I’ve talked about how I’ve struggled with my relationships after gaslighting. When I met my husband, I wouldn’t say that I was 100% ready for a new relationship. In hindsight, there were many things that I still had to work on and were far from healing. Since my husband and I are just a few months away from celebrating our 5-year anniversary, I wanted to share with you some of the things I learned or wish I knew sooner. (I also made this workbook with more suggestions if you’re interested.)
Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation that can deeply affect a person to the point that they start questioning their reality. For example, my ex-partner cheated on me. It became this month’s long drama between us; tears, arguments, apologies, and breaking up. Then my ex-partner told me it never happened. Literally, the whole thing had been made up by me to make them feel bad and I needed professional help. I knew it had happened but then –
I started to doubt all of the details.
Was I making things worse than they were? Was I being unfair? The gaslighting happened with so many different (and smaller) situations that I started to keep a list of things that happened and screen-capping our conversations to validate that I wasn’t making things up.
When you get to that point you DO start to wonder if you’re losing it because all of the situations are just so ridiculous. Especially when you’re being gaslit about small things – your whole foundation for reality is dissolved. I often got stuck in this loop of wanting to prove myself and prove them wrong that I was not the bad person that they said I was and that just added more fuel to the fire.
Recognize Gaslighting Behaviors
This one’s obvious right? Not so much after you’ve been through gaslighting. I’m not exaggerating when I say that when my husband and I first started dating and there was any indication that I was wrong about anything – I got sick to my stomach and wanted to physically throw up.
Being wrong = I am being gaslit again. But the thing is – it’s normal for two people to have differing experiences and no one’s memory is 100% perfect. I thought my husband and I had gone to a restaurant together but he said we hadn’t. I had a physical reaction to that.
When you’ve been through gaslighting it’s so easy to see every mistake or anything that’s misremembered as an attack on you. It’s especially insidious when the gaslighting you experienced wasn’t even about things that mattered.
So it’s really important to stay vigilant and know the signs so that it doesn’t happen again BUT ALSO stay soft so that you give other people the space to be human. Journaling helped. For example, my ex would gaslight me over little things to make me feel guilty. If my husband and I disagreed on how something had happened (we’re old, he has ADHD, our memories are not the best!), I would ask myself what he had to gain by lying and what was the likelihood that one of us was just remembering it wrong and did it honestly really matter?
Embracing Self-Compassion and Healing
And therapy – lots of therapy. It helps! Having someone that can help you untangle what your brain has been through, give you coping skills, and provide a sounding board is really invaluable.
It’s also essential to recognize that the gaslighting was never your fault. Be gentle with yourself and allow time for emotional recovery. Seeking support from friends and family and building up those supportive safe spaces around yourself.
Rebuilding Trust in Relationships (and in yourself) After Gaslighting
Communicate and communicate and communicate. I’ve always been taught that it’s a red flag to bring up your past relationships. I think that depends on the context. It was important that my husband understand why small things would trigger me so that way we could talk through them.
At first, when something innocent would trigger me I’d try to bare-knuckle my way out of it. But really I’d stuff it down and this anger would build up. The anger wasn’t directed at him but it would usually come up anyway. So it’s important to talk about those things but I’d say it’s even more important to work through those things. I’m sure my husband thought that I wanted him to make a mental list of every single trigger and then never do any of those things again no matter how silly they were.
That’s not realistic and that’s not going to build a healthy relationship. Having your partner walk on eggshells isn’t fun for them. The real work is getting your metaphorical hands dirty, digging into those triggers, and working through them. (Which isn’t easy and if something is triggering you it is okay to set boundaries, but also make sure that they are healthy boundaries.)
Setting Boundaries and Practicing Assertiveness
I remember telling my husband that – for the most part – it was hard to get mad at him for anything. Part of it was that he’s a genuinely amazing human being who cares about others and is never purposefully hurtful – but another part of it was that I was severely emotionally abused by gaslighting.
I’d spent years feeling like I was being hit by a hammer. How could I get upset over the equivalent of a stubbed toe? Because it’s healthy to have conflict. And talk about conflict. I’m allowed to talk about how you said you’d do the dishes and didn’t and it bothered me.
And nothing bad has to happen! Emotional abuse can put it into your head that now you have things SO GOOD so you should never complain about anything ever. False. Complain. In a healthy, communicative, way – but do it. Learn to work through those things together because you’re no longer with someone who is going to use all the things against you and who is constantly looking for ammo.
Talking about conflict and setting and maintaining boundaries is crucial in all relationships, but especially after experiencing gaslighting. A supportive partner will respect your boundaries and encourage your growth and well-being.
Embrace Your Independence
Gaslighting often goes hand-in-hand with other types of abusive and controlling behavior. You’re allowed to do things without your partner. You’re allowed to have needs that aren’t met entirely by your partner but by your friends, family, and even yourself. Do the things that bring you joy and fulfillment, nurture your passions, and focus on your self-worth.
Honoring the Healing Process
Healing is a nonlinear journey, and it’s okay to have ups and downs along the way. Even when you’re in a healthy and happy relationship it doesn’t mean that all of those hurts and trauma just disappear. You’re still going to need time to heal and that’s okay. Be patient with yourself.