Trigger warning: Emotional and Mental Abuse
Let me tell you a story. It is a difficult story to put into words, so please bear with me.
When my second husband and I first got married, he worked as a paramedic. Not long after we were married, he switched to working with a full time female partner. I would imagine that any spouse in that situation will tell you it makes them a little uneasy. There is a reason ambulance crews are called partners. They work long hours together, go through some very traumatic situations together, and often end up knowing each other really well due to conversations had when the call volume is low or when they are posting (waiting for a call to drop). They depend on each other in potentially dangerous situations and must be able to read each other’s verbal and non-verbal cues well enough to anticipate needs during emergencies. Trust is key in their working relationship.
Partner: “A person with whom one shares an intimate relationship: one member of a couple” (n.d.).
Initially, I had no issues with his new partner. She was married with several children, so I did not see her as a threat in any way. The thought really didn’t even cross my mind. The longer they worked together, the more he talked about her. He seemed to know every detail about her personal life, including her marital issues. It was clear they were forming a close bond, so a small bit of doubt began to worm its way into the back of my mind. I started making jokes about how she was the “other woman,” which always annoyed him. He said it was an unfair, tasteless joke. I felt bad enough that I kept my thoughts to myself, despite the fact that he literally spent more time with her than me and continued to gush about her every word or action.
One day, my best friend and I were out to lunch. Low and behold, my husband walks into the restaurant with his partner, unaware that I was there with my friend. I caught their attention and invited them to come over and sit with us. I ended up sitting on the same side as my friend, while my husband and the partner shared the other booth. My husband made no move to try and sit with me. The way they interacted made my stomach churn. They kept laughing and giggling and sharing private jokes. Later, my friend told me that she felt like they were a couple on a date and that she and I were their friends. Anyone observing would have thought the same thing.
Partway through lunch, the partner says, “Tell them about the table.” My husband turned bright red and stayed silent, which immediately piqued my interest because he was the type of person who was embarrassed by nothing and had a witty comeback for everything. She said, “Fine. I’ll tell them. It’s a great story. We probably won’t ever be allowed in that store again.” She proceeds to explain that it had been a quiet morning, so they had posted at a local furniture store. She continued on by saying that they went in to look at kitchen tables. My husband and I had just moved into a house and were planning to look for a kitchen table the following weekend, so I was horrified that he would go do something so personal – something I had been so looking forward to – with her before he’d even gone with me. He took her furniture shopping for our house! To my horror, she then proceeds to say that when he found a table he liked, she hopped up on the table, made an action wholly inappropriate in public view, and suggested they make sure the table was sturdy. She maintained eye contact with me the whole time. In case you missed it: She. Told. This. To. His. Wife.
Needless to say, there were words when he got home from work that night. I was a wreck. He became increasingly upset with me, saying that it was just a joke and that I should be more trusting. He said that I should know that he would never stoop so low as to cheat on the love of his life. He expressed disappointment that the thought would even cross my mind. I had no right to be upset because he’d done nothing wrong. He couldn’t help it if she had a raunchy sense of humor and no shame.
He played my guilt complex strings like a first chair violinist. His performance was flawless. And it worked. I felt so terrible that I would jump to conclusions and assume her joke could only mean his guilt. I told myself I had absolutely no reason to not trust him. Till death do us part, right? He made that vow right along with me. I owed it to both myself and to him to stop reading between the lines or imagining things that could never possibly happen. The trouble is, doubt kept creeping in, so I had to keep smothering it and shoving it back into a locked closet deep inside my heart.
The actual term gaslighting was only recently introduced to me. It stunned me when I did a little research. Gaslighting is a verb. The action “is a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, or concealment” (Lancer, 2018). I also find the following Urban Dictionary definition to be alarmingly accurate:
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” (Your Reality Check, 2009).
Doesn’t that just make you feel all warm and fuzzy?
Dr. Robin Stern, as quoted by NBC News, says that gaslighting “is always dangerous. The danger of letting go of your reality is pretty extreme.” She goes on to say that “the target of the gaslighting is terrified to change up [the relationship] or step out of the gaslighting dynamic because the threat of losing that relationship – or the threat of being seen as less than who you want to be seen as to them – is quite a threat” (DiGiulio, 2018).
Looking back on that marriage, if I had to identify one word that was constant through it all, it would be turmoil. The trouble was, all the turmoil was internal. The war that raged inside of me on a regular basis is difficult to explain. It was a combination of 1) mistrust because his words didn’t always line up completely with his actions, 2) negative self-talk over the fact that I was a terrible person for not trusting him completely, and 3) frustration over the fact that I was experiencing these volatile feelings but could not talk to him about them for fear that he would finally have enough of my unfounded concerns and be done with me. There were a handful of occasions during which I attempted to have a conversation with him about the fears that were eating away at me from the inside out. I always ended up in tears. I would even try writing out bullet point lists so I wouldn’t forget anything or miss any example or supporting detail. Inevitably, he always convinced me of the same conclusion: I worry too much and it’s just my anxiety creating problems that aren’t actually there. It was all in my head. I read an article in Psychology Today that suggested “the person gaslighting you might act hurt and indignant or play the victim when challenged or questioned. Covert manipulation can easily turn into overt abuse, with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy, or abusive” (Lancer, 2018). This is what he did. He wore me down until I was blind to the truth and doubted my ability to identify red flags that were clearly evidenced by his actions.
Fast forward a few years. I was actually at the point of being at peace in my marriage. I was happy. I felt that we were in a good place…a loving place. I really did trust him at this point. I had finally succumbed to the brainwashing and saw absolutely no reason to ever doubt anything he said. He wouldn’t dream of cheating on me. Ever.
Enter stage left: long-time colleague and friend who is taking a biology class. This friend is lab partners with a nice young mother. She talks non-stop about her amazing boyfriend, the father of her adorable baby boy. The more she talks about him, the more my friend begins to feel a sense of familiarity with this so-called perfect boyfriend. His name. His ethnicity. His background story. The act was up when the friend looked up his lab partner’s Facebook page and saw that her profile picture was of my husband snuggling her close and looking at her with utter adoration. The cover photo was a picture of a smiling baby who looked exactly like the man I thought I’d be with for the rest of my life.
I never actually understood the term “having the rug pulled out from under me” until that moment. I was blindsided. I trusted him. I had convinced myself I was crazy every time I even considered his actions anything but innocent. I’d been a fool. Fool me once, shame on you. True. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’d been fooled, brainwashed, and had believed that it was all in my head.
When I confronted him with my knowledge, I did not tell him that I first went to the woman to hear her side of the story (It was not the ambulance partner from before, but was still someone from the EMS community). I wanted to see how much their stories differed. Of course they were wildly different. When I finally told him that I had already spoken with her and that the only consistency between their two stories was that he was indeed the father of the child, he had the audacity to tell me she was a pathological liar. He told me she had gotten pregnant intentionally to trap him into leaving me. He said she railroaded his life, that he felt betrayed by her actions, and that he was the one who had truly been wronged. She ruined his life. End of story. Oh…and would I please forgive him, make a fresh start, and forget it ever happened. I did forgive him (best thing I’ve ever done in my life), I declined his offer for a “fresh start,” and chose to never forget. Forgetting leads to repetition. I hope to never have a repeat of that experience.
I share this deeply personal story not to receive pity for being a gaslighting victim, an outpouring of sympathy for the pain I experienced, or praise for how strong I was to come out of that situation on top. I don’t want any of that. I want others out there to know that this happens. I want others to know that it’s not okay. You don’t have to tolerate that behavior from anyone, no matter how much they claim to love you or need you.
Dr. Stern, again quoted by NBC, lists out some big red flags that would have been wonderful to know back then. Think of it as a “you might be a gaslighting victim if…” list:
- “You’re constantly second guessing yourself or have trouble making decisions”
- “You’re ruminating about a perceived character flaw (like being too sensitive or not a good enough person)”
- “You feel confused about your relationship”
- “In a confrontation with the person that might be gaslighting you, you feel like you suddenly find yourself in an argument you didn’t intend to have, you’re not making progress or you’re saying the same thing over and over again and not being heard”
- “You feel fuzzy or unclear about your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs”
- “You’re always apologizing”
- “You’re frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior”
- “You can’t understand why you’re not happy in your own life”
- “You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what” (DiGiulio, 2018)
If you are noticing those red flags in your own life, or in the life of a loved one, do something. Say something. It is a toxic situation and I can’t even begin to explain how important it is to get away. Stop the abuse. Don’t be afraid to reach out or ashamed of being fooled. We are all human and all make mistakes. What’s important is what you do about it going forward. Stand your ground and find courage in the fact that you are an incredible individual who deserves to be loved by both yourself and others.
If you don’t know who else to reach out to, send me a message. I’ve been there. I’m here now. I see you.
“I can never understand which is more painful, the lies I believed or the truths I did not.” – unknown
DiGiulio, Sarah. (2018). What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you? NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-gaslighting-how-do-you-know-if-it-s-happening-ncna890866
Lancer, Darlene. (2018). How to Know If You’re a Victim of Gaslighting. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201801/how-know-if-youre-victim-gaslighting
Partner. (n.d.). In online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/partner
Your Reality Check. (2008). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gaslighting
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