When I was involved in seven years of an abusive marriage, I believed my two little boys didn’t need me as a mother. It sounds so crazy now as I write this. How could any mother imagine such a thing? My sons desperately needed me every second when they lived with their father, but my head was so jumbled that I couldn’t see it. I truly believed the boys were happier with their father, my ex-husband, and that they never gave me a second thought.
Where would I get an idea like that? It’s what my monster of a husband told me for seven years straight. Every time I cried for my kids, he announced that they sure weren’t crying over me. He told me the boys had moved on from me and that they thought my ex-husband’s new girlfriend was their mother now.
“You have a family right here,” he said. “Why don’t you focus on that?”
Of course, by that, he meant that I should focus on him to the exclusion of everybody else. I finally understand that now, but at the time those words were drilled into me so often that I started to believe him.
He was gaslighting me, although I didn’t know it. My husband took away pieces of me and replaced them with pieces of himself as if he was fixing a robot. By the time we broke up, I had no mind left of my own. My usual photographic memory of certain events in my life could no longer be trusted, so I had to rely on his version of things. Instead of standing up for myself and the morals and values I once had, I let him program me to stand up for him. After I finally found the courage to leave him, I felt like all that was left of me was a hollowed-out shell where my soul used to be.
When we first started dating, my husband love-bombed me by calling multiple times a day begging to see me. He said he loved me early on, which I now know is a giant red flag. Once I was hooked on him, he took his love away and left me desperate to get it back. He’d leave a trail of compliments like bread crumbs, then let me know what a horrible and crazy person I was and that no other man would want me. My self-esteem took a nosedive, and I started to think he was right. He had me so isolated that I had nobody to tell what he was doing to me. I didn’t quite understand it myself.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline documents five techniques that gaslighters use to control their victims:
Withholding: The abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen.
Countering: The abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately.
Blocking/Diverting: The abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts.
Trivializing: The abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant.
Forgetting/Denial: The abusive partner pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred.
When my husband was gaslighting me, I had trouble thinking for myself or making even the smallest decisions. It was like I didn’t trust myself anymore. Somewhere in the deepest part of me, I remembered the person I used to be, but I had no idea how to find her again. My friends simply wrote me off as a “bad” person as if I was an extension of my husband, and in some ways that was true. My heart for others turned dark, and I became selfish and uncaring just like him.
My husband and I began dating after I’d gone through a nasty divorce. My ex had left me for another woman, and I felt like dirt stuck to the bottom of a shoe. However, I thought my new relationship made up for that because he was so charming. He drowned me in compliments that made me blush. Later on, he interspersed those compliments with cutting remarks that made me feel I wasn’t good enough for him. After that, the compliments stopped altogether.
Instead of knowing my own worth and breaking up with him, I tried harder to please him and be the woman he wanted me to be. I became addicted to his sweet words for me. I’d been alone before after my divorce, and I didn’t think I could stand that again. For years, I chased the dragon of the days when my husband was nice to me, hoping he could change back into that person again. The problem was that the person never existed. It was all a ruse designed to trap me into his world until there was no way to escape. From there, it was a cakewalk for him to control me.
His favorite tactic was calling me “crazy.” According to him, I was too crazy to be a good wife, too crazy to raise children, and too crazy to function on my own. Even though I had an actual diagnosis of depression, I believed at first that he was wrong. I’d simply been shaken off my foundation, but I wasn’t certifiable.
I held on to that belief for as long as I could, but then I did go crazy. I spent years being yelled at for no reason, isolated from my family and friends, constantly being startled out of a sound sleep, and being told I didn’t have the skills to mother my children. He used my children against me often because he was jealous of them. I loved them much more than I’d ever love him, and he knew it. Controlling me assured him he’d get the attention he wanted.
I left my husband for good when I realized staying with him would be like signing my own death warrant. Our toxic relationship became a ticking bomb ready to explode at any second. Once I realized it was either him or me, I chose myself for the first time in seven years. I knew it was vital that I put the pieces of my life back together and remember the person I used to be or maybe somebody better. It was time to trust myself and the decisions I made. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Most importantly, I needed to put physical and emotional distance between me and my abuser. I finally realized he could only mess with my mind if I gave him access, so I stopped interacting with him completely. He lost his method of intimidation and couldn’t manipulate me into coming back to him. When that happened, he moved on to his next victim. I’m sure that’s exactly how he thought of her, too. People were only good if he could use them and mold them into his own fantasy. Abusers don’t like to deal with reality.
When an abusive partner tells you that your thoughts and feelings are wrong all the time, it’s hard to feel confident making decisions or standing up for the truth. I had a bad habit of apologizing to everybody whether I’d done something wrong or not. Once I was free to make choices for myself again, I started small with just doing the next right thing and not being mean to myself. In the end, I built up enough confidence to stand by the things I said and did. Instead of relying on my old foundation, I made a new one that fits better with my beliefs and passions. Finally, I could speak out when I saw something wrong rather than agree with it.
After the divorce, I repeatedly went over what happened in my mind to try to make sense of it. Nothing made sense about my abuser except that he enjoyed destroying people’s lives. What I thought I knew about him was complete nonsense. The past is better left in the past. Moving forward became my sole focus, and that’s when I finally made progress. I no longer need to figure out why everything happened. There’s a bigger world out there than the one he lived in.
Because of my experience with gaslighting, I learned the hard way how to avoid it in the future. Now I know the signs to look out for. Gaslighting can be such a subtle act that we don’t even realize it’s happening to us until we’re knee-deep in it. The best thing I've learned so far is where my true strength lies. It’s best to have our own lives rather than turn them over to another person, and I’m grateful to have the chance to make my life worthwhile.