Gaslighting: Why I Thought I Was Crazy and Tried to Save the Marriage
Updated: Feb 21
I debated writing about this for years because my ex-husband and I share a child. And the internet lives forever. And I didn’t want my child to one day stumble upon an article that painted his father in such a bad light. With me, he wasn’t physically abusive; he was emotionally abusive.
Not talking about it wasn’t to protect my ex, but to protect my son from having to grapple with the dark layers of our relationship when he might have a perfectly fine relationship with his father. And a boy should have a father, even if I think he’s an asshole.
But these protections all went out the window when my ex-husband held his new girlfriend’s head by her ears and bashed her head into the hardwood floor over and over, saying he was going to F’ing kill her. And he did this in front of our 7-year old son. And afterwards, while waiting for police, while his girlfriend stood there crying and bleeding (and vomiting), he calmly pulled our son aside and said, “I was trying to hold her down, so you could kick her in the head too, so you know how that feels.”
Pretty dark, right? I know. It took me about thirty phone calls to child trauma counselors to find one who would work with my son. That extra layer of pulling him aside, holding him by the shoulders, looking him in the eye and telling him he wanted him to kick her...was too much for most therapists. “I can’t take this on.” they told me, one by one.
I now have our son seeing a trauma therapist who has been wonderful. And, as horrible as this incident has been (the victim is okay, by the way, and we’ve become friends), it ended up being so unbelievably liberating.
I feel free now. Vindicated, in a way. While he was never physical with me, he was emotionally abusive, and there is no doubt about that. And all my years of trying to convey to others, even therapists, that there’s something wrong with him, always fell on deaf ears. No one understood. To everyone else, he presented himself as happy, funny and loving. Behind closed doors, a totally different man.
I thought I was crazy. And he let me think I was crazy. He gaslit me all time. I spent years asking What’s wrong with him? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t we have a normal conversation? Why is he so mean?
I remember his best friend once said to me, “Some of us noticed that he hadn’t treated you so well at that party and we were a little concerned.”
I replied, “That’s your example? He wasn’t bad that day at all. Imagine that times one hundred! Because that’s really how I’m treated on a regular basis.”
So, what came of this conversation? Nothing. Nobody wanted to poke that bear. And I understand. And if that was their example, then no one had any clue what was going on at home.
But now? Now I can write about it. Talk about it. And now? Others can look back at my marriage and maybe think, “Oh, she tried to tell us.” It explains why I did some things the way I did. Like the day I secretly moved out of the house. And later abruptly moved my son's preschool without first discussing with his father. There were no rational discussions with him. I was afraid of his reactions. He was vindictive. Unreasonable. And scary. At the time, friends and family questioned my moves. And now? Oh.
Now, my son can read this someday. Because I don’t have to hide this from him anymore. He was there. He saw first-hand. So, we may as well talk about it, so he doesn’t think it’s okay or normal. So he doesn’t grow up and do this to someone else. And this? Was the reason I finally left. So my son doesn’t grow up learning these behaviors, emotional or physical.
But let’s back up for a minute.
For years, I searched for answers. I didn’t know I was being emotionally abused. It was a very slow climb. Unnoticeable. Until one day, he sternly said to me, while rocking the baby to sleep, “If you don’t shut the fuck up, things are going to get bad.”
So, I shut up. And went to bed. I was afraid. And I laid there thinking that, although he’d never hit me, I may as well finish that sentence with “yet.” Because, it was pretty obvious the abuse would escalate. And I laid there wondering if I was being abused (still wasn’t sure). And I thought that in movies, the abusive husband would always come in and tell them how sorry he was. And then?
“Honey, you know I love you, right?” he said as he crawled into bed.
I freaked (in my head)! Inside, I was having an epiphany. Oh my God! I’m her! I’m the woman in the movie! How did I become her? I’m too smart to be in an abusive relationship. I don’t ignore red flags.
But I had. They were so carefully placed.
Often, what would begin as a simple question would end up in a massive blow-out. And I would be crazy trying to figure out how or why.
“Hey, did you want to go to family swim today?”
“No. Why would you think I wanted to go to family swim?”
I thought - He must have forgotten. We talked about it yesterday. I’ll remind him. “Because yesterday you told me the hours for family swim on Sundays. And now it’s Sunday.”
“Just because I told you the hours doesn’t mean I want to go. Why would you automatically assume I wanted to go?!”
“I didn’t assume. I asked.”
“No, Poppy, that’s what this is. This is you making things up. Why the hell would you assume that’s what I wanted to do? Huh?! Answer me!! ANSWER ME! I'M WAITING!”
“Huh? All I asked is if you wanted to go. If you don’t want to go, just say no.”
“No, you didn’t. You think you’re in charge of what I want to do! Why the hell would you even conceive that I wanted to swim today?!!”
This argument went around and around for almost an hour. He was yelling at me. I kept trying to get logical. I kept trying to bring it back to the beginning. “Look, stop. Let’s start over. All I asked is if you wanted to go swimming today. That’s it. You could just say yes or no.” But I couldn’t get it logical. It became apparent, once I was crying, that logic wasn’t in the equation. What he really wanted was to dominate.
No wait, back up. I know that now. But back then? I didn’t know it was about power and control. I just thought I was crazy. That maybe I wasn’t seeing his point of view or I had done something wrong. But it was such a simple question – how could I have done something wrong?
We had so many fights like this.
When I would finally get him to a moment of reason (usually by telling him he was breaking the marriage), where he’d agree to talk about it, he’d go into victim mode (his childhood, his anxieties, that he needed to be high on marijuana 24/7 just to feel normal because inside his head he was a wreck).
He would say whatever I wanted to hear. He would masterfully play me and I’d accept him again. And my motherly instincts would vow to help him. Honestly, all I wanted was to figure out how to help him. Was there a medication he needed? A special therapy? Just give me a diagnosis. Would somebody please give me a diagnosis?!!!
Once I impressed upon him that I was about done and he vowed to change, and I believed him, again. He would go into a period of good behavior. I’d start to think everything was okay. I’d regain hope that he might actually change. That he was, in fact, changing. I’d think, just look at how loving he is being now. I’d begin to relax. I’d get comfortable. And then? You guessed it. His behavior would revert back to being mean and degrading. I've come to learn this is a typical and expected cycle for narcissists. It keeps you off balance.
In my marriage, we were on a cycle of about every six months or so. What’s your cycle? If you’ve read this far, it’s possible I’m resonating with you. Think about it.
Here’s what I know now, after so much therapy. He didn’t want help. He was (and still is) an abusive narcissist. I wasn’t actually crazy. He gaslit me. All the time. “Once they cry, I know I’ve won.” He once said, shortly after I had burst into tears after an argument over nothing, like what time to have dinner. “Once they”…. They. Like I was an object. And just one of many objects he’d made cry so he could be on top. That word - They. It hung on me.
--All these things I have to deal with – They cry. I win.
He never hit me. But boy had I been hit.
I am so grateful that I had the strength to leave him. Although, the abuse continued because we share a child. I have loads of abusive text messages from him. But, until recently, I still didn’t realize the lengths to which I’d been emotionally abused. With hindsight comes clarity.
Four years out, I’m still learning and healing. If you think you’re being emotionally abused, look up narcissism (a typical personality type for abusers). Read about abuse.
I’ll post more about this on my blog from time to time. Sharing is caring. The more you know.