Being in an emotionally abusive relationship isn't always easy to see

​Content Note: This article contains detailed discussions of gaslighting, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse allegations.

I didn’t realise that I had been in an emotionally abusive relationship until I was out of it. That’s the kind of effect gaslighting can have on a person: it warps your way of viewing the world. To clarify, it wasn’t a physically abusive relationship. My ex was always adamant that he’d “never hit a woman”. That should’ve been my first red flag; who would he hit? No, the abuse was mercifully all mental, not that that made it any less painful. It meant that this abuse was also conveniently ‘invisible’ — luckily for him, this meant that he hadn’t left a trail when things got ugly in our relationship further down the line.

He had made it very clear to me from the start too that our ‘relationship’ had to be kept a secret. This, I believed at the time, was because we were colleagues at the same workplace. He wanted to keep things ‘professional’, he told me. Dating a co-worker is not the done thing. A secret relationship would be sexy and exciting, I thought at the beginning. Later I realised he wanted to keep ‘us’ secret because he was embarrassed of me.

That’s the thing about secret relationships: they can be problematic, as that there is no proof that you were ever together. I kept our relationship secret for it’s entirety, it was only afterwards, when he accused me of sexually abusing him, that I realised in defending myself I had no leg to stand on: no-one ever really knew we were together in the first place.

He is very convincing, you see, my ex. He has a way of making you believe him.

“All my exes are psychos!” he told me once, widening his eyes and making a twisting motion with his index and middle finger next to his temple in order to indicate ‘having a screw loose’. On hearing this explanation, I thought no further about the girl who had thrown her coke over him once in a bar, or the glares he used to get from women on the street. I just believed him; he had crazy exes, or so I thought, until, two years out of our relationship, he had begun to call me just another ‘crazy ex’.

To clear things up, Wikipedia describes gaslighting thus:

Gaslighting is a colloquialism for a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is successful in having the target (a person or a group of people) question their own reality, memory or perceptions.”

And that’s what my ex did to me. In denying our relationship, in making it this entity that only he and I knew about, he was able to rewrite the story of what happened.

For example, on one occasion we’d been on a night out where he’d participated in some recreational drug use. He offered this to me too, I declined. I walked him home to make sure he got back safely, when we returned to his house, he came onto me. I asked him if he was lucid: if he understood what was happening and wanted this to happen. Coherently, he gave me his consent. We had sex.

“He was constantly changing the narrative of how things happened, it led me to question my own reality.”

Two years later, the story is being spun that I came on to him and he was too ‘out of it’ on substances to say no. Funny how stories can change like that.

The thing about gaslighting that makes it so slippery and tricky to spot is that it’s clever and it’s subtle. He chipped away at my self esteem constantly, then bribed me with ‘breadcrumbs’ of affection and validation in order to win me back again. He was constantly changing the narrative of how things happened, it led me to question my own reality. Thankfully, I kept a diary.

8th April 12:30am

“After work we went for X’s leaving drinks […] We kissed multiple times. […] The next day at work we didn’t talk about it. It’s starting to make we wonder if it actually happened. But I know it did.”

This should’ve been the second red flag, and yet I let it slide. This is a diary entry from two weeks after that:

23rd April 8pm

“I left him a Facebook message. He didn’t reply. I wonder if he even likes me, it seems like he only wants me when he’s drunk.”

Let’s now jump forward in time to the night we had sex; the night I lost my virginity:

28rd May 12pm

“Last night we had sex. Today at work he was a different person. But I guess we’re at work and he doesn’t want people to know? We don’t really interact at work which confused me. I’m exhausted from last night and don’t know really what it all means?”

The very next day I wrote this:

29th May 2pm

“That last entry was embarrassing to re-read. Feel like I have to however as I’m almost questioning what has actually truly happened sometimes.”

Gaslighting is a way of manipulating a vulnerable person in a dangerous, harmful way. By chipping away at my self-esteem over and over, and by ignoring me and treating me indifferently, my ex had gained total control over how the past was perceived.

He constantly rewrote reality.

It took me many years to realise that our relationship was not only toxic, but also emotionally abusive. Even now I find myself making excuses for his behaviour: that’s the power of someone who gaslights — they can change not only the way you think about things, but how you remember them.


Mountain View

What they don’t tell you about abuse

I guess I’m putting this out there as a warning to others. Perhaps if I had read this three years ago I might’ve been better prepared to call out his behaviour. Perhaps not. He was very persuasive, you see.

If you’re experiencing a situation like this, please seek help from friends or family. Additionally, you may find the following websites helpful and informative: