I never knew what gaslighting was until I found myself on the other side of an emotionally abusive relationship with a narcissistic sociopath, nine years ago.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where the gaslighter plants seeds of doubt in someone’s mind, leaving her confused about what’s reality and what isn’t, in order to best serve himself.
Editor’s note: Although this article uses male pronouns, the advice applies to all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Fun fact: the word “gaslighting” was inspired by the 1940 psychological thriller, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. At one point in the film, Bergman’s character sees the gas light dim, which her husband (Boyer) was controlling in an upstairs flat, and he told her she was imagining it. This tactic to control her mind was used as a way to cover up his criminal activity.
From the outside looking in, one might want to shake the victim of gaslighting, as the lies and manipulation appear to be so obvious. What I can say from personal experience—as a woman who prided herself on having a good head on her shoulders and who never took anyone’s crap—is that it all came down to my severe lack of self-worth, and deep desire to trust the man who loved me in a way I had never experienced before.
There were so many times throughout the yearlong relationship where I’d question his stories, his whereabouts, the multiple pairs of underwear that weren’t mine, and the inappropriate exchanges he’d have with other women (yes, I snooped), but the desire to believe his lies was stronger than my desire to leave.
If I left, the fantasy of the future he promised would be gone. The way he took care of me and doted on me in the few and far between moments would never happen again. So, I clung to his empty promises for dear life, because I didn’t know how to give myself the love I was desperately seeking from him.
I believed I couldn’t do better.
He was so funny and charming, and at the time, I was crazily attracted to his conventionally good looks. He was so kind and present with me at the beginning of the relationship. I believed he “got” me in a way no one else did. He knew all the right things to say when it came to any insecurities I had about my body, past relationships, current friendships, and my talent as an actress.
He was my drug, and unbeknownst to me, I was one of his many puppets.
Gaslighting can be tricky to discern when you’re in the thick of the abuse. You’re not seeing straight or thinking clearly, but hopefully these signs will help raise your antennae and poosh you to GTFO, if he checks off the following boxes:
1) His story about anything and everything constantly changes.
It could be about something so innocuous because he doesn’t seem to know how NOT to lie. Maybe you justify that it isn’t a big deal—a stupid white lie about something as dumb as him saying he was at the grocery store when he was actually at the gym … BUT WHY? Why would anyone lie about little details? Would YOU? If you wouldn’t, why would it be OK to date someone who would?
2) He twists every lie he’s caught in as a justification that it was in service of you.
“Babe, I told you I was at the game with the guys because if you knew I was at the same party as my ex, you’d worry and then we’d fight … We’re in such a good place, I just didn’t want that for you or for US.” Need this heartbreak coach say more?!
3) He insists he told you some big piece of information that you know you would have remembered.
My ex went on a boys trip, and when he returned, he mentioned meeting up with an old girlfriend… “I definitely told you about this.” I let it slide because I didn’t want a fight, but I certainly would remember if my boyfriend told me he was meeting up with an ex. (This doesn’t mean friendships with exes is a bad thing, but it’s not something most people wouldn’t remember their partner telling them.)
4) Your gut constantly says “something’s not right.”
He kisses you and looks at you straight in the eye, tells you how much he loves you, and as soon as he leaves, your whole body feels a pang, thanks to your brain screaming, “DECEPTION!” You have no tangible evidence, but your gut just says, he’s not the faithful, honest man I initially thought he was.
5) Every time you snoop, YOU FIND SOMETHING.
I snooped a handful of times throughout the course of my relationship with my rock-bottom ex. My gut knew something wasn’t right, and every time I searched, I found inappropriate messages with other women, evidence that the dog he said would bring us closer together was actually adopted with another woman, and multiple pairs of women’s underwear that weren’t mine.
6) You end up apologizing for “falsely” accusing him of being deceitful.
You fling in his face that everything you feared was actually true, and provide the evidence to prove it! He then tells you you’re crazy and he can’t do this anymore, and suddenly you’re desperate for him to give you another cockamamie lie, so you can justify staying.
7) He makes jokes you don’t find funny because you fear they’re actually true.
My ex used to joke about babies out there that could be his, and how the biggest mistake of notorious cheaters in the media was that they were dumb enough to get caught. Turns out he found out he had a daughter many years later (I can’t help but believe he knew the whole time), and that many women have come forth to say that I wasn’t the only victim of his antics. Gaslighters joke to mislead you to believe they’d never do the thing they’re actually doing … again, listen to your gut.
8) He says or does something outrageous, and immediately denies that it happened.
He will call you a name or belittle you in some way. You repeat back exactly what was said, and he will immediately deny that it ever came out of his mouth.
So how do you get out of this mess?
Rip the Band-Aid off and leave. Hire a professional to help you move through the withdrawal from the highest of highs. Enlist your loved ones to hold you accountable to stay away. Block him on every form of contact. Disconnect from his loved ones on social media too.
The toxicity will not end until you get out.
Go do the healing work on YOURSELF, and dig deeper into how you allowed yourself to get wrapped up in the abuse. Focusing on him, and trying to wrap your head around the layers and layers of deceit, will keep you STUCK and perpetuate the drama.
Yes, it’s excruciatingly painful to let him go, and it might be that much more painful as you lean in to the healing work that will shine a light on how attracting this person was a reflection of the lack of love you’ve been demonstrating for yourself.
But, I’m here on the other side of a ton of healing to say I’m actually grateful it all happened because of the boundless love I have for myself today, and the inspiration to now do what I do.
Leave him. Do the work. You are so so worth it!
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Claire Byrne is a heartbreak/finding-love coach, and the host of her podcast, Stop Wanting Him Back & Find Someone Better. Click here for more information on her group program.