Learning to Trust Again After Gaslighting

Cropped view of arm and skirt of person who is holding a lit lantern to walk through a dim forestGaslighting is in the news these days. In simple terms, to gaslight is to treat another person in a way that makes them doubt their own perceptions. We can see this behavior on a large scale with a manipulative politician who demands acceptance of his falsehoods, as well as in the very personal realm of the intimate relationship, when one partner’s narcissistic needs create the conditions and terms for partnership.

A woman under the sway of such a person—narcissism isn’t gender-specific, but I use a woman-man relationship here for narrative purposes—faces a difficult challenge in her attempt to break away. She may be told her version of the story is false and that she is wrong, even stupid, to believe it. She may be derided and condemned in proportion to the depth of the narcissistic wound experienced by her tormentor. She may depart with only one thing: her quiet hope that breaking away from this man will be better than staying, no matter how unimaginable and unpredictable the future might seem.

To leave, she may have to muster more courage than she has ever before needed. Her sense of who she is may collapse around her. It may take quite some time for her to sort out what has happened, to release the hold that guilt and shame have on her, and to begin to feel whole once again.

What is the greatest long-term price such a woman may pay? To answer this question, a woman might benefit by looking back to the beginning of the relationship. It is paramount she do so believing she did the best she could at any moment, though her temptation will likely be to judge herself harshly for not having seen what may now be obvious to her.

Because here is the challenge: it is the insidious nature of gaslighting abuse that makes it so difficult to identify at the outset of a relationship. To be a victim of gaslighting is to be the legendary frog in a pot of water that is placed over a low flame. The water temperature rises gradually, imperceptibly. At a certain point, however, the frog will boil to death unless it can summon the strength to jump to freedom. To escape, it must be able to recognize its extreme distress. Gaslighting, however, gradually creates an environment in which awareness of one’s own feelings becomes less and less possible. Gradually, a woman learns to dismiss her own intuitive responses. She is subsumed into the narrative created by her partner, and her role in that narrative follows his script. She becomes an actor in someone else’s play.

Sometimes, it is a trusted friend who intervenes on a woman’s behalf by helping her see and believe how much she has changed, and not for the better, since getting involved with this man. Sometimes, it is a sense of being utterly lost. Sometimes, she comes to a decision to extricate herself only after a suicide attempt.

But there was likely a time when she looked to this man for love, comfort, harmony. She felt secure in what he told her about his feelings for her and about the nature of their mutual affection. It was her nature to believe him rather than to be skeptical, even on early occasions when things might have seemed a little off to her. She rushed to understand him. She placed her faith in him. He betrayed it.

By a thousand little acts of turning away from her, by subtle yet repetitive dismissals, by overt challenges to her right to think for herself, he betrayed everything she valued. And because she loved him, she allowed these little currents to build gradually to tsunami force, telling herself she was being too critical, or that he didn’t really mean it, or that she deserved such treatment for being so cold/mean/hostile to him. Her internal voices became as critical of her as anything her partner ever said. Even after a period of healing, and once she has begun to feel a semblance of stability re-enter her life, she can still be left with the residue of this betrayal.

She may wonder whether she can avoid having to pay forever for involvement in gaslighting and hostility. The answer is yes, she can. Learning to do this is an inside job, for what is the most precious thing her manipulative partner has taken from her? It is her faith in herself, which includes her ability to trust her judgment.

The greatest price she may pay for her partner’s gaslighting is this: she now doubts her own judgment. She doubts her ability to see manipulation early enough to avoid repeating her costly mistake. She struggles to trust another partner. With this fear of extending trust once again, she risks sabotaging any future relationship due to apprehension about entering new trauma. If she begins to date again, she is circumspect. She wonders about everything her partner says. She looks for evidence of early betrayal, infidelity, lies. She becomes a person so consumed with a readiness to be betrayed that she kills any chance for a healthy relationship.

At this point, she may wonder whether she can avoid having to pay forever for involvement in gaslighting and hostility. The answer is yes, she can. Learning to do this is an inside job, for what is the most precious thing her manipulative partner has taken from her? It is her faith in herself, which includes her ability to trust her judgment. This is where true healing can begin: she must see there is no such thing as deserving to be mistreated. There is no such thing as being wrong all the time.

In fact, there is no such person as the woman her former partner repeatedly told her that she was. That person was a fabrication, a creation of an imbalanced imagination. This phantom was projected onto her as someone he needed to dominate in order to assert his own importance, to give significance and meaning to his own poorly developed version of himself. Unchecked, he may spend his life creating these personas from the raw material of those who will love him in the future. And he may continue to create landmines and battlefields that leave them in as much pain and trauma as she, herself, once experienced.

It is time for her to embrace the embattled woman, the one who shouldered all the blame and harshness from a man with low emotional capability. For his own purposes, he poured her into a mold she neither chose nor fit. She can see this now. She can move forward with compassion for herself and guard her emerging awareness that she is the equal to any person of good faith, kind heart, and empathetic involvement in the lives of others.

She is worthy. By making a promise to safeguard this realization, she can trust herself to recognize the difference between someone who is present to her in all her glory and her faults, and someone whose emotional wounds might make him dangerous to her generous heart. She will be back in touch with the intuition that guided her life before she was derailed by the driving needs of her gaslighting partner.

This former partner has no further claim on her, once she sees clearly that the net he cast around her emanated from him and did not define her. She may not have realized it at the time, but she can now see clearly that all the tumult and the drama originated on his side, which is where she left it when she walked away from him.

She will love and be loved again. She does not have to wonder about the man who hurt her, as his path is of his own creating.

Just as her own will be.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC, therapist in Seattle, Washington

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 23 comments
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  • TJ

    March 6th, 2017 at 11:18 AM

    Not too sure what someone would get out of this kind of demeaning behavior toward another person.
    Is it that you feel so terribly about yourself that you want to make someone else even more miserable?
    Or is it that you are just a sick person?
    Either way, totally not cool to ever treat another human being this way.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    March 6th, 2017 at 1:32 PM

    I agree, TJ. It is very sick behavior and it is very injurious to the victim. Unless the person doing the gaslighting has the ability to reflect on this harmful behavior and seek counseling, the best thing to do is stay clear of them.

  • Rose

    April 13th, 2017 at 6:06 AM

    This was something I went through for thirty years. I loved this man, raised now adult children with him and it was a constant battle of things not making sense. Simple questions became stories, he was wonderful to other people and cared how he looked to friends and strangers while our home, marriage, family was decaying and I was left feeling alone to make everything look fine for him. I would cry and ask why it seems he resents me and he would just smile and say I was causing an argument.

  • Anita

    April 13th, 2017 at 5:03 PM

    Rose,
    It brought tears to my eyes reading your comment. I have commented before on this article, telling part of my own experience with “gaslighting”. At this point I am dealing with having my house repossessed by the bank, because of my (soon to be ex) husband walking out & pulling out all financial support- even against his lawyer’s suggestion and not because he doesn’t have the means- he earns well over 120K a year while my earnings are in the $20,000-$25,000 range at this stage.
    I had left this man back in 2006, due to his behaviour then (kicking myself daily for returning to this mess). As crazy as it sounds, it took a full 2 years to rid myself of all connection to him, because he would call me professing his love & play me for awhile, then I would say or do something that sent him away again. It was always “my” fault. But, after I finally got brave enough to cut the ties with him in 2008 I built up my career, had a great time raising my children, moved to another city further away from him, and had a fantastic life, then 5 years later he suddenly began contacting me out of the blue, and was so convincing, so determined that I was the woman he wanted, saying all of the right things, that I fell for him again. That was in 2013. After he sweet-talked me into marrying, I quit my job to care for him when he had health issues, spent over 2 years trying to figure out why I was so difficult to live with, and then he left last summer. I’ve got nothing left now. He convinced me to put all of my inheritance & savings into “our” home, which is jointly owned. After moving out, sneaking back one day with a moving truck & taking most of the contents of the house while I was away, he has told the bank to take it. He won’t even wait out a proper sale, and division of assets. I have tried for 8 months but am all tapped out, the mortgage is too deep in arrears, so I’m just sitting here waiting. He ordered the internet & landline disconnected on Christmas Eve. He lives in the home that he hung on to after we got married, has a new girlfriend (victim). I’m sorry this is a bit longwinded, but I just wish that someone had warned me, that someone has told me about these men, or these people. All of the pieces now fit, when I read about NPD & gaslighting. He was a textbook case! At this point I am trying to rebuild my career, my good credit, my reputation (because he has told family & friends that I’ a pathological liar & mentally abused him!). I am having to re-learn how to live. Yes, I sought legal help, too wealthy for legal aid I’m told. So, at the urging of a counsellor I did hire a lawyer to help me, but that requires cash.
    I have no wealthy family to borrow from. I’m just waiting. Taking it one day at a time. Just wish I knew then what I know now.

  • Anita

    March 6th, 2017 at 5:22 PM

    Sarah, this is my story! I am now living apart from my husband, a man that I have had an up & down rollercoaster relationship with since 2004, and have lived exactly what your article above describes. A therapist that I had been to called me a “cassandra” and I had never heard of this. I am waiting for the divorce to finalize at this point, and at 51 I feel like I am done, done with having any close contact with any male every again. Friends and family tell me I am worthy, but I have been wiped out, emotionally as well as financially by this relationship, and don’t have the strength to even think of stepping back into a normal life. I wouldn’t know what a true balanced loving relationship would be if I stepped on it. Please keep up this great work, and sharing this information. ~A

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    March 9th, 2017 at 10:22 AM

    Hello, Anita – I’m sorry you went through this, and I thank you for the compliment. I am glad you find my writing helpful.

  • Magdalena

    March 9th, 2017 at 12:42 PM

    I experienced Gaslighting from the time I was in my early twenties and as I grew older I realized what an evil manipulator and narcissist my ex husband is. He had isolated me from family and friends for many years and I was so blind and so ignorant. This happened to me 15 years ago and have not recovered from this experience. I divorced him and went on with my life although I never remarried. Recently the a@@%#ole sends me a message for a friends request on FB, after not hearing from him for the past 15 years and I immediately blocked him from my page.

  • Vickie C.

    March 18th, 2017 at 11:22 AM

    Anita, I was married to a narcissist for 25 years; didn’t even know these types existed when I met him. I was blessed with a great and trustworthy father so I sure didn’t know these red flags. I promise you there are men in the world that are trustworthy and have character, and integrity. Don’t let this man alter your perception of your beautiful and wonderful self. Sharing your “mess” will certainly help others!! Good luck; there is peace and joy ahead!

  • Sam

    March 7th, 2017 at 9:38 AM

    Anita I feel the same as you. Age 43 and 3 kids with a narcassist I totally lost who I am in that relationship. I’m going through the divorce too whilst trying hard not to be manipulated by his demands. I am in a relationship but on the verge of ending it as I just need to heal myself and my kids and do not have the energy for a new relationship.

  • W Young

    March 7th, 2017 at 10:46 AM

    Don’t let one bad experience ruin the rest of your life! You are still young , there is still time to find some one who is good and real out there!

  • Kay

    March 7th, 2017 at 10:57 AM

    Sarah, this is also exactly my story. I walked (actually, ran) away after 7 years of gaslighting and I am just waiting for the divorce to proceed. Thank you so very much, Sarah. This is very encouraging. I am only 39 and I’ve returned to school and full time work. It’s a very hard life with very limited funds but I am pushing through. I one day hope that others can be encouraged by my story. I do have a question though, just in case you might be able to answer. How does one stop the gas lighting that seems to have shifted to the very young children who are still literally babies?

  • Sam

    March 7th, 2017 at 12:33 PM

    I would like to know this too. My 15 year old daughter is traumatised by her fathers behaviour and will not longer go to him at all. She has anxiety and struggles at school with low self esteem.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    March 9th, 2017 at 10:25 AM

    Hello, Kay – I’m glad you had the strength required to walk away from such a difficult relationship. Regarding the question you ask that concerns children, I suggest that you work with a counselor because this is a delicate and complex problem. You want to protect your children, which will lead you into conflict with someone else. I send you my best wishes for good support as you work on this.

  • Kay

    March 7th, 2017 at 1:22 PM

    My children are still very young and so are taking this ‘well’ at the moment. I just really worry about the long-term effects of what they seem to constantly be hearing from their father. I never say anything negative about their father to them. I cannot imagine that would help in any way such young minds but he doesn’t seem to have such values. I do ‘see’ exactly what he is trying to do with them because I’ve been through it. If someone has been through these paths and can shed some light, it would be most helpful.

  • Zoe

    March 7th, 2017 at 5:22 PM

    Thank you Sara for writing such a beautiful and eye-opening article. I am now able to put a name to what my mom and dad both did to me while I was growing up, and I am now able to clearly identify what my current boyfriend does to me as well. I can now clearly see that I need to actually build, never mind rebuild faith in myself (don’t know that I ever really had any), to be able to better pick up and move forward with my life, which has been a difficult process. Thank you for imparting your wisdom and for showing me that there is definitely a light at the end of this dark tunnel.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    March 9th, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    Hello, Zoe – it sounds as if you have made some important discoveries about your own needs, and you are finding the necessary strength to move forward. I am glad my writing is helpful to you and I send you my best wishes as you extricate yourself from an untenable situation (or two).

  • Zoe

    March 13th, 2017 at 12:41 PM

    Thank you Sarah. Your writing is useful and much appreciated. Reading your article has kept me from “drowning” and turned my head towards the path of solution and not sinking. The path is bumpy and not a happy one but all one can do is keep on trekking, right?

  • Sandra

    March 9th, 2017 at 6:14 PM

    Thank you for such good insight! I believe I am in a marriage like this. I have stayed for my children which may not have been best. I could not break away from the obligation I felt for my husband. I see it clearly yet still fear leaving.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    March 12th, 2017 at 4:37 PM

    Hello, Sandra, I’m glad this article is helpful to you. I understad that sometimes there are compelling reasons that may seem to block your ability to leave, but I wonder whether you might consider counseling to find support for yourself in your decision to stay. I send you my best regards.

  • Carol

    March 12th, 2017 at 6:27 PM

    Great article. NPD is such a hard thing to figure out. In my case, the perp is my mother. She has defined me for years by putting me down, talking about me with others, in front of me in some cases, and has never shown any empathy for me whatsoever. I have to parent her though and everything is about her. The only way to survive is to be the caretaker and never have any needs. I now minimize my contact, once a week, and I have to pump myself up to do it. I never know how she will be. It has been very painful, but I am tired of grieving and more or less accept that she is an empty well. I thought it was my fault for years and just kept trying harder and harder to please her to no avail. That will never work. When she is unhappy she projects it on me being angry and mean. Fortunately, that is cyclic and not constant but I have many emotional al wounds from all this for so long. I am grateful that I get it now.
    I do have some anger towards other family members for not defending me but I am beginning to understand that they may not have recognized the pattern either and people with NPD are very clever and can do a lot of these behaviors in subtle ways when others are around and slam you more alone with you. At least this is how it works in my situation.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    March 19th, 2017 at 7:12 PM

    Carol, I’m glad to hear that this article was helpful to you, though I’m sorry to hear about your situation. It takes great courage to walk away from family, yet you are doing so to take good care of yourself. Kudos for that. I send my best regards to you.

  • Blue

    April 25th, 2017 at 12:12 PM

    I’m in a four year “marriage”, which I can’t bring myself to believe is a marriage, because in my mind a marriage is sacred, and this arrangement is anything but. He isn’t unfaithful, but he is the most disloyal without being unfaithful that one can possibly be. It’s gotten better this past year, but he still gaslights every chance he gets. It’s awful and I advise everyone in a relationship like this to get out and get out now. This is not how people should live and if I didn’t have children with him I would run.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 25th, 2017 at 5:41 PM

    Dear Blue,

    Thank you for your comment. The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but we encourage you to reach out. If you ever feel you or your children are in any danger, please contact local law enforcement or visit your nearest emergency room immediately. Additional crisis resources are located here:
    http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    If you would like to talk things over with a qualified and compassionate counselor, please know you can locate one through our site. To see a list of therapists in your area, simply enter your ZIP code here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html

    Please know you are not alone. Help is available, and we wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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