Earlier this year I was reading an article online about gaslighting when I had a profound realisation. The sense of clarity I experienced was so strong, I felt sick to my stomach. Gaslighting is a tactic people use to gain power over someone and used in romantic relationships, it can be highly effective and completely insidious. The penny finally dropped. My ex was a narcissist and throughout our involvement, he had used a range of gaslighting techniques on me to keep me attached to him and to try to control me. This realisation was an absolute shocker to me and was the catalyst to me fighting my way out of the relationship and finding happiness away from him.
Handsome, clever, charming and witty, we connected immediately. It was a powerful collision, a meeting of true equals with similar values. Two magnets pulled to each other, it was inevitable that we would become involved. We messaged constantly, always watching out for each other, and it felt like us against the world, with shared jokes and confidences. I would light up with joy whenever I was around him. I could feel when he walked into a room, even if I couldn’t see him. It was like the air changed. I’m very empathic, an ‘emotional sponge’, so I’m sensitive to others’ moods and emotions and I’m an emotional person – I wear my heart on my sleeve and don’t hide my emotions. Apparently empaths and narcissists are frequently drawn to each other and it is not uncommon for relationships between the two to become toxic, as it did in our case. From what I’ve read, the attraction arises because narcissists thrive on being given attention and like to be worshipped whilst the empath loves to give and tends to be too forgiving, letting the narcissist get away with poor behaviour. Narcissists feed off the emotions of empaths and empaths will often give until they have nothing left, leaving the empath drained, which is why such relationships can be very damaging to empaths in particular. As long as the narcissist gets their own way, it’s all good. If you challenge them in any way, point out flaws or try to stand up for yourself, that’s when the trouble starts. He met his match in me.
A few months into the involvement, there had been a couple of red flags, such as hot and cold behaviour, his actions not matching his words, and some sharply worded messages, but he always seemed to have an explanation and I was in too deep by then to see that the gaslighting had begun. To me his good qualities outweighed the aspects I didn’t like (incredibly smart and perceptive, he could be kind and loving; his real skill is making people feel listened to and understood) and I was accepting because I loved him and we are all human, flawed, irrational, and contradictory sometimes. My friends were worried for me and told me they didn’t think he was right for me but I wouldn’t listen. I’m stubborn like that. I will always follow my gut instinct and do what I think is best. Unfortunately, in this situation, I completely ignored my gut instinct and continued with a relationship that was ultimately to prove highly toxic and harmful. In the last year or so I was aware that the situation wasn’t good for me and was unhealthy but I couldn’t seem to break away. This is where the gaslighting had worked its magic.
Abuse in relationships can take many forms. I am fortunate that I have never been in a physically abusive relationship or been called derogatory names by a partner which people typically associate with abusive relationships. However, today there is greater awareness of emotional abuse and the impact that can have. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. An insightful article about gaslighting written by Stephanie A. Sarkis can be found here https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting I definitely experienced the blatant lies, being told something to appease me that wasn’t true, promises made that he had no intention of keeping, and manipulation. When you get involved with someone you make yourself vulnerable and in a healthy relationship, the other person will take care not to hurt you or do things that they know will cause you pain. In my relationship with my ex, there were times when he did things to deliberately hurt me if he was displeased with me. I would suddenly be ignored either in person or he wouldn’t reply to messages – withholding affection was used to control and assert power over me – as he knew I hated being ignored and that it would drive me nuts if he was cold and distant with me. I would then do the same back to him and it would start a vicious circle. I knew exactly what to say or do to provoke him though most of the time I tried hard to please him. I had to take him off my Facebook three times because of things he posted; he removed me once – when I posted I was going on a date to annoy him. I talked him into adding me back on a day later. After the first year though I had to block him on there for good. We were always falling out and making up; like trying to stand upright on shifting sand, I felt constantly unbalanced. The situation was even more complicated by the fact we worked together and he was in a position of authority over me. Whenever things were not good between us personally, there would be repercussions in the workplace.
I am an honest, direct, person and I think it’s important in relationships for you to be able to communicate openly and honestly with your significant other without fear of retribution. When I did call him out on the things he did, he would often turn it back on me, make me feel guilty, telling me it was my fault I had misinterpreted something he said, implying I was over-sensitive. Some of his behaviour just didn’t make sense – once I was sent a sharp email and a sweet WhatsApp message at the same time and another time I was sent a kiss emoji but then blanked by him when he saw me. I was always trying to puzzle him out. At times it wasn’t OK how he treated me but if I complained the situation between us was toxic, a headf*ck, and I wanted out, he would become indignant, calling me nasty and abusive, and sulk. If I asked for space, I wouldn’t get it. Rather than seeing that I was trying to do the right thing for both of us, it was like he felt how dare I not want to be with him and he had a ‘F*ck her, I’ll do what I want’ attitude. For some reason, he just couldn’t let me go. It changed me as a person over time – I became anxious, needy, snappy, paranoid, couldn’t sleep, and cried all the time. My head and heart were totally f*cked by the time I left – I actually left the country I was living in twice to get away from him, once temporarily but I made myself go back for the students I taught; the second time I left for good.
So many people stay in toxic relationships because they think if they just love the other person enough, it will get better – especially if the other person promises that it will, like my ex did with me – and it can be incredibly difficult to leave the relationship. It’s painful to walk away from someone that you still love, even though you know the situation between you is doing neither of you any good. The good news is you can break away if you are strong enough and believe that you deserve better. Of course I had moments of nostalgia after I left when I missed him, especially if I heard songs we shared, but I knew I just missed the intensity of it all and I also felt a lot of anger towards him for everything he had put me through over three years. I still had feelings for him when I left but I just couldn’t have him in my life anymore. Toxic relationships can bring euphoric highs and lots and lots of bonecrushing lows. The drama can be addictive and you tell yourself that you must really feel strongly for each other if you keep going back to each other. That’s not true. It’s just a bad habit. An abusive cycle that can be broken. On-and-off relationships are NOT healthy. Can’t-live-with-can’t-live-without relationships are NOT healthy. Relationships are not always easy but they shouldn’t be painful or harmful or bring out the worst in you. No one who really loves you would ever use gaslighting techniques on you to manipulate and control you, to punish you or make you stay in a relationship with them.
If you are in a toxic relationship, do yourself a favour. Detox your life. Block them, commit to withdrawal from your relationship addiction, focus on self-care and doing the things that you love, and in time you will find that you are so much happier without the toxic relationship in your life. You know you are at that point when you glow – people keep telling me lately that I look happy and I am. I’m not angry anymore. I have forgiven him; holding on to anger does nobody any good and to move forward, you have to let it go. I no longer have any feelings for him. I now feel emotionally balanced, in tune with myself and not stressed about anything. I’ve made my peace with the past and I’m excited to see what lies ahead as my world travels continue. No longer gaslighted (or should that be gaslit?), I’m lit on life with my arms open to embrace all the possibilities/opportunities coming my way.
*Interesting article on dealing with trauma after a toxic relationship https://www.bustle.com/p/11-signs-you-are-experiencing-trauma-after-a-toxic-relationship-8759486 Reach out for help if you need it.
Take care, Lisa.