By now we’re all familiar with the term “gaslighting.” To gaslight someone is to deny actions, words, or other facts to try to get someone with less power to doubt their reality. The term first came into use after the play and then the movie Gas Light, but the tactic has been around a lot longer.
If you have lousy taste in men like I do, chances are you’ve experienced gaslighting at one time or another. Maybe you’re experiencing it now. In this article, I’m going to describe some of my own experiences with being in a relationship with a gaslighter and what I wish I’d done differently.
This is the first article in my series “10 Kinds of Assholes You Are Dating.” I dated all the assholes before I figured out why I was doing it and how to put a stop to it. My hope is that through this series, I can help other women to break their negative dating patterns. It’s not easy, but it can be done.
The first thing you need to understand if you want things to change is that there are two players in this game, and you’re one of them. I gave my power away to men who didn’t deserve it. Every time I put up with crap, I reinforced that my power was no longer my own. At the end of this series, I’m going to explain how I took my power back and how you can do the same.
What It’s Like to Live with a Gaslighter
After doing some deep soul-searching during a past relationship, I realized we were “happy” at my expense. He hadn’t changed; I had. I’d learned to accept that I had to be a docile and compliant partner at all times or else face severe consequences.
My ex would go into full verbal abuse mode whenever he perceived anything to be “against” him. This often included:
- Anything that made him uncomfortable
- Things that had nothing to do with him
- Attempts to discuss a problem
- Imaginary attacks
Any of these could result in a swift and brutal verbal attack. During these attacks, my ex went straight for the jugular. Minor transgressions could result in hours of being screamed at about all my worst fears and biggest vulnerabilities. The worst part was he always laughed while he did it.
Our happiness was an illusion. We weren’t happy; he was happy, and it was only possible because I was completely submissive. I wasn’t an equal in his eyes. Because of this, I was punished for expressing my own emotions or questioning anything he did.
Worse, I was with a partner who, according to his own words, believed I was the worst person he had ever met. I had given the relationship everything I had, and I still came up short in every way. My first mistake was believing that his opinion about me mattered at all. (Hint: it doesn’t.)
The gaslighting came into play whenever I’d try to talk about what happened later. According to him, he never did any of it.
What It’s Like to Confront a Gaslighter
I decided to risk my relationship with my ex and ask for the truth. I needed to know. Did he really believe the things he screamed at me, or was he just saying them to hurt me? I also brought up the fact that he always snickered while he was doing it.
Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: It is hard to live with you knowing that you think all those awful things about me. It hurts me, and for a long time I’ve been afraid to ask for the truth but I’m asking you now.
Him: What things? I never did that.
Me: Yes, you have, many, many times.
Him: (Snickers) Oh, so you’re saying I’ve screamed names at you?
Me: Yes, you’ve been doing it for years.
Him: And you’re saying that I snicker while I do this? (Snickers)
Me: Yes, you are doing it right now.
Him: (Snickers) Oh, so you’re saying I’ve been calling you names and laughing while I do it every time I get mad for years? (Eyeroll)
Me: Yes. (Describes specific incidents and insults.)
Him: (Snickers while denying incidents, each time repeating back to me what I said but framing it as a question to make me question it.)
Me: You’ve done it in front of other people.
Him: (Admits to one incident that had an eyewitness. Denies all others.)
Me: Maybe you were blacked out drunk when you said those things? Do you really not remember?
Him: I don’t get blacked out drunk.
Me: But you were blacked out drunk during the incident you just admitted to. You said so.
Him. I was blacked out drunk that time, but I don’t get blacked out drunk.
You won’t get anywhere when you try to confront a gaslighter. They’ll just try to gaslight their way out of it. They rely on this strategy to protect the massive ego that lies just under the surface of their paper-thin skin.
Why You Can’t Reason with a Gaslighter
My ex was counting on me backing down because to refuse to do so would make me look like the crazy one. I didn’t back down though. Instead, I got the answers I was looking for, even though it broke my heart.
He couldn’t say, “Yes, I do believe the things I say about you,” or, “I just said those things because I was angry and I wanted to hurt you.” To do so would make him have to confront the reality of who he really was as a person.
Your partner may be gaslighting you specifically because he genuinely believes he loves you. His deep feelings of personal shame compel him to attempt to distort reality to get you to stay with him because he’s afraid otherwise you’ll leave. It’s sad, but don’t feel sorry for him. He doesn’t deserve your pity.
As difficult as it can be to accept, the love you receive from a gaslighter isn’t love. Not in any kind of healthy, meaningful way that will lead to a true partnership.
Top 5 Stupid Gaslighter Tricks
If any of the following of my gaslighter’s “greatest hits” sounds familiar, you may be with a gaslighter. Read this list and you’ll know if Captain Gaslight is the asshole you’ve been dating.
The above conversation is an example of this tactic. It works by getting the person whose reality they are denying to question their own thoughts and experiences. This can throw you off and make you doubt your own sanity.
He may also use denial to try to convince other people that you aren’t sane so they will deny your experiences, too. It’s a preemptive strike—“Don’t believe anything she says about me, she’s nuts.” That way if you ever do tell anyone else what he’s doing, he doesn’t have to risk being outed.
Even when I wasn’t trying to talk to my ex about a difficult subject, he often refused to acknowledge that I was speaking at all. I’d show interest in what he said even if it was a story he’d told me a hundred times, but if what I said wasn’t about him or of interest to him he’d just keep gaming or walk past me like I was a ghost.
My ex would never have done this to anyone else (except, I assume, his exes before me). He was showing me that I didn’t deserve the normal consideration he’d give another person.
I endured many hours of verbal attacks during that relationship, and I only retaliated once toward the end. I said three words, one of which I meant and two of which I only said to hurt him back. During the above conversation, he repeatedly brought the three words up.
I owned what I said and explained. I also apologized. Despite this, no matter how many incidents I brought up, all roads ended back at those three words, which were mild in comparison to the things he said to me.
At one point my ex and I only had one vehicle, and I rarely had access to it. We lived in a remote area. I was completely dependent on him for transportation, and he knew it. On the way home from shopping I asked if we could stop at a restaurant we were passing so I could get a milkshake. I hadn’t been out of the house in a week. He just kept driving and didn’t bother responding.
When I brought it up later, I was immediately ridiculed. “A milkshake? (Snicker) Oh, so now you’re upset over a milkshake? (Snicker)” I wasn’t upset about the fucking milkshake. I was upset about the fact that I was a grown woman who wasn’t allowed to have one, but that wasn’t something he was willing to discuss.
Another cheap tactic gaslighters resort to is twisting and exaggerating what you said to try to make it sound like it’s too outlandish to bother responding to. My ex tried this when I confronted him about whether or not he meant the things he said to me.
I wish I could recall what his exact words were now, but when he got into the zone he’d often begin speaking gibberish that was difficult to follow. It was something like, “Oh, so now I’m a psychotic serial killer blah blah blah…” His claims did not even remotely match what I was saying.
After I confronted my gaslighter he made a dramatic show of returning an expensive gift he knew I’d been happy to give him. He moved a bed into his office to further show me that he was rejecting my love.
In the past he’d also told me that he’d bought me a gift and returned it. (He probably didn’t buy it in the first place.) He also lied and said he’d thrown a framed photo of us into the street and smashed it. (I still have it, all in one piece, in the garage.) Other times when he felt like I was out of line he’d iron his own clothes or get his own food to show me that he didn’t need me anymore.
I decided he could stay in the pathetic twin bed in his office. The kind of affection he’s withholding, I’m better off without. So are you.
Every time you allow yourself to be manipulated by a gaslighter’s strategy, you reinforce the behaviors and the idea of your unworthiness. My ex could have chosen to answer my question to spare me from the pain of not knowing. The problem there is that I guess we did both already know the answer to the question. I just wasn’t worth sparing.
How to Deal with a Gaslighter
Dump him. Sorry if you were expecting some techniques you can use to get him to stop. You won’t find them here. He’s not going to change unless he wants to, and that is unlikely to happen. After all, if he were capable of self-improvement, would he have become a gaslighter in the first place?
The word I said to my ex that stung so badly was “weak.” When he was outraged over it, I said, “Well you don’t believe that I think you do these things because you’re a strong person, do you?” I stand by that. Stand by your truth, don’t fall for his bullshit, and move on.
If you’re reading this now, chances are you know on some level that you need to go, but you’re probably not ready to do that yet. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. You can read books to help you understand why you’re with him, see a therapist, and if necessary start working on building your own financial independence. This advice applies to all 10 kinds of assholes in this series.
If I had it all to do over again, one thing I would have done differently is I would have gaslit him right back. When he brought up the three words, I really regret not snickering and saying, “You’re crazy, I never said that.”
In the next installment of this series, I’m going to cover the type of asshole many of my friends report dreading the most: the “Nice Guy.” He’s so nice that he’ll do everything for you. If you don’t want him controlling your life it’s because you only want to date jerks. Sound familiar? If it does, don’t miss the next article.