“I think I do it to distract myself.”
I was telling a friend about my newly acquired habit of picking the split ends from my waist-length hair.
“Anger.” I thought about it. “I’m angry all the time.”
My eyes darted around the room. I was scared to admit it. “My boyfriend.”
I was so petty. The words came flooding back from my subconscious. How could I be so petty as to resent someone who never yelled at me or physically hurt me, who I loved and wanted more than anything to get along with?
But all the fights that seemed resolved every time he dropped me off at my apartment kept creeping back. Once I’d realize they weren’t resolved, I’d put on Friends reruns and pick at my hair to forget them, the red tips gathering on my white sheets.
It didn’t matter anyway. I was just overreacting. He was so loving and kind in so many ways. I couldn’t just let things go, could I?
I couldn’t. The memories would resurface days and weeks later.
There was the time I refused to lend him money because he hadn’t paid me back last time, and he sarcastically responded that if I want to treat our relationship like a set of transactions, then we’d might as well put everything on a spreadsheet and never get each other gifts.
Selfish. Greedy. Viewing relationships like transactions. That was me. So petty. Such an underserving girlfriend.
The truncated hairs fell one by one, severing the half of me still angry he never paid me back.
“Name one other time I’ve been unreliable,” he asked in order to make me justify my decision.
“You never read my thesis.” He’d said he would “later tonight” one day in January; it was March.
“Of course I’m going to read it. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. It hurts that you don’t believe in me.”
I was hurting him. I didn’t believe in my own boyfriend.
Never mind the money. Never mind the thesis. What was wrong with me?
This was the guy who had surprised me by arriving at my apartment with newly bought ingredients and cooking me dinner. Who had patiently reassured me about all my body image concerns even though I must have sounded ridiculous.
But I was so mad.
Mad he wouldn’t pay me back the money he owed. Mad he didn’t keep his promises. Mad he turned this all around on me. Mad at him for making me mad at myself, and mad at myself for being mad at him.
I picked one hair after another, lost in the hypnotizing strands.
My brain was as split as the tips of my hair. I couldn’t tell which half of me was right.
While caught in this cacophony of conflicting thoughts, I went to a book fair with my boyfriend and a title caught my eye: The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. This should be interesting, I thought. I’m interested in psychology. I stuffed it into my paper bag, all-you-can-fit for five dollars.
It was only during that fleeting moment between our kiss goodbye and my Friends reruns that I admitted to myself why I had really bought that book.
The next day, I opened it instead of my computer. As I half expected, I saw myself – both selves – scattered across the pages.
And in the midst of those pages, I learned that gaslighting – my partner’s technique of making me doubt my thoughts, feelings, and perceptions – was an abusive manipulation tactic. For the first time, I saw why his behavior stressed me out. And it wasn’t because I was a bad partner.
If you can identify any of these six patterns in your own relationship, you may not be a bad partner either. You may simply have been manipulated into believing you are one. If you find yourself in that position, I hope this list helps you the way The Verbally Abusive Relationship helped me: by providing an explanation for your distress other than your own inadequacy.
1. Conflicts Never Feel Resolved
If conflicts from days, weeks, or months ago still bother you even though you’ve discussed them with your partner, it’s possible they manipulated you into believing the discussion was over before it was.
My partner accomplished this manipulation by deflecting blame onto me.
Even if the action under discussion was his, I was just looking at it from the wrong angle. He’d tell me what the right angle was, and I’d feel guilty for not seeing things that way in the first place.
When our arguments were “resolved,” the resolution was usually that I had to work on myself because I was overreacting or my expectations were unreasonable.
Making someone feel oversensitive and unreasonable is gaslighting.
For example, one night, I was painting an instrument he’d built. After he told me what to paint and hovered over me complaining that I was doing it all wrong, I got mad and left the room. When he asked what was wrong, I yelled out of frustration, “You’re so clueless!” (Admittedly, I could have handled this better as well.)
He then gave me a talk about how I needed to stop calling him names like “clueless” to back him into a corner with no choice but apologizing. I panicked. Could I be the manipulative one? Would he break up with me?
I went to the bathroom, and when I got out, I was relieved to find him standing there holding his cat. We stood together and pet her like nothing had ever happened. Forget about my anger toward him. I was just relieved he wasn’t mad at me – so I dropped it.
Our fights went on like this for months, with me getting hurt and then repressing that hurt so he didn’t get mad at me.
As they started getting worse, a friend encouraged me to end the relationship. “But you fight with your boyfriend,” I pointed out.
“Our arguments end, though,” she said.
Finally, I saw why I could never get our arguments out of my mind: None of my concerns were ever addressed. They were simply deflected onto me.
I had stopped taking issue with his actions because I wasn’t allowed to, not because I felt better.
In a healthy relationship, your partner hears you out if you’re upset, and their goal is to avoid upsetting you in the future, not to debate whether you should have been upset in the first place.
2. When Your Partner Hurts You, You End Up Apologizing
Repeatedly gaslighted into believing my feelings were wrong, I grew remorseful for feeling them. Conversations would start with me believing he’d hurt me and end with me apologizing for getting hurt.
He’d convince me I was not only too hard on him, but also myopic. “Life is too short to get mad,” he’d say. “Can’t we just enjoy this nice day together?”
I’d tear up and think about how much I loved him and hated to taint our precious time together and thank him for reminding me what’s important in life and hug him and apologize for being so petty.
I’d go home on a high, feeling like I’d had a revelation about picking my battles, though the high would fade once I realized the conflict wasn’t resolved.
My concerns became results of my own pettiness. They didn’t matter – I was oversensitive, after all. I couldn’t be trusted.
Feeling like your feelings can’t be trusted to the point that you apologize for them is also a sign you’re being gaslighted.
3. You Don’t Feel You Deserve Your Partner
If someone makes you feel like the source of every conflict and convinces you that you’re shortsighted for getting upset, as my partner did by telling me it was unproductive to get angry and that it was my choice to be hurt by him, you may begin to feel like you don’t deserve them.