyday”, not-quite-gaslighting, but is in fact full-on gaslighting as the societal level. The incredible amount of psychological violence against these groups is terrifying. I mean, what do we call it when a cop insists he shot your seven year old daughter for really excellent reasons, and the rest of your country backs him up?

  41. 1ceuponathyme says:

    The patriarchy is constantly telling men that women are petty, shallow, catty, and vindictive. Women play games. Men are straightforward. Men are taught that to be any of these things at any time is simply impossible. But no one’s perfect. We’re all small sometimes. This creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that only gaslighting can resolve.

    I understand that the patriarchy places double binds on men as well as women. However, I’m certain that there are healthy, non-abusive behaviors which can resolve this cognitive dissonance. To say that gaslighting (or any form of abuse) is the only recourse is a lot like saying, “I just couldn’t help myself.” Plus, I don’t see how gaslighting “resolve[s]” this issue–if anything, I would think that it would exacerbate this problem.

  42. Lauren says:

    James: See, what gaslighting allows you to do is put mental distance between you and your own mistakes, or to create situations and really, realities in which you are the better, more competent, more honest person in a relationship.

    The patriarchy is constantly telling men that women are petty, shallow, catty, and vindictive. Women play games. Men are straightforward. Men are taught that to be any of these things at any time is simply impossible. But no one’s perfect. We’re all small sometimes. This creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that only self-awareness can resolve.

    There, I fixed that for you.

  43. littlepitcher says:

    @Saurus-So correct. Make that disabled and disfigured people. JR Martinez, bless him, is the poster boy for the new attitude that yes, disfigured men can be sexy, but
    anyone see any women with equivalent physical problems in MSM? This recalls a female burn vic on one of my jobs who was being seriously harassed by an ex-con coworker and her bully gang. The boss openly stated his intention to fire the scarred woman, alleging that she could not get along with the coworkers–an intentional distortion of reality. He changed his mind when his cust serv dept told him we would strike en masse to protest.
    It will be essential to separate the stigmatized social attribute from the stigmatizer’s behavior, and to expose the series of lies publicly.

  44. Lauren says:

    saurus: I also want to note that I believe with certain oppressed groups – trans* people, disabled people, indigenous people, some folks in the prison industrial complex, people of color in their dealings with cops and government – what dominant society is doing overall is not actually “everyday”, not-quite-gaslighting, but is in fact full-on gaslighting as the societal level. The incredible amount of psychological violence against these groups is terrifying. I mean, what do we call it when a cop insists he shot your seven year old daughter for really excellent reasons, and the rest of your country backs him up?

    Just want to co-sign this.

    In one of the other threads, zuzu pointed out that these kinds of flat denials are employed by the American Republican party on a regular basis. Politically, there’s not a lot Democrats can do except point to the evidence and talk back and try to stick to the facts, even though the Republican party is intentionally slippery in their political dealings. Considering that this behavior is entrenched in the “controlled” political environment, it seems so daunting to try and combat this on a societal level in an “uncontrolled” political environment. And what’s scary is that a lot of the truisms that were documented above in the interpersonal examples still apply on the social level. So in your example, a police officer claims to have shot a child for “good reasons”, and the rest of the country backs him up because … being a cop is so hard … we weren’t there so we can never know for sure … what was the child doing outside at that hour/in those clothes/in that neighborhood … surely the child provoked the officer … it was an accident/one time only/one bad apple … and society backs up the officer/state because these assumptions are reinforced by the general racist/classist themes of the powerful and subjugate that have been prevalent in this country since its inception.

    Jesus, it’s overwhelming. Someone else can probably come up with a better example than I have here, but yeah, I co-sign.

  45. LC says:

    Clarisse Thorn: The double-binds. (“I really want to be your friend, because I care about you, but when you ask me for support, or for a specific kind of treatment, that makes me not want to be your friend.”)

    Oh my ex was full of things like Sady’s list.

  46. JM says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been out of my abusive relationship for >15 years now, and it’s *still* validating to see other people’s stories and to see exactly the same words coming out of other survivors’ experiences. I, too, stuck to the relationship because I kept “glimpsing” the “real him” and I thought that if I just, I dunno, believed in him enough or something, the “real him” would come out. And slowly, I began to realize that I was, in fact, seeing the real him, but that was tempered by the certain knowledge that no one else would ever want me, that I hated being alone, that everyone except him would always abandon me, etc. Like other women here, I identified as a feminist, and he ridiculed me into silence on that subject, and i had just come out as bisexual, another point on which he ridiculed me into silence.

    I left him for a fabulous woman, who I’m still with now. But for years, she (and my series of therapists) did a lot of heavy lifting convincing me that I was a worthwhile human being and that no, I hadn’t just imagined or exaggerated the abuse. And I still have bad times when I’m depressed and anxious and totally unreasonable. I remember seeing in Courage to Heal the rule of thumb that one generally needs as many years of therapy to recover from abuse as you were abused. I’m now working on three times as many years as I was abused, and I still need therapy, though I’m down to once a month, which feels like a major accomplishment.

  47. James, I kind of don’t buy this. You’re saying on the one hand that you’re doing things that are jokes and pranks, but on the other that you’re making false claims to protect your self-conception from the damage you’ve done. There’s a lot of tension between those two — bordering on mutual exclusivity. I suspect that even writing this you’re struggling with the urge to pretend that you’re talking about unintentional conduct, when you’re talking about intentional conduct.

    Accountability is a habit. When unaccountability has been a habit, it’s a hard one to break. Suppose you’ve told your partner you’re going to mail a package from work and you didn’t get to it. If you’re in the habit of not taking responsibility, if you’re asked about it you may be tempted to avoid responsibility by lying: “Yeah, it went out.” But then the problem can easily snowball. “What do you mean they never got it?!” And the personal cost of taking responsibility gets ever higher. But the cost of not taking responsibility is higher in the long run, as your partner realizes you’re unreliable and distrusts you, which means you have to work ever harder to cover your misconduct — much the way substance abusers get high more to avoid dealing with the consequences of their substance abuse.

    The answer is to be accountable. There’s no shortcut. If you’ve had problems telling the truth when it’s uncomfortable, the solution is to go cold turkey and hold yourself to strict standards of truth-telling. That means when you mess up, people will be upset with you, and you can’t require them not to be. You just have to accept that people are mad for a reason. Instead of demanding that people act as if you’re a better person, if you want to be treated like a better person, you need to actually be a better person.

  48. Zweisatz says:

    f.:
    I, like other commenters, feel like I need to address the issue of power differentials, which are described as a prerequisite of sorts for gaslighting in this post. For me, I would absolutely describe my abusive roommate as a gaslighter–for example, she insisted that I’d never told her I had a boyfriend, and so it was a serious violation of her trust for me to invite him to stay with me in the apartment. However, the only power differential between us is that I am a sensitive person and I fight fair, whereas she had absolutely no qualms about using everything and everything as an emotional weapon against me. It was amazing and disturbing how her lack of inhibitions allowed her to get the upper hand over and over again.

    Ooooh YES, fighting fair doesn’t lead you anywhere if the other person isn’t doing so, too. I’m looking forward to being able to stand my ground in every situation – but right now, I have to work on it … hard.

  49. Jgirl says:

    James: Writing it off as a sense of humor puts on blinders where you can’t really see the effect it has on other people. But over time it get’s subtler and subtler. The jokes become less obvious, the pranks become less harmless. It becomes a slippery slope, and I hope that I’m catching myself now before I go sliding off the edge.

    This. So, so much this.

    I had an email exchange with my Ex last week in which he said something horribly thoughtless and hurtful. Supposedly as a joke. I’ve been well trained to back down in the face of hurtful humor, but for once I didn’t let him get away with it, even when he busted out the, “you used to think I was funny when I cracked these kinds of jokes” lie. He genuinely didn’t seem to understand why I was so angry at him for cracking a joke.

    But for once, I “stayed on message” as they say in politics and let him know that what he’d said was hurtful, thoughtless and inexcusable. Repeatedly.

    Interesting that I haven’t heard from him since.

    Hurtful “humor” is never okay. I hope your work on this issue goes well, James!

  50. f. says:

    James, I hope you find the help you need to stop the patterns you find yourself acting out. Like others have said, this is such an important step toward accountability and getting things figured out. I hope you can find access to a therapist who can help you work through it in a structured setting.

  51. GinnyC says:

    I’ve been trying to think about gaslighting within the context of family cycles of abuse. I think that most abusers who gaslight do so intentionally. I think this is especially true of men who gaslight their partners. This being said, I also saw a lot of people’s comments on the other thread about how their parents, who were abuse survivors, used gaslighting against them as children. Some of these parents had clearly become abusers themselves. Others, like my dad, sometimes engaged in abusive behavior or behavior with abusive consequences, while trying hard not to repeat the abuse they experienced growing up.

    In this context, I wonder if unintentional gaslighting, or imposing your own reality on others, becomes a coping mechanism for some survivors. I think that when my dad used gaslighting against me or my siblings it came from his belief that he is always right in an argument. He was and is willing to deny other peoples’ lived experiences if those experiences don’t follow his views. Despite this he is a progressive man, accepts me being gay, and is a good father. I’m pretty sure in his case that being “always right” was his coping mechanism from growing up in an abusive household. It allowed him to escape his family without being brainwashed or broken. However, this tendency plus the fact that the model of a family he grew up with was abusive and controlling encouraged dynamics in how my dad dealt with us a children that are problematic and have lasting consequences for me and my siblings. It also encouraged dynamics in my parents marriage that bother me even though my mother is ok with them.

  52. CurrerBell says:

    GinnyC:
    This being said, I also saw a lot of people’s comments on the other thread about how their parents, who were abuse survivors, used gaslighting against them as children. Some of these parents had clearly become abusers themselves. Others, like my dad, sometimes engaged in abusive behavior or behavior with abusive consequences, while trying hard not to repeat the abuse they experienced growing up.

    In this context, I wonder if unintentional gaslighting, or imposing your own reality on others, becomes a coping mechanism for some survivors.

    I think you’re right. I reject the notion that my parents purposefully gaslit me in order to break down my self-esteem. I mean, that might be the case and I could just be in massive denial about their intentions. But I know that they both had abusive childhoods and I choose to believe that they just didn’t have enough self-awareness to see how broken they really were (and are!) and instead had kids to try and create their own version of the family they always wanted. The family in which they were always right, in which they received unconditional love, and for which they received validation from society for perpetuating the myth of the Perfect American Family and upholding social norms.

    I see how LITERALLY re-writing your familial history could be so, so attractive. I do. But I don’t forgive them for working out their issues on ME. I can’t. It was wrong and I do hold them responsible for not seeking out a different way to heal themselves. I don’t care that therapy wasn’t as prevalent back then, I don’t care that some of my siblings seem to have turned out “okay,” and I don’t care that I came into existence solely because of their collective issues. I cannot forgive them.

    Many thanks for giving me a safe space to talk about this, though. This is a really difficult thing to discuss, but knowing that I’m far from alone in this makes it a little easier to bear.

  53. Anonymous B says:

    saurus: I also want to note that I believe with certain oppressed groups – trans* people, disabled people, indigenous people, some folks in the prison industrial complex, people of color in their dealings with cops and government – what dominant society is doing overall is not actually “everyday”, not-quite-gaslighting, but is in fact full-on gaslighting as the societal level. The incredible amount of psychological violence against these groups is terrifying. I mean, what do we call it when a cop insists he shot your seven year old daughter for really excellent reasons, and the rest of your country backs him up?

    Like Lauren, I want to co-sign this.

    I’m the person quoted above with the father whose behavior Lauren describes (accurately, I believe) as “ambient abuse.” When I first started figuring out that my mother wasn’t really weak, stupid, or pathologically forgetful, what I recognized first was that my family’s relationships were deeply sexist. Even now, I’m not sure I can draw a line between where my father was abusive and where he was just enforcing patriarchal ideas about family, marital relationships, and femininity. (Like when my father belittled my mother’s reasoning skills: was that just him being a misogynist prick, or was it ambient abuse? And how am I supposed to tell when it’s one and when it’s the other?) In a way, it doesn’t matter if there’s a line. If it’s abuse, then it’s abuse; if it’s sexism, then sexism is a form of socially-sanctioned abuse, which is not really news to me.

    On a different note, I just want to thank Lauren (again) and the other people who wrote in for organizing and participating in creating this post. When Lauren asked me how I deal with my family now, I actually forgot about one important aspect of my relationship with my dad until I read this:

    “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.”

    In my discussion with Lauren, I talked about not speaking to my dad, but that is a perfect description of why I don’t speak to him. It’s frustrating that no one else in my family understands that.

    I’m still in what I consider the early stages of recovery, still figuring out what’s what and how to name it and whether it’s real. I’m just emerging from denial, still doing things like reading other people’s stories and thinking, “wow, I really had it easy, my experience can’t have been real abuse.” But both participating in creating this post, and reading it, are really helping. I’m realizing that even if my experiences seem tame, their effects on me are what’s important, and it’s okay to take those seriously.

  54. zuzu says:

    Lauren: Jesus, it’s overwhelming. Someone else can probably come up with a better example than I have here, but yeah, I co-sign.

    I can think of two, albeit one is a movie-based-on-a-true-story and one does not involve a member of a despised group: First, remember when Dick Cheney shot that old man in the face and the shooting victim apologized? There were a hell of a lot of people who saw right through that, but the thing is, that guy apologized and stuck by his apology and there were also a lot of people who insisted that he wasn’t really injured all that badly anyway (he was).

    Second, there was a movie out a few years ago with Angelina Jolie, “Changeling.” It was about a true story, a woman in the 30s or 40s in LA, whose child was missing. There was quite a lot of publicity about it, and the police triumphantly announced that they’d found her child. Except it wasn’t her child. And despite her protests, the police insisted it was, sent this child home with her, declared victory, and stopped looking for her child. And when she kept insisting it wasn’t her child, they told her and everyone else that she was crazy. Because she was ruining the ending of their PR coup.

    Actually, a couple more examples: the attempts by the military to suppress the reality that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire — not to mention the attempts to rewrite the man’s history and beliefs by insisting the longtime atheist was a Christian warrior. A lot depended on making his brother, who angrily denounced those at the propaganda-filled memorial service who talked about Pat’s faith, into a wacko, and making his parents out to be unhinged by grief. And in football-related matters, there has been the writing off of the wives of former players who sustained head injuries and became brain-damaged and often violent. The NFL wrote them off because they were just women, and the former players themselves, well, they just drank too much or abused drugs or whatever. It wasn’t until a few of the wives sent in their died-too-young husbands’ brains into a neurologist that the league was forced to confront the fact that these players were in fact sustaining incredible amounts of brain damage and that the league knew of the dangers and wrote them off.

    So, yes, you find people being taken advantage of when they’re under some kind of stress and it’s in an institution’s interest to ensure that any complaint they make is disbelieved.

    And that’s not even getting into people who are marginalized and deemed untrustworthy due to their very identities or state of development. If a school has a zero-tolerance policy regarding bullying, it’s really much easier for them to convince the kids involved that they haven’t really been bullied — by bullying them, of course — than it is to deal with bullying. If they define away bullying, then they have no bullying problem and never have to enforce their unenforceable rules!

  55. zuzu says:

    Lauren: So in your example, a police officer claims to have shot a child for “good reasons”, and the rest of the country backs him up because … being a cop is so hard … we weren’t there so we can never know for sure … what was the child doing outside at that hour/in those clothes/in that neighborhood … surely the child provoked the officer … it was an accident/one time only/one bad apple … and society backs up the officer/state because these assumptions are reinforced by the general racist/classist themes of the powerful and subjugate that have been prevalent in this country since its inception.

    Oh, another example (they *are* legion, aren’t they?): there was a precinct in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s known as the “Dirty 30″ because it was so corrupt. Officers had a longtime overtime scam going on that they did systematically: new cops were groomed by the older cops. Essentially, the overtime thing worked as follows: if you arrested someone late in your shift, you had to process them, and if that ran past the end of your shift, you got time and a half. If you arrested someone, you had to appear in court within three days for the arraignment. So if you timed your arrest so that the court date fell on your regular day off (RDO), you got time and a half for coming in. So how do you make sure that you get arrests at the end of your shift and three days before your RDO? You plant evidence, of course. And who’s going to believe the (probably black or Latino) guy who was busted with crack on him over a (probably white) cop?

    See also: Tulia, Texas.

  56. Sheelzebub says:

    zuzu: You plant evidence, of course. And who’s going to believe the (probably black or Latino) guy who was busted with crack on him over a (probably white) cop?

    How nice. They fuck people’s lives up for time and a half.

    I hate people.

  57. Rodeo says:

    Even now, I’m not sure I can draw a line between where my father was abusive and where he was just enforcing patriarchal ideas about family, marital relationships, and femininity. (Like when my father belittled my mother’s reasoning skills: was that just him being a misogynist prick, or was it ambient abuse? And how am I supposed to tell when it’s one and when it’s the other?)

    I totally get what you’re saying, my dad was physically and emotionally abusive (though not in a gaslighting manner). I also kept trying to figure out what was “emotional abuse” and what was him enforcing his male privilege, but then I remembered that patriarchal norms ARE abuse. It’s completely abusive behavior to act like you’re the boss because you have the penis, to act like everyone else around you needs to be kept in line because they have clitorises.

    We’re at a point in history where we no longer claim that it’s acceptable for the family patriarch to, say, physically strike someone (unless we’re talking about children). I think the next step is to convince society that it’s not acceptable to think you’re better/others are less.

  58. zuzu says:

    Sheelzebub: How nice. They fuck people’s lives up for time and a half.

    I hate people.

    No kidding.

    When they talk about the banality of evil, this is what they mean. The justification, of course, was that those arrested had “probably done something,” so it made no difference.

  59. Mr. Kristen J. says:

    Alara Rogers: And it’s easier for a man to escape, in general, because of the direction of social prejudice, so his friends and family aren’t generally inclined to tell him to believe his girlfriend instead of himself.

    When I caught an ex-girlfriend taking my class notes after telling me repeatedly that I was too irresponsible to keep track of my work – which for the record, I often am, I packed my bags and walked out. No one questioned my recounting of events even though viewed objectively it seems unbelievable that a person you dated and lived with for years would begin tossing your class work. My friends and family were supportive and sympathetic. I would say one of the biggest reasons I wasn’t particularly affected by it was because I had immediate social validation and that social validation is part and parcel of the sexism you mention here.

  60. Jackie says:

    Reading this has made me come to realize that schoolbullies are experts at gaslighting, this is why they aren’t caught. Also my SPED teacher did this, by blamingany valid claim I had of being bullied on my disability. Saying, I must have mistook the situation, because I misunderstood social cues due to having Asperger’s Syndrome. No wonder I was so screwed up by my high school experience. Nobody ever believed me, but they were willing to behave my bullies.

  61. Liz says:

    When our 3rd baby was born he was kept in the NICU for a week because he was born a month early. The day we were finally able to go home my husband went to a military show. My 11 year old daughter and I brought the baby home (the nurse yelled at me as I was putting the car seat into the car because I wasn’t even released to drive).

    Today he completely denies that he didn’t take us home.

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  63. PA says:

    Merely Academic: It’s a lie, though, by the way. We fight fair; they only fight to control, and will say and do whatever it takes to get that control. It doesn’t have to be true. In fact it’s helpful if it isn’t true, because they don’t want you or your reality to get any traction in the discussion, which real data would provide. So they silence it with lies, with gaslighting, with emotional abuse, or just by not letting us talk without being interrupted; whatever works.

    Spot on. The not fighting fair was what was killing me. I couldn’t understand it. I once described it as him digging a trench and from there, hauling everything he could find towards me, trying everything he could not to let me speak, trying everything he could to get me to shut up. I didn’t why he’d do that. I was hurt so many times, not as much by his words as by his lack of trust in me. “You’re trying to weasel your way out of it,” he’d say, and I would be flabbergasted by the whole idea that I would want to. He accused me of arguing in bad faith so many times (not literally, because the concept was alien to him, but it’s what it always came down to). And I would think, where is your trust in me?

    But it wasn’t about that. I honestly believe that it was self-defense-by-control to him, but boy, he had so many weapons in his arsenal, most of them too scary and dangerous for me to even want to touch.

  64. PA says:

    aboat: PA

    aboat: I definitely get what you are going through. I am currently trying to leave my abusive partner of several years. There are a few things making it tricky – he controls every cent, I have two small children, all my family and friends live about 1500 miles away – but what is really making it hard is the guilt and ‘trauma bonding’ (google this i you haven’t already…it will explain a lot ).

    Thank you. I think you’re right in everything you said. And you’re in a much tougher spot than I am. Keep the clear thoughts in your head and stay strong, too. I wish you all the best, from the bottom of my heart.

  65. Thank you so much for this post, and to everyone who shared themselves through their comments

  66. A. L. says:

    may i simply say “thank you Lauren” (pls read in capital letters as of my personal appreciation;)
    for … especially you – summarizing what has been contributed and shared – have done on/for this and imho complex topic
    <3

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  68. Diana says:

    Captain Awkward:
    Women especially are trained to nurture relationships, to bend, to forgive, to be the bigger person, to invest in relationships, to “work on” the relationship, to make it work, etc. blah blah….we’re supposed to carry the water for the relationships.

    So without boundaries, when someone treats you badly + has a sad reason for why they act the way you do, it’s easy to let your compassion for their sad reasons help you explain away what happened. “He only drinks and cheats on me because his father drank and slept around and that’s the only model he knows, but he’s trying.” Or whatever. One big giant red flag is if someone does something that hurts you, and they kinda sorta apologize, but they mostly delve into their (sad reasons) for why they are they way they are and by the end of the conversation you’re comforting them.

    Captain Awkward, you took the words from my mouth. That was three years of an abusive relationship for me. And he kept me hooked even stronger by telling me at various points that I was really special for how I could understand. That I “got it” in a way mere mortals couldn’t, and that a lesser woman would have left him.

    That relationship was so full of the most fucked-up mix of ego-stroking and dismantling, it took me ages to get over it. The decision I came to, and that I’ve held up like a shield ever since, is that if I’m not happy, it’s not worth it. Even if I think it might be my fault. I’m not responsible for other people’s happiness, and even if the root of a relationship problem is some failing of mine (and I can’t change things within a reasonable amount of time) we’ll both be better off if I disengage.

    My abuser also accused me of abuse, because I would swear at him once in a three-hour session of him shredding my self-esteem, and near the end, because I wouldn’t reach out to him emotionally or have sex with him. Because damnit, he had needs, and I wasn’t meeting them, so how could I blame him for how he acted?

  69. rox says:

    Oh this topic is so messed up. Or rather this phenomenon is so messed up. I think where I lost ground was that because I had issues and Said Guy had issues, we therefore were the same and therefore anything he did was the same as me struggling with my issues. And I’m like, Uh. Yes, you’re right, I struggle to function, I have periods of being sad about having lost my daughter to adoption, there are no meds that fix the ache of seeing your daughter once a month for a few days and everyone in the world assuming that is “sweet” and a “great thing.” Seriously? Do you have kids? Why don’t you let someone take them from you and let you see them a few hours a month and then you tell me how sweet it is, or how “lucky” you are to be dealing with shit that most people never have to deal with. Or how KIND the adoptive parents are for taking your baby from you becuse they upstaged your poor teenage self with their money and house and education. they are so kind. I’m so fucking grateful.

    Anyway, it’s really hard and there is virtually no one that I’ve ever met who really grasps it outside of women who live with this; and usually those of us who are dealing with it can barely handle being near each other because we remind each other of pain.

    So yeah. I have issues. But I don’t do things to hurt other people.

    There was this assumption that by virtue of having life pain I am inherantly abusing because I have deep emotional need and not matter what I do, or whether I agree to walk the journey alone which is how we parents of adoption loss often do it, I am inherently manipulative by having need.

    I don’t know, it’s a frustrating concept.

    Ultimately, crying because your sad is not abusing another person. Using your pain to control them, is abusing them. But sitting there and crying is not abusing people. In fact saying, “I am sad, are you able to be there for me?” is not abusing. It would be abusive if the person said, “I really don’t have it in me to be there for this, can you get support elsewhere” and you then said or did something to make them feel guilty or responsable for you. But simply asking for someone to be there is not abusive.

    It’s also not abusive to say, “Hey I totally understand why you can’t handle being there for this, shit, I would prefer not to have to deal with this myself! But I really would like to look for a partner who is capable of knowing what I life with and being able to be there even when it’s hard.”

    That is not abusive either. Anyways… it’s awful confusing to figure these things out. I was with a lot of guys, one of whom was sexually abusive and used his “sad reasons” and threat of suicide for how bad he felt for doing “bad things” and I comforted him all the time. And one of whome thought I was too emotionally needy and felt it important to hate on me ALL THE TIME simply for the fact that he SENSED my emotional need and he felt that was manipulating him. I was like DUDE, I have already told you you don’t need to be there for me! What the hell else can I tell you? You want me to just not have pain?

    All of these things get drawn on by the fear that people need help they arent getting, which is often true. If you think about abusive behavior and lifestyle patterns, you’re getting into peronality disorder patterns, markedly someone who hurts others and does not have the capacity for insight or modification of their inner self and behavior. We currently assume this insight is a matter of “will” but yet in truth, we know that the “will” to be a shitty bastard is often originated in matters beyond the human control. Meaning in these disorders it’s likely the ability to have healthy “will” in self insight and understanding— in motivation to seeking pro-social behaviors, has been modified by life circumstances or even biological factors.

    In such a case, it would be desirable for us to find a better way to help such people in the event they do walk in for treatment because currently even a personality disordered person comes in for treatment there is a low statistical chance they will really be able to grasp or resolve the issues. This sucks. I want us to be better at helping people with issues that were given to them by child abuse/poor prenatl conditions/genetic alteractions etc etc.

    I want our system to have better solutions for people with “sad x”. We couldnt always fly, then we invented planes. We need to have better social supports for people with disabilities/dysfunction and unbearable life pain who are clinging to each other in bad relationships so that it doesnt feel like the last hope. Because currently all the guys I’ve dated have gone to therapy and it did not carry them like they needed to be carried, or help them feel nurtured in the areas where things were broken; same for many broken women I’ve known. I have seen people do tons of research and therapy and meds and still just be… aching inside. It’s hard to leave someone when you want them to be carried.

    I don’t do relationships with men anymore, I just focus on repairing our system so that we are helping parents get the support they need to avoid creating empty aching children who will have a hard time controlling their behaviors or knowing how to give love reliably.

  70. Julie says:

    My girlfriend and I have been talking about a regular occurrence of this that is so subtle and insidious that it trips us all women.

    Men who randomly come up to you and either make comments like “SMILE!” or encroach and touch you without your permission under the guise of meaning no harm or just trying to be nice.

    If you say something and make a boundary, you hurt their feelings and are a bitch. So women just put up with unwanted touching or controlling comments because they don’t want to cause a conflict. We are told that the men didn’t mean anything by it – and that the woman is overreacting – EVEN THOUGH WE KNOW they are trying to get away with something. It’s a grooming/dominance behavior designed to control.

    This inability to recognize and put a stop to this presumptive behavior makes women doubt themselves, passive, not protect their boundaries – and ultimately and unwittingly put themselves in danger.

  71. m. says:

    This thread reminded me of the horrible, horrible therapist of my ex..

    The woman (who diagnosed him as “manic depressive and narcissistic” herself) told *me* on joint sessions that it was “the way I wasn’t allowing him to decide which friends I should stop talking to” or other passive aggressive (and sometimes outright aggressive) BS he threw at me was “hurting the relationship” and “I really needed to work on that”.. Incredible, such abuse of power, exploiting his trust in her and just warping reality to keep him hooked…

    (It was in itself a very abusive relationship, and this “professional”s attitude made it so much harder to get out of it alive. It took me 6 years to identify -let alone solve- all the problems that stemmed from that 2-year relationship…)

    Anyways, this is my first-ever comment on this site and I just want to thank you all for such a great and supportive post.

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  76. pithy says:

    I’m really intrigued by all the discussion of gaslighting and subsequent experience sharing, but I’m even more interested in someone writing about tips/tools to deal with these situations. That was my original beef with Ali’s article—was it that we had to wait to read the book to discover the answers? Do we already know them, and are just too shaken to realize what we inherently know? For the everyday situation where someone may tell you something about yourself that isn’t true, tell you that you’re irrational, tell you what you’re thinking or feeling, or otherwise bait you, I’d love to see a short list of tools that could be used to break the situation. What are simple tips that people might employ as “game changers”? I ask this because there are people in relationships with people who they love despite their gaslighting tendencies. I don’t think gaslighters are necessarily horrible people, but I do think that, like most of us, they are a product of their experiences and pretty flawed. My hypothesis is that with some helpful stop measures, relationships might change for both the gaslighter and the victim. I, for one, would be thrilled if there were things that I could say that were respectful, did not escalate a situation AND that ultimately made the gaslighter feel as if s/he was futile in the attempt to command/control me. Thoughts?

  77. Lauren says:

    pithy: My hypothesis is that with some helpful stop measures, relationships might change for both the gaslighter and the victim. I, for one, would be thrilled if there were things that I could say that were respectful, did not escalate a situation AND that ultimately made the gaslighter feel as if s/he was futile in the attempt to command/control me. Thoughts?

    Pithy, I’m ultimately of the opinion that gaslighting is a method that abusers use to prime you to accept abuse. I do not think that it’s innocent or benign. Many gaslighters (because this method of denial is displayed alongside many of the hallmarks of personality disorders) also see it as a game. Because of this, because it is an intentional act, I don’t think there is much you can do to convince the abuser that they’re wrong.

    People make a lot of excuses for abuse — of course abuse can be explained and dissected, but it should never be explained away, and we should not expect the abused to take responsibility for fixing this dysfunction! Our culture’s narratives about relationships put pressure on the abused to explain their responsibility in the abusive relationship and make excuses for why they were abused.

    I’m no expert apart from my personal experience, but my thoughts are this:

    If you can get away from the cycle of abuse, you should do whatever you can to get away from your abuser. Period. Note the information in that link about the “reconciliation” period where the abuser denies the abuse, blames the abuse on the abused, and minimizes the effects of the abuse. This is exactly where gaslighting fits into the cycle of abuse.

    If you can’t get away, or if you must interact with someone who is gaslighting you, such as a boss or a co-parent, document everything. Have everything in writing. Email does wonders for this. It’s also important that you maintain an audience for all interactions you have with a gaslighter. With great exception, they can’t distort the reality of a group, only an isolated, vulnerable individual. The people who believe the gaslighters lies are typically themselves within the cycle of abuse, or are made accessory to the abuse by only being given the gaslighter’s version of events or believe that you’re “hysterical” for reacting with as much frustration and passion that you do. If it comes down to your word or theirs, you will then have many examples to point to where you have confirmed information in writing, and other people to bear witness on your behalf. It’s also a good tool for accountability when the abuser is trying to slip out of their responsibilities regarding the abuse.

    The hitch is that the abuser’s “hysterical” charges against the abused also apply to this. Your intent to document and hold the gaslighter accountable will often be used as evidence that you’re hyper-vigilant or paranoid.

    If you start hanging around self-help groups, or even twelve step groups, you’ll begin to hear people making noises about personal boundaries and “letting go” of the need to prove yourself and/or change the abuser. Anything less than this is acknowledging that, for whatever reason, you are not ready to leave the abuser’s grasp. There are a lot of reasons why that may be the case, whether logistical or emotional. Again in my personal experience, abuse doesn’t end, it can’t be negotiated, and ultimately the issue is deciding what you will or will not be willing to put up with, and then, leaving the relationship when that line has been crossed. It’s essentially a call for self-empowerment, something that many (especially women) will spend years trying to figure out, ESPECIALLY after being disempowered physically, emotionally, and financially through the abuse cycle. But one thing that’s extremely important, that a lot of people struggle with because they’re in abusive relationships with spouses, significant others, and parents that they love, is that there really is nothing you can say or do to convince the abuser that they’re wrong. That’s something they must 1) come to on their own and 2) manage without the support of the abused. There is literally nothing you can say or do, and fighting that helps the abuser maintain the sick system that keeps you enslaved to their mindfucking.

    (Personally, it’s a little much to ask the abused to reconcile or help reconcile the abuser’s misdeeds.)

  78. Sheelzebub says:

    Pithy, if you want strategy, then I’d reccomend Lundy Bancroft’s books. However, none of his coping mechanisms/advice have anything to do with saving a relationship–it’s more understanding the dynamics of abuse and recognizing what your abuser is doing. You can’t get them to deescalate–you can be as nice and sweet and nonconfrontational as you want, and they will still blow shit up, create dramz, and put it on you.

  79. Sheelzebub says:

    IOW, the only strategies you should employ are strategies that keep you safe and as healthy as possible. I don’t care why someone’s abusive, it’s not an excuse and it’s not okay and what they’re doing is incredibly damaging to their partner. Them (supposedly) feeling badly about it doesn’t change that. If they want to work on that, they should do it whether or not they’re coupled or single.

    pithy: My hypothesis is that with some helpful stop measures, relationships might change for both the gaslighter and the victim. I, for one, would be thrilled if there were things that I could say that were respectful, did not escalate a situation AND that ultimately made the gaslighter feel as if s/he was futile in the attempt to command/control me.

    Also, when abusers feel like they’re losing control, they escalate. And that can get ugly and very, very dangerous.

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