Long Reads

What does gaslighting mean? This is the danger of emotional abuse

A victim of gaslighting explains why the warning signs of emotional abuse are so easy to miss, and offers her advice for anyone experiencing gaslighting in a relationship.

Along with most people watching Love Island, I don’t like Adam. 

He’s toxic, conceited and has dangerous levels of self-esteem. His complete lack of empathy and recognition to how he treats the women around him has all the hallmarks of an abusive partner. How do I know? Because I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for five years.

Last week, Women’s Aid chief executive Katie Ghose released a statement addressing his behaviour. It read: “On the latest series of Love Island, there are clear warning signs in Adam’s behaviour.

“In a relationship, a partner questioning your memory of events, trivialising your thoughts or feelings, and turning things around to blame you can be part of pattern of gaslighting and emotional abuse.” 

My own experiences of gaslighting and emotional abuse began when I met James* one drunken Thursday night. He worked with a friend of mine and there was an instant attraction. We clicked. I wasn’t long out of a relationship and he was a breath of fresh air. It was a relief to socialise with new people away from the friendship circle my previous boyfriend and I were both in. I was keen to breakout and be independent.

The relationship progressed quickly and within three months I’d moved into his house, 30 miles away from my friends and family. Things started out well. He made me laugh, we had lots in common and I fell for him hard. His family welcomed me and it wasn’t long before I started to think he was the one.

Don’t get me wrong, the relationship wasn’t perfect and there were plenty of instances that I didn’t like, but I chose to overlook them. I was in love. 

couple holding hands
What does gaslighting mean? “There were plenty of instances that I didn’t like, but I chose to overlook them. I was in love”

We’d been living together for about four months when James screamed in my face for the first time. We’d been talking about moving to an area closer to his work, which had always been our plan, but suddenly he was saying that I was trying to take him away from his family. Rather than discussing it rationally, he blew up in my face. I can’t remember how or why it boiled over so quickly, but it ended up with me sleeping on the sofa. I cried myself to sleep, shocked and bewildered at how plans we’d both been so excited about had changed so much. I wondered if I’d made a massive mistake moving in with him but the next morning he apologised and explained that he simply felt I had been rushing him.

Looking back there were lots of instances like that. Once on the train to work he made me cry so much that a woman stopped and asked if I was alright.

Despite this, I never really told my parents or friends how much we argued. I reasoned with myself that we were simply passionate and fiery. My previous relationship had been one built on friendship and we’d never rowed. But that was one of the reasons we’d split; over the years we’d become best friends.

It wasn’t until about a year into the relationship that one of my friends saw James’s temper first-hand and called me out on it. We’d been out drinking in a group and my best friend and I had gone back to the flat that James and I shared. About half an hour after we’d gotten home James came back, angry that we’d left without him. He had always resented our close friendship and continuously accused me of choosing her over him. That night was no different. Almost as soon as he came home he gave me the silent treatment before suddenly launching an attack on the kitchen bin. Looking at my friend’s shocked face, it dawned on me that maybe his behaviour wasn’t acceptable. But I reasoned with her that I shouldn’t have gone home without him; it wasn’t fair. I felt guilty for upsetting him.  

There were countless other occasions over the next four years when I should have broken up with him, but that’s the thing with coercive control: I didn’t feel able to leave. We were financially entwined and, as I didn’t earn as much as him, I felt dependent on him. James often held this over me. We both worked full time but because he paid more towards the bills, he expected me to do more around the house and always have dinner ready on the table for him. He also expected to have a say over when I could go out or what I spent my money on. When I got my nose pierced he didn’t speak to me for days because I hadn’t consulted him first.

Of course, there were other things that should have had me running for the hills. One Sunday he fell asleep at the wheel, crashed the car and screamed at me that it was my fault. I remember him yelling, “you knew I was tired, you knew I was tired!” I apologised profusely, frantically reasoning that I should have offered to drive home because yes, I had known he was tired. He wouldn’t let me tell anyone what had happened and when people asked, we said someone had driven into the side of us. 

Or there was the time I bought home the ‘wrong’ bacon and bread rolls and he threw them at my head while accusing me of doing it on purpose to upset him. I didn’t leave. I loved him. Even when I became a shell of my former self or my mum was so worried about me that we had a safe word in case she needed to come and get me, still I didn’t leave.

What does gaslighting mean?
What does gaslighting mean? “My mum was so worried about me that we had a safe word in case she needed to come and get me”

Now, when I tell people about it, they’re shocked – “but you’re so confident. How could you have let that happen?” they ask. But I didn’t let anything happen. It wasn’t my fault. It was his. I didn’t realise it was abuse. I simply rationalised that every relationship had problems and these were ours.

When it comes to domestic abuse I think a lot of people struggle to get their heads around why the victim doesn’t leave straight away. It always seems like the most logical decision to make. But what others who have never experienced it fail to understand, is that most of the time you don’t even realise it’s abuse. That’s one of the things that makes gaslighting so dangerous, because you don’t know that it’s happening. It’s manipulation, coercion and it makes you doubt yourself and mistrust those closest to you.

And remember that the abuser is the person you trust the most. They’re the person you share a bed with, and a life with, and have plans for the future with. Negative comments chip away at you and if they’re coming from your partner, who you love and trust, why wouldn’t you believe them? I did and I stayed.

But when we did break up, my life changed. The realisation that things couldn’t continue finally happened when I was heading to London for a friend’s hen do. After quite a lot of prosecco I blurted out some of the things he’d done to my best friend. The look on her face as I told her was like a cold hard slap to mine. His behaviour and my ignorance to it caused a massive wedge between me and some of my friends. They couldn’t understand how I could let myself put up with it.

But that’s one of the things about coercive abuse and control. You don’t even realise it’s happening. Your confidence is chipped away so slowly. You stop seeing your friends or wearing your hair a certain way and you don’t even realise you’re doing it. It becomes a way of life, something that is so familiar it’s second nature. You don’t even notice the change in yourself. When your partner tells you that you’ve let yourself go, or that your job is rubbish, or that you’d never be able to cope without them, you believe it. 

What does gaslighting mean?
What does gaslighting mean? “Your abuser is the person you share a bed with, and a life with, and have plans for the future with”

I still remember the moment when my best friend text me and said she wanted me to leave him, and that I could come and live with her. James and I were on a dog walk at the time. Nothing was out of the ordinary and although we’d had a row the evening before because I’d met my friends for lunch and had a glass of wine, everything was fine.

Reading the message to myself while sat next to him, it was all I could do not to scoop up our dog and run. I can’t even begin to explain the relief I felt. That was on the Sunday and the following Wednesday after work I ended our relationship. I packed a bag of clothes in the morning after he’d left. My parents’ were looking after our dog that day so we had to go to theirs to collect him. James and I arranged to meet at their house and the plan was that we would all drive home together. Only I’d already decided to end it.

He came in and I remember moving out of the way when he bent down to kiss me. After making the decision to end the relationship it was like I suddenly couldn’t stand to be near him for a moment longer. The rose-tinted glasses had been well and truly lifted and I saw him for what he really was. When I told him I didn’t want to be with him anymore he didn’t shout. I told him I didn’t love him anymore and he didn’t say much. I think he knew there wasn’t any point. Despite everything that happened it wasn’t long before the guilt set in. Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong I still felt awful for leaving, for changing our lives so completely. 

There were a lot of tears but the resounding feeling was one of relief. A few months later he did jury service on a domestic violence case. He actually messaged me afterwards to say that after reviewing the evidence, he had realised a lot of the things he’d done to me were abusive and that he was sorry. I resisted the urge to say “no s**t” and have tried to keep contact to as little as possible. We’re not friends and I have no desire to have him in my life in any way. He told me he was going to get help to change, but I honestly don’t know if he has.

The last two years have been strange but I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I have an amazing network of friends and family that have supported me and helped put me back together into the strong, gobby woman I am today.

Now, I’m in a far better place than I’ve ever been. I’ve repaired the friendships that were damaged, I’m happy and I’m doing a job I love. Having struggled with depression for most of my adult life, even before James, I’m slowly lowering the amount of antidepressants I’m taking and I’m figuring out what it is that I actually want in a relationship. It’s been hard not to hate all men or tarnish them all with the same brush. And I’ve definitely projected a lot of residual feelings from that relationship onto new ones. No one is perfect and I’m still working through stuff. 

What does gaslighting mean?
What does gaslighting mean? “I consider myself one of the lucky ones”

Coercive abuse and gaslighting are subtle. Most of the time you don’t even realise it’s happening. Sometimes I see my friends’ faces when their partner says something to them. I recognise it and I wonder if they’re being completely honest with me when I ask if they’re OK.

If you’re worried that you might be the victim of emotional abuse, it’s quite likely that you are. Speak to your friends, family or colleagues, or call one of the helplines below if you don’t want anyone to know just yet. It’s so hard to see the wood from the trees with abuse when you live with it everyday. It becomes the norm and you don’t even realise.

Hopefully some good will come out of Adam’s behaviour. Love Island critics can look down on the show as being shallow or for the uneducated, but by calling out his behaviour, we might just be able to help others escape. And that’s definitely something to crack on with.

Refuge (Domestic violence help for women and children): 0808 2000 247

National Domestic Violence Helpline (Domestic violence help for women and children): 0808 2000 247

Broken Rainbow (The LGBT domestic violence charity): 0845 2605 560

Men’s Advice Line (Expert advice for men experiencing domestic abuse ): 0808 801 0327

Images: Getty, Unsplash, Jenna Jacobs, Tony Lam Hoang, Quin Stevenson, Krists Luhaers