Gaslighting 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.
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