From last year's Big Little Lies to Dominic Cummings in a rose garden its insidious ways have thrived during lockdown. When Jennifer Savin realised her boyfriend was doing it, the consequences were devastating
‘Oh, OK. Sure. I’ll just walk around town for a bit and come back later,’ I said, as my then-boyfriend, Reece*, casually shut his front door in my face. Apparently I couldn’t come in, as he and a ‘friend’, Emma*, were watching a film. Nothing was going on between them. Definitely not. He’d said so -very clearly, while looking into my eyes, without so much as a stutter. I was definitely not a victim of gaslighting.
It would take me another year to realise that actually, there definitely was something going on between Reece and Emma. And between Reece and Sarah*. Ditto, between Reece and a total of six others. The lies had built up slowly. All told in plain sight, which is half the struggle when the person you love most in the world is gaslighting you.
Even if you’re a relatively bright and logical person, love fills the room with a thick smoke. It distorts the way the world looks. Reece’s words didn’t match his actions, leaving me completely puzzled. Maybe if I was a ‘better’ girlfriend things would be easier, more straightforward? ‘It’s hard to trust you,’ he’d say. ‘I’ve heard that you flirt behind my back.’ I’d feel panic rise in my chest as I re-hashed every conversation I’d had that day, that week, that year, with another man. Had I been disrespectful towards him without even realising? I must have. He’d said so.
It almost seems laughable now, looking back. My first experience of an ‘adult’ relationship lasted for three years and at the very core of it, was an unbalanced partnership, where one person routinely lied to the other. I was completely blind to it. Facts and incidents, that I knew or witnessed, were denied. I’d be left confused and doubting myself, over both the small things and the big things.
I remember once finding a bracelet under Reece’s bed. It wasn’t a particularly special piece of jewellery, just a fast fashion bangle, similar to ones I often wore myself. Only it wasn’t mine. I picked it up and turned it over, certain I’d never seen it before. But Reece told me I had. It was mine. ‘Who else would it belong to? Are you saying I’m a liar?’ No, I thought, I wouldn’t say that. He couldn’t lie to me because we were in love and you weren’t supposed to lie to people you love. Slowly I convinced myself that I had been wrong. The bracelet probably was mine, I’d just forgotten about it. Maybe it had been under the bed for years. ‘You’re mental,’ he’d laugh. I was mental. Noted.
At the time, I was only sixteen years old. I didn’t have the language to discuss or describe what was happening to me. It was only in my twenties that I retrospectively took stock of those teenage interactions and made sense of them. I had been gaslit. After the moment of clarity, came a second emotion: embarrassment. I felt embarrassed that I let my relationship with Reece influence my life so much and impact on my mental health. Because isn’t your first love supposed to be mushy, silly and not really all that serious?
It ought to consist of slipping notes into pockets and kissing at house parties, exploring your sexuality. It isn’t supposed to be straightening out the natural waves in your hair, because you know if you don’t your partner will give you the cold shoulder all day. My first ‘love’ ended up scrambling my mind so much that when things finally did end for good, I attempted to take my own life. It left me feeling drained, alone and as he’d told me ‘mental’. Thankfully, therapy left me stronger. Years down the line, Reece messaged me a couple of chunky paragraphs apologising for his behaviour and thanking me for trying to keep him on the straight and narrow.
This experience and delayed recognition of gaslighting is sadly not uncommon, says Melissa Cliffe, psychotherapist and spokesperson for UK Council for Psychotherapy. ‘One aspect of gaslighting is that the conviction of the gaslighter is strong enough to cause the gaslightee to doubt their own perception,’ Cliffe says, highlighting the fact that Reece would look me dead in the eyes as he lied.
It’s so much easier to spot retrospectively as it’s only once the power dynamic has changed – or once the person being gaslit is willing to hold their own or walk away – that they can recognise what has happened, she adds. ‘Not knowing the signs [until later on] is another reason too, sometimes we may feel that something isn’t right but can’t quite put our finger on exactly what.’
One of the core components to gaslighting, Cliffe explains, is that the relationship in question is so important to the person being gaslit that they don’t want to risk rejection, abandonment or rocking the boat. ‘When the stakes are high, so is the potential for harm. We may be so keen to sustain the relationship that it prevents us from acknowledging problems.’ And it’s not only romantic encounters that can have this power imbalance either; gaslighting can come into play between a boss and an employee, or within friendships.
When I started plotting out my debut novel, The Wrong Move, all about a twisted flatshare, I had no idea that Jessie (the central character) was going to have an abusive ex-partner, Matthew, dogging her thoughts, making her second guess her sanity. But when thinking of the darker experiences my own brain has gone through, that early relationship elbowed its way to the forefront. It took me by surprise. I was sat at my desk gearing up to write about the complexities of millennial living arrangements, of finding people to split an electricity bill with via an agent or website. I wasn’t there to rake up my teenage trauma. But, I realised, several chapters in, that relationship had left me coated with anxiety and confused by my reality. Just like any good thriller should.
Now, I’m grateful for the experience, knowing that it helped to propel me towards the deadline of my first draft. Some of the worst people in your life can, ultimately, serve as some of the best inspiration.
Gaslighting: what to do if you suspect it’s happening to you
‘Gaslighting leaves us believing that we are the problem,’ says Cliffe. It’s important to take note if you’re doubting or questioning yourself, wondering if you’re ‘too sensitive’ or regularly feel confused (or as though you’re ‘going crazy’). ‘Another sign is if you’re the only one in your relationship doing any self-reflection.’
Find outside support
‘When we’re invested in a relationship, we want to defend it and this makes it hard to hear concern from well-meaning loved ones,’ notes Cliffe. ‘In some cases, this can cause a person to isolate further from those who want to help.’ Talk to a trusted loved one, or call a support line such as Relate, if you’re worried that you’re being gaslit. An outside perspective can be hugely helpful.
Trust yourself again
As a process, gaslighting often happens gradually. ‘It might start subtly, or be minimised with humour, but over time labels – such as being called mental, sensitive or inadequate – can be weaponised until you believe and feel defined by them,’ explains Cliffe. Your intuition, ability to rationalise and feelings (the very things that should be guiding you) feel unreliable. ‘If you’re being gaslighted, it’s important to learn to trust yourself again.’
* The Wrong Move by Jennifer Savin (Ebury Publishing) is out now and available from Amazon, Waterstones and all good book shops