Picking up where she left off with an introduction to the subject of gaslighting, Sarah Xerta next tackles gaslighting in intimate partner relationships.
*Note: This piece discusses gaslighting as it occurs in intimate partner relationships. Specific examples are given as well as mentions of physical and sexual abuse.
Gaslighting is such a pervasive form of abuse yet also the hardest to recognize since there are no purely physical symptoms, no “observable evidence” that linear patriarchal societies place so much value on. This collective insistence on “observable evidence” before a person’s pain is taken seriously is a form of social gaslighting, which means that it’s entirely possible for a person to be gaslit about whether or not they’ve been gaslit. I think about this and feel the neural pathways in my brain tangle up in haywire confusion. Gaslighting is such psychologically intricate territory, no wonder so many of us feel we are walking around in a reality that isn’t real. Or that is off somehow. We know something is wrong but we can’t seem to articulate what it is. We are confused, but without the tools to articulate our confusion, what is there to do but keep pushing through the sludge we’ve come to know as life?
Sometimes we even come to know this sludge as love. In psychologically abusive relationships, there doesn’t have to be bruises for there to be pain. An intimate partner can near destroy you from the inside out without ever laying a hand on you. A victim of this type of abuse may be driven to attempt or commit suicide, their deepest self having been cornered into itself with no apparent means of escape.
I want to give examples of gaslighting as it happens in intimate partner relationships, and I’m tempted to talk about why this abuse happens to begin with, but my intuition tells me that isn’t particularly helpful at this point in the series. How can you be expected to understand someone else’s pain when you can’t make sense of your own? At the same time, how can you be expected to make sense of your own pain when it’s actually someone else’s pain that they’ve projected onto you? And maybe this inability to separate your pain from your partner’s pain is one of the reasons abusive relationships are so hard to recognize as abusive, and, even more so, so hard to break free from.
It’s important, then, to recognize the power dynamics at play in an abusive relationship, because while both people might be in pain, gaslighting happens when one person asserts power over the other person’s experience of pain. Someone who gaslights might say things like, “You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” or, “It wasn’t that bad,” or, “You’re exaggerating.” They might say your feelings of pain are causing them pain, or they may deny your experience altogether, saying something like, “I didn’t do that. Why are you trying to hurt me?” If you bring up a time they hurt you with the intentions of processing this pain with them, they may blame you for “ruining the whole day” or tell you that you’re always focusing on the negative, that if you just paid attention to all the good things they’ve done for you, the relationship would be fine. When you try to explain how they’ve hurt your feelings, they might respond by bringing up positive or romantic things they’ve done in the past and accuse you of not loving them. They might buy you gifts and expect you not to be hurt anymore.
Of course, gaslighting can also occur with other forms of abuse, such as physical and sexual, wherein the person denies harming their partner or blames their violent actions on their partner. “You made me hit you,” or, “You were asking for it.” A person who gaslights may violate their partner’s sexual consent but then later deny doing so, or minimize the violence of the assault by saying something like, “I just wanted to be close to you,” again centering their own emotional needs over the boundaries of their partner. Gaslighting can also be used as a means of sexual coercion, which is also why many instances of sexual assault and rape are so difficult to “prove” and report. A partner who does this might guilt you into sexual intimacy by capitalizing on your pain and confusion about other events in the relationship, telling you that sex will make things better and if you don’t agree then you are to blame for the relationship not working out.
In short, a partner who gaslights is one who often centers their own emotional needs above the boundaries of their partner, and in doing so they invalidate their partner’s pain and perception of reality. A person who gaslights refuses to take responsibility for how they’ve hurt their partner, and even if they say they take responsibility they fail to actively make a change. I want to be clear that while no human is immune from hurting another, psychologically abusive behavior is a pervasive pattern that involves the repeated harming of others with no efforts made toward change. This pattern doesn’t happen over night but insidiously and often with a lack of conscious awareness of either party. As one partner’s grip on reality becomes severed, they become more and more dependent on the other partner for safety and comfort, even though this person is also the one causing the other’s lack of safety and comfort. This is a dangerous spiral into what I can only describe as psychological hell, pain folded on top of pain, like an avalanche, the root of which is a merciless abyss that can literally drive one mad or off the face of the earth all together.
While it’s clear that a person who feels the need to gaslight their partner over and over is most likely experiencing their own pain, projecting pain onto others is never an acceptable form of dealing with pain. I understand now why and how gaslighting happens, and I even have compassion for the ex-partner who did this to me, but I do not accept it as a tolerable behavior in my life. I have gone through many stages of pain and grief to arrive at this reality, which is to say, to come back to myself, but the point is that I have come back to myself.
So now I am qualified to write advice columns for others who have experienced gaslighting, right? Not really. I hesitate to give advice because, who am I to know what anyone needs? If you’ve experienced the type of abuse I’ve described in this article, then haven’t others been talking for you enough?
What you need most is you. The internet is full of advice for people who have experienced or are experiencing abuse, and I’m sure some of them are helpful for some people, but the one thing I wish someone would have told me is this: You are allowed to feel however you need to feel in this moment and your feelings are allowed to change. Gaslighting severs you from your deepest self, which is to say, you forget that you are an infinite being. You forget yourself completely, which can leave you incredibly vulnerable to following scripts that others have prescribed for you, and the last thing I want to do is be another script writer. I don’t want to drive you further from yourself. The sludge is thick enough as it is, and what you need is light, to remember the light that you are.
Next topic: When Parents Gaslight Their Children