Relationships

Update: Gaslighting Tactics and Recovery from Abuse

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

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I’ve talked a lot about gaslighting on this blog. Not only has it happened to me rather a lot, but it’s a common theme in mentally ill communities, whether it be the mentally ill having been gaslighted, or the gaslighting being perpetrated by the mentally ill. Whatever its origins, it’s a shockingly common and persistent tactic of abuse and I want to cover it as thoroughly as I can. I’m quite passionate about that.

I’ve been doing some thinking about how people who gaslight maintain relationships. Clearly they do, or we’d have no horror stories. How do they select their partners, and how do they get away with their behavior for so long?

According to this article, the term originates from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which the behavior is played out in a married relationship. It is defined as a form of manipulation that results in the questioning of the victim’s sanity and judgement, and it causes constant anxiety and self doubt in the victim.

Why do people gaslight? It’s often derived from childhood gaslighting, that can be derived from emotional abuse or addiction in the family. It’s also a common tactic of those with antisocial personality disorder. Whatever the cause, it’s not always clear that the gaslighter knows that they’re doing it. This doesn’t excuse the behavior one bit, but I thought it was interesting.

The gaslighter I dated claims he never gaslit (is that the word? It is now!). He was so caught up in his web that he couldn’t see what he was doing (that or he was so nefariously intentioned that he tried to gaslight the presence of gaslighting, and I honestly couldn’t tell you which one it is).

A large part of the therapy I’ve undergone to recover from this relationship is centered around rebuilding my sense of self. My self worth, coming out of the relationship, was in the gutter. I thought my words meant nothing, my actions were always wrong, my intentions were bad, and I was unreliable, untrustworthy, and just plain bad. I had a hard time trusting anything that anyone around me told me. Why?

I’d spent six months awash in the dichotomy of being 1.) with the “love of my life” and “soulmate” and 2.) being gaslit (I think it’s gaslighted but let’s please go with it) by this person. I’ve talked about what happened before but I’ll review it again.

The setup went like this; he was the only person who could understand the depth of my mental illness. Whenever I committed a transgression in his eyes, he’d criticize then “forgive” me for it, citing my illnesses. Transgressions were hazily defined. He lied about almost every element of his life, and if I questioned those elements at any point, I was either being traitorous or I was “paranoid.”

So, my therapy since the experience has literally been largely been my doctors telling me that his life wasn’t real, that the relationship was based on fundamental untruths, that it wasn’t my fault, that I did everything I could, that I was right about many of my suspicions, that the reason his parents didn’t help me is because they’re embroiled in his manipulation themselves, that I’m not crazy or paranoid, that my opinion and desire mean something and are valuable and worth taking into account. They reassure me that I wasn’t the “crazy” one.

If I’m being honest, it’s working, but not a ton. The therapy works during the day. I navigate my friendships and relationships well during the sunny hours, and I use the skills that my treatment team has taught me. This comes in the form of mantras- I am valuable, I deserve to be listened to, my concerns are valid- and it comes in the form of checking the facts of a situation. I have good instincts, so I’m told. Is what I’m being told or shown likely to be true? Am I being reasonable, really? I usually know the answer. My instincts are good.

This is what it’s taken for me to even start down the road to recovery from this. But how did it start?

I have my own theory about how people like him select partners. To him, I was only viable as a relationship if I believed him. In fact, I think that’s his #1 criterion, and this would be the same with other gaslighters; the selected partner must be meekly trusting and susceptible to manipulation. In the case of my gaslighter, he started relationships once he entered into a therapeutic school full of depressed girls, or the perfect victims. It’ll be harder to find victims once he reaches college, but he will. He has someone in his web now, and it’s horrible to watch.

As my belief in his storylines faded, at the expense of my own self esteem and perception of my sanity, he grew more angry and distant. He could tell it wasn’t working.

I like to say that my criteria for a partner goes like this, in this order: smart, emotionally complex, good looking. Such a list is pretty common for a person to have, though perhaps with traits like athletic, logical, tall, nerdy, a jock, etc.

The gaslighter doesn’t think like that. Their main criterion for a partner is susceptibility, because in any relationship, they need to be in control. They MUST manipulate. They can’t help it. So the relationship won’t work if they find someone strong, independent, in control of their self worth. It only works with those who are easy targets (not to victim blame, however!).

He has a girl under his imperius curse now. She’s exactly as I’ve described. I hope she makes it out okay.

And if this is ringing any bells, I hope you make it out okay, too.

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