Why It Took Me Over 20 Years to Realize I'd Been Gaslighted
And how the realization allowed me to release guilt.
Posted Jun 04, 2020
Over 20 years ago, my relationship with my ex-partner ended. We were together for five years and it was the most horrible time of my life. I’ve got an incredible memory (that’s not to boast, it’s just one of these things I have—having ASD means I can remember all kinds of details that other people just don’t take in!), but the last couple of years I spent with this man are a complete blank. Therapy helped me piece some of it together but I think the experience of being with him was so traumatic that some sort of defence mechanism kicked in and I have chosen to repress those memories.
What I didn’t realise, until very recently, was that he gaslighted me in that relationship. I want to share the experience in order to show just how subtle gaslighting can be—and how devastating it is to be on the receiving end.
Nasty comments clothed as “good advice”
My ex was a master of criticism which he dressed up as “good advice." Much of this was around what I wore. I was a 90s girl and liked my doc martins, grungey clothes and a weird assortment of pinafore dresses, leggings and the like. My ex evidently had no aversion to the way I dressed when we met. However, after a few months, he would make comments about my favourite clothes. “That doesn’t really suit you”, “you look a bit fat” or “don’t you think you’re a bit old for that” (I was 22!) were his usual responses to my clothing choices. I began to live in a uniform of jeans and a teeshirt because he made me feel so bad about my clothes, and fed into body image securities I’d had since childhood.
Twisting of the facts
I was in my twenties during this relationship. My ex was a few years older than me and, having done the same degree in archaeology, worked for an archaeological organisation. After finishing my degree, I was on a dig and met someone from the same organisation as my ex (this person was in a senior position). This person told me he had a friend who was looking for a research assistant and was I interested. I jumped at the chance, got the interview and secured the research post. Just as we were cracking open the sparkling wine to celebrate, my ex announced that it was so lucky that he’d introduced me to this colleague of his. I pointed out that he didn’t introduce me and we’d met on a dig. My ex became really annoyed and accused me of lying. He regularly twisted the facts in this way so that he could take credit for my achievements.
Telling me I was unlikable
In the early stages of our relationship, I would often accompany my ex on nights out with his work colleagues. We were all in the field of archaeology, I got on fine with them and there were always other partners there. Simply because of practicalities, I hadn’t been on a night out for a while so when my partner said they’d be going out the following week I said, great, I’d love to come out with a drink. I’ll never forget the sneering look on his face as he said, “They really don’t like you, you know. They never have." I was shocked. And deeply upset. But I completely believed him. It didn’t dawn on me to question him. This type of behaviour was repeated with other groups of people.
I think one of the reasons why I can’t remember much of that time is because it confused me. I was constantly bombarded with a piece of information and then made to feel like an idiot for questioning it. Things would be presented as fact and I was expected to go along with it. If I became upset, I was accused of being neurotic. One example was when my partner applied for a job a couple of hundred miles from where we were living (together). When he told me about the application, I excitedly replied that it would be great to live somewhere rural like that. I would see if I could get a research post there too. He very calmly told me that if he moved, he didn’t want me to come with him. I was confused. We’d never discussed breaking up before. I became upset and said we should just finish things now. He told me he didn’t want to finish things and that, although he didn’t imagine we’d end up staying together and he was hoping to find someone who suited him better, he wanted me to stay with him for just now.
Accusing me of being over emotional
Whenever my ex hurt me with the comments, the lies or the complete lack of respect for my feelings, I would become upset, angry and emotional. He always stayed calm. He would wait for my “tantrum” to subside and then calmly explain to me that I had issues. Sometimes, he would leave the house so I could “calm down” and return as if nothing had taken place. We never had any follow through after an argument. I couldn’t cope during this relationship and started to numb my feelings every night with at least a bottle of wine. He accused me of having an alcohol issue. I ended up in such a weak position, unable to say or do anything against him because I agreed that I was an over-emotional, alcoholic wreck. I learned to stay silent.
With the help of therapy, I’ve been able to piece together aspects of this part of my life. Given my nature, it’s important for me to recall what went on. What stuck out for me before therapy was the horrible times—some of which I’ve described above—which shocked and confused me. I carried a lot of guilt after this relationship, being more than aware that I drank too much and had become extremely upset and anxious during it. But when I look back now, I know that these behaviours were a reaction to being gaslighted over a very long period of time. My partner left me when I was a few weeks pregnant and the sense of relief was immense. We’ve never seen each other since and I’ve never been involved with another gaslighter.
Why did I let it happen? Well, it happened gradually. You let one thing go because it’s easier, and then they come in with another attack. My self-esteem was low when I met my partner. My ASD had always made me feel a bit different to other people and I was grateful anyone wanted to be with me. I didn’t understand his manipulation tactics, as I’m not like that myself and see things pretty black and white. Emotional abuse happens insidiously and whilst it’s easy to say with hindsight that I should have run a mile, it’s staggering how easily you can fall into an abusive relationship. My friends and I were all in serious relationships at that stage, and there was a sense of shame in sharing what was going on for me—even if I had been able to name it.
If you sense that you’re being gaslighted, please seek the support and help you need to deal with the situation.