In all of the years of my singleness, last year was probably the toughest. I thought I had seen it all; mooning, ghosting, benching, catfishing, and breadcrumbing have found their way into our dating culture and vernacular. The hardest one for me to understand was gaslighting.
Many people will point to the origins of the term dating back to the 1944 film. Today, you can see several instances in books and movies like Girl on the Train where a woman was made to believe alcoholism had ruined her relationship with her abusive husband when it was his infidelity, inability to take responsibility for his actions, and need for control.
Many won’t agree, but I think that gaslighting is not f*ckboy behavior. While the patterns of manipulation are common in dating culture; it is more insidious, malicious, and abusive.
I think many people don’t realize how harmful it can be because everyone has gaslit someone at some point in their lives. For those of you with siblings, perhaps you’ve blamed them for something you mumbled under your breath behind your parents’ back to avoid that whooping (one of the many reasons I’m grateful I grew up as an only child). Aside from saving your hide, gaslighting can be used for good too. Maybe you said something was cute on your friend to boost their self-esteem. Instead of insulting someone’s food, maybe you complimented it because you know how hard they worked on it.
But deception, when paired with emotional manipulation, is toxic.
I dated a guy for four months. The courtship was filled with false narratives and manipulative behavior that went on for months after. I began to notice patterns during the courtship that were red flags for the emotional abuse I escaped from years ago. I started to question how much progress I made in removing myself from those behaviors and patterns.
When I confided in someone about the frustrations of my manipulator’s inconsistencies, they would respond, “but he’s so nice though.” It seemed like his reputation was more important than how he treated me. It became a lonely feeling. I began to think, “it couldn’t be that bad because he’s a great guy, right?”
At the beginning of our courtship, he said he likes to talk on the phone every day when he really likes someone. Despite his supposed busy schedule, he made an effort to have a phone conversation every day. By today’s dating standards, that’s refreshing. In the beginning, it was downright admirable. I became accustomed to hearing about his day and sharing the trivialities of mine. As the months marched on, the calls started to wane.
When I confronted him about it, he said that it was his schedule. The same schedule that he found time to call and talk was now too overwhelming for him to do more than text. When I reminded him of his words, he said it was just a circumstance of his obligations. Even as things were revealed to me, it still didn’t land. He continued to be dismissive about it.
Weeks turned into months of me demanding an explanation, an apology, or some form of rationale for this shifting behavior. Eventually, I had to accept the words used to excuse his (in)action for face value.
It took me months to recover. I felt incredibly dumb and embarrassed and worse of all; I began to suffer from insomnia and depressive episodes.
I sought therapy later in the year to deal with all of these emotions, work/life balance, and caregiving. When I talked to my therapist about gaslighting, she hadn’t even heard the term. Imagine seeking support only to find that your problem isn’t prevalent enough to have a solution. But in actuality, it is as ubiquitous as the narcissists that delve into those behaviors. The recognition as an emotional abuse tactic is new.
A one-sided battle
I’ve dated guys that by many standards were considered “great on paper” because of their professional and community affiliations. When you meet a guy like that, you’re conditioned to think about your future together, how great you look. You think about the dating landscape and whether they emerged from a mythical forest of great guys.
The pressure to “fight for the relationship” was high because it would have to be my fault for losing “one of the good ones.” I would be labeled the crazy girl, the one that had messed it up. I was, in a sense, desperate to hold on to this person because of how good he seemed despite how manipulative he was to me.
Trust your truth. Your feelings are valid
The worst part of gaslighting is the denial of the truth that you see with your own eyes. Going from talking every day to a few texts a week was a significant shift in behavior. Still, I was crazy because I was supposed to know that he cared and prioritized our relationship.
My experience was and is valid. In hindsight, I wish I had the wisdom to trust my truth earlier.
Cycles of apologies/abuse
The few conversations we had became exhausting. By the time we would get off the phone, I had apologized for the misunderstanding and getting upset. In reality, he used deflection tactics to shift the burden of guilt on me. I would replay conversations in my head and realize I never got what I needed which was to be heard. Adding to the frustration, was the cycle of confrontation and apology. The offense/apology act started to get old with each dismissive and insincere rationalization.
Closure doesn’t come gift wrapped
During our final conversation, I asked, “don’t you get tired of apologizing?” Dismissively, he responded, “yea." I had to accept that apology, like the others, was coming from someone who didn’t care how he treated people as long as they didn't damage his name.
I had to accept that my closure would not come in a gift box wrapped with pretty paper and a bow. It might not come at all. And that’s all right.
I had to stop digesting what he was serving. I had to get up from the table and feed myself the love that I was craving.
I want to emphasize that I don’t believe gaslighting is limited to women or romantic relationships. Family, friends, and colleagues can use triangulation, manipulation, and deception to gaslight you too. No matter who it is, you have the power to disrupt the cycle by accepting your truth and have the strength to walk away. You deserve a healthy environment to thrive.
While I hated the aftermath, I’m grateful that it helped me recognize that I deserve a emotionally healthy relationship. It helped me do the mirror work, seek support, and lean in to emotional intelligence and wellness.
I accept that I paved the way for this by not speaking up about my expectations, making assumptions and leaning in with my feelings rather than my logic. That does not excuse the lack of intention or honesty from a partner. FULL STOP. Demanding a level of respect, open communication, and love do not make you difficult or unlovable. You have to love yourself even more.