You’re in a relationship. It starts out great, but soon you’re experiencing an onslaught of criticism and microaggressions from your partner. You begin to doubt yourself. You aren’t sure what’s real anymore. You try harder to make things work, but nothing helps. The criticism continues. You feel like you’re going crazy.
But you’re not. Your partner is gaslighting you, and it’s a form of emotional abuse.
According to Psychology Today:“Gaslighting is a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and ultimately lose her or his own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth.”
A close friend of mine married someone who was an expert at gaslighting her. I visited her for a week and witnessed him break down her confidence to the point of tears. In that week, he called her crazy, confused, and immature — all in my presence no less. I asked her about his behavior multiple times, but she brushed it off as if it wasn’t a bit deal. It broke my heart to see it. This brilliant, accomplished woman was convinced she wasn’t very smart and certainly not as smart as her husband. One evening, we were having dinner. She and I were talking about politics when her husband interrupted us and said, “You’re both in over your heads. You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
When he started mansplaining the topic to us, I cut him off, saying: “You don’t need to explain anything to me. Feel free to shut up if you don’t agree with me.” He waved his hand dismissively and stormed out of the room.
My friend stayed with him 10 years before finally divorcing him.
Gaslighting works insidiously because, at first, it’s hard to understand exactly what’s happening — particularly if the recipient is a woman. As women, we are conditioned to accommodate our partners. We’re brought up to smooth things over as much as we can. That’s why gaslighting might not immediately feel like emotional abuse. Instead we convince ourselves we just need to work harder in the relationship. We overlook our feelings.
Gaslighting might start off something like this:
Your partner constantly calls you stupid. You tell him that’s hurtful and ask him to stop saying it. He says you’re too sensitive. As a result of this exchange, we question our feelings. Are we too sensitive? Do we need to work on being stronger? Are we really stupid? Instead of delving deeper into our partner’s behavior, we blame ourselves.
The gaslighting continues.
Perhaps he says you’re crazy or you don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe he plays it off like he’s confused by what you’re saying to him. You need to realize he’s trying to deflect from your concerns by dismissing them and throwing you off balance. He wants you to believe you’re the problem. Any time you raise questions about his behavior, he disregards them. Perhaps your partner says, “Why do you make everything such a big deal?” Or “You need to calm down.”
This is the time where we women try to make the conflict go away. We’re good at apologizing even if we did nothing wrong. We’ve been taught that saying sorry makes everything better. We just want the situation to go away, and we’re willing to take the blame to make that happen. We will let our partner off the hook if we can return to the status quo — even if that means we’re hurt and unhappy. Don’t kid yourself. Your feelings are valid, and if your partner doesn’t acknowledge those feelings, he’s the problem, not you. You don’t need to know you’re being gaslit. You simply have to acknowledge how you’re feeling and admit to yourself those feelings aren’t being addressed in your relationship. You can’t make your partner listen to you. You can only explain how you feel. If he disregards those feelings, it’s time for you to take a serious look at your relationship and whether it’s worth saving.
You must also stay in touch with your feelings. Don’t let your partner dictate your emotions to you. He’s trying to make you doubt yourself and question your choices. He wants you to believe everything would be all right if only you would change. He tries to convince you that only you are the problem in the relationship, not him. But it’s simply not true.
Healthy relationships require communication, compromise and respect — all the qualities that don’t support gaslighting. Ask yourself if, when you and your partner discuss an issue, do you feel heard? Is he listening to what you say or does he interrupt you and dismiss your concerns? If you’re the only one compromising in an attempt to make the relationship work, think about how that makes you feel. The relationship will never be fulfilling if you’re the only one putting in the work.
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