Our memories at times can be fluid and fickle. We remember some memories from our childhoods like vivid dreams, but often times we can’t remember what movie we watched last Friday night. This potentially flighty nature makes our memories easy prey for the controlling and manipulative.
Psychological abuse can sometimes be synonymous with emotional abuse, but today I want to focus on one specific tactic abusers use:
Gaslighting - the willful manipulation of someone’s memory and perceived reality.
The extremes to which gaslighting occurs varies - some manipulators will joke that their partners are ‘crazy’, ‘unhinged’, or ‘too sensitive’ until their partner begins to doubt themselves and their instincts. On the other side of the spectrum, some gaslighters will actually leave behind clues justifying their lies as hard evidence of the altered reality.
Last week I told you a bit of my friend Liz’s story with her ex-husband, Ralph. I met up with her and mentioned I was going to be writing about gaslighting this week. She laughed and looked away, “Where do I begin?”
She proceeded to tell me the following story (shared here with her permission).
All throughout their dating relationship, Liz and Ralph fought, but the fights were usually contained and ended with her apologizing and everything would be fine. Liz assumed marriage would make the fighting easier but only the opposite was true. Two months into married life, they got into their worst fight yet.
Ralph was in a mood she had never witnessed. He was screaming at her, yelling uncontrollably, and getting way too close to her face.
She put her hands up against his chest in an effort to gain some distance - but that was the wrong move.
“You don’t put your hands on me,” said Ralph, and he shoved her hard. Liz slammed her head into the bathroom wall behind her. Shocked, she ran into the bathroom and locked herself in for an hour and a half.
The emotional pain of that betrayal caused her to bury the memory, until she finally confronted him about what had happened.
Ralph initially looked unconcerned.
“But you were about to hit me first,” he said matter-of-factly.
“No, I put my hands on your chest because you were too close, I wasn’t going to hit you…”
“Yes, you were. You were going to hit me.”
Liz was confused. She tried to remember exactly what had happened. Had she tried to hit him?
“I can’t believe you don’t remember this, you raised your fist like this.” Ralph raised his fist and pulled it back.
Liz was certain she had never raised her fist. But she was really good at telling when people were lying, and he didn’t have any of the tell-tale signs. He seemed to be telling the truth.
So she believed him.
That wasn’t the only time he attempted to alter the past. Time and time again he would try to convince her that she said things she never said, or did things she never did. After awhile, she began to doubt her memories, doubt her instincts, and doubt her perception.
Later on, the memory of that fight kept coming back; she kept running over and over again what had happened that night. In the end, she knew she would have never raised her fist towards him or anyone for that matter. That just wasn’t who she was.
Most gaslighters, especially narcissists, have this perfect reality in mind for themselves. They have the perfect jobs, the perfect relationship, and they themselves are perfect. If anything steps outside of that perfect reality, it must be corrected. Or if they cannot control and correct it in reality, they will correct it in their own minds.
This is why gaslighters can be such convincing liars. They often believe their lies themselves.
Gaslighters will often:
Fabricate elaborate lies.
Charm you into trusting their narrative.
Joke about your mental state, calling you ‘crazy’.
Make you distrust your friends and family so you believe the gaslighter’s narrative over theirs.
Tell others you are 'crazy' so they don’t believe your accusations against the gaslighter.
Set up physical evidence to back up their lies.
If you believe your significant other is gaslighting you:
Trust your instincts.
Look at their actions, not their words.
Find a support system. Do not allow yourself to be isolated.
Don’t engage with your partner’s lies and arguments.
Begin thinking about ending that relationship. Is it worth staying?
Once again, we know that psychological abuse, just like any abuse, tears away our personhood. Gaslighting makes us doubt our own thoughts and perceptions, making us unable to vocalize our authentic ideas and opinions. Gaslighting makes us doubt the intentions and narratives of our friends and family, or vice versa, creating isolation. Gaslighting intentionally destroys our grasp and understanding of perceived reality, denying us the ability to affect change in our actual reality.
Because we have the Spirit of God living within us, we can learn to sharpen our own discernment and trust our own instincts as valid interpretations of our reality.
The more we identify what is happening, the more we can call out the evils of abuse and take a stand, walking bravely towards the freedom God has destined for us.