Gaslighting and coercive control
This article is being published anonymously due to sensitive content
‘Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn't realize how much they've been brainwashed.’
The technical term, coercive control (CC), which is now a recognised crime, includes emotional, mental and physical abuse, harassment, financial abuse / extortion, and malicious communications. Gaslighting is also a part of CC (Sanghani, 2018). Aronson Fontes describes CC as a situation in which "one partner is usually socially isolated [and] afraid to anger her partner [because of] the punishment that might ensue" (Tickle, 2017). The illegality of CC is described well in the government guidelines website drawn up by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS, 2017).
This article will describe in detail what happened to me for six years in a relationship with an abusing man, how I could not see it happening, how, in the end, I escaped and how those years of emotional and physical abuse have affected my health and well-being. I hope that by casting a spotlight on this type of abuse, other women may be able to recognise these symptoms in their personal circumstances and also seek help for it. It was the hardest thing I have ever done — and frightening — as, at the point of leaving, the woman is at her most vulnerable.
Aronson Fontes (2015) differentiates between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship in a couple. She writes that, during an argument, both members of a couple might shout, whereas "in coercive control, the controlling behaviours suppress conflict. Other characteristics include deprivation; One … [victims of coercive control are overwhelmingly female] … is deprived of the resources she needs – such as money, friends and transportation – to have autonomy. She loses her own perspective … Over time victims feel like they cannot ‘think straight’. People’s lives are ruined by coercive control … they often lose their jobs, their self-esteem and the freedom to make even the most minute choices in their lives." (Tickle, 2017). It feels like it’s your fault and you blame yourself as they blame you. If only you were … the perpetrators say, and you don’t understand what they are talking about.
Emotional and mental abuse
It began as a whirlwind romance. I felt wonderful. He was love-bombing me. Quite soon he suggested marriage (I was still married). It is said that gaslighters feel excited and rewarded when they meet a new host on which they can feed (Hare, 2019). His behaviour matched this definition, but gradually the relationship changed. He would insult me but try to make out he was joking; did he really want to upset me or was that a mistake? I realised that he did actually want to upset me and never said sorry after he’d hurt me, but insulted me further. I found it was easier to believe him and to agree that everything was my fault rather than to trust my own feelings.
Soon into the new relationship the gaslighter gets bored and starts manipulating to renew the high that he felt. He was a liar; when, after he’d locked me out of my own home, he told me the police were coming for me and he threatened to serve papers on me. These were lies intended to intimidate me. Once, when the police did come to my house, he lied to them repeatedly and referred to my home as "the property" or "the premises" as if it were not mine. And he told them that all his communications with me were always polite, which was another lie. I was persuaded that the relationship was going wrong through my actions. He’d lied from the beginning, confused and criticised me, especially about his ex. As well as trying to convince me that I was mad, he also tried to make me think I was violent, setting up scenarios to try and ‘prove’ it. Once, he lied that he had reported me to the police and I was now on the violent abusers’ database (something which didn’t exist then).
His sexual attitude towards me was enormously and personally upsetting and he insulted me sexually, saying I was diseased, that I was disgusting, ugly, promiscuous, repulsive and evil.
His behaviour became increasingly aggressive, hostile, moody and belligerent. He would slam doors, swear at me, alternately shout and swear at me and then refuse to speak to me. To make sure I didn’t leave him, he sometimes softened. There were times when he convinced me that the relationship was worth fighting for. This was especially confusing and contradictory. Gaslighters are Jekyll and Hyde characters – appearing to be extremely loving one minute and then becoming cruel and unloving the next (Myles, 2016). An abuser manipulates their partner into returning time and time again until it becomes a habit. Being drawn back into a honeymoon phase is a large part of the abusive relationship. Evans (2018) writes about how the abused go through periods of peak happiness and then grief during times when the gaslighter is at first loving and then changes into a Mr Hyde, showing contempt, then back again with fake affection.
It is commonly known that victims cannot relate their experience to others and believe that no one else will understand them (Myles, 2016). While with him, I lost the ability to think and make decisions clearly. I often felt I didn't know what was true and what was not. There were many incidents when I felt scared, vulnerable, intimidated and extremely distressed but, as time went on, these feelings became normalised and his version of events would include blaming, minimising or denying them, or behaving as if nothing had just happened. These types of event would happen in front of others as well as in private. I felt extremely upset when I realised how my inner voice, perception and intuition had become suffocated and drowned. By the end, I felt that my soul had actually been destroyed.
After pointing out to him something that he said wasn’t true, he went into a rage. I tried to protect myself from having a door slammed into my face. He trapped my arm in the door and repeatedly slammed the door on it. I didn’t report the assault to the police until over a year later because I was in shock and scared. I had photographic evidence and texts where he talked about the attack. He started to try and convince me that I had invented it. Overall, I felt hugely intimidated and threatened by his behaviour, especially as I was fearful that he might again be violent.
Brook, the young person's sexual health and wellbeing charity, gives a long list of signs of abuse in the How do I know if I’m being abused section of their website. The first clue is if you feel scared. With my gaslighter, I felt scared and also fragmented, undermined by being constantly told that my feelings and instincts and perceptions were wrong. He was deliberately contradictory and would say confusing things like "don't believe anything I say", but then become angry if he thought that I didn't believe his lies. Other times he would say he was "just bullshitting" me, or that it was "only hyperbole". You "take everything too literally" and many times he said, "Just because I don't believe you, doesn't mean I think you're lying…". He never took responsibility for his behaviour and blamed me for it. This had the effect of even further undermining the truth and reality of the situation.
Sanderson (2017) suggests that there is a feeling of attachment to the abuser and there is a dual liability for the abuse. She adds that abused people are unable to seek comfort from another attachment figure, and seek it instead from the abuser. This was true for me. I kept hoping that things would change and turn out all right in the end. I didn’t understand then that the result of the gaslighting was the loss of my emotional strength and sense of self, and that my sense of reality had come to depend on his sense of reality. I realise now that I had adapted to the abusive relationship. I became numb and dumbed down any normal reaction in order to avoid provoking him, to try and keep myself safe. As I was constantly blamed for his anger, I felt it was my responsibility to make the relationship better. My reaction was to freeze or appease (Shelzter, 2015).
I felt ashamed for a long time, was often tearful without understanding why and constantly felt as though I was walking on eggshells. By contrast he would feel better for dumping onto me his anger and unbearable feelings. He would then become angry and blame me for feeling awful, tell me I should "buck up" or "stop sulking" or "be more robust", when I was actually in a stunned stupor after a tirade of abuse and too frightened to say anything. Myles (2016) calls this the denial of one’s grief.
By the end of the relationship I felt as though everything I knew about myself had been scooped out and that he had projected all that he felt or knew that was unbearable about himself onto and into me. As a result, I was left with extremely low self-esteem, doubting myself, distrusting myself and having a feeling of not even being a real person. I became my own gaslighter.
All the while he made himself out to be the victim. I understand now that these were projections of his own unbearable, unconscious feelings of self-hatred on to me. It was projective identification (Hinshelwood, 2006).
The main characteristic of the gaslighting, which I now understand is very common, was in trying to convince me that I was mad (Mohan, 2018). He would regularly say I was mad and also say that other people – friends of ours or even my ex-husband – had also said this. Many times, he told me and our mutual friends, verbally, by text and email that I was violent. To scare me, to make himself seem big and to make me feel alone, he said that he had "told" on me; that he had denigrated me to my ex-husband, his therapist, mutual friends, his solicitor, the courts and the police, adding that the police were against me too and that they were coming to get me. His intention was to bully me with his big gang of important people who, in his mind, were his allies. His smear campaign left me deeply scarred and I felt (and still do) that he would kill me. The verbal attacks gave me a physical feeling so strong as to feel life threatening.
Several times he threatened that he was going to have legal documents and papers served on me. He took my address book and locked it away in his office, making me anxious that he may contact my clients, friends and family with his false allegations. And he stole one of my own paintings (which he later had to admit and had to pay for through a small claims court).
Under duress, I signed a Deed of Trust which entitled him to 20% of the value of my home. This type of abuse is listed under point 3.2 Relevant Behaviours in the CPS document on CC (CPS, 2017) and is categorised as Financial Abuse. This was when he attacked me and the photographic evidence was categorised by the police as ABH.
The effects on my mental health
I want to show how the CC kept me in this toxic relationship and what has happened to me since our breakup and into the present time.
A few days after the relationship ended, I found out about gaslighting from reading an article featuring a storyline in the BBC radio soap opera, The Archers (Sanghani, 2018). I was utterly and completely shocked to read about a profoundly disturbing manipulation technique that I immediately recognised as one I had been experiencing for six years: I’d been gaslighted. It felt as if I had just found out that somebody had been drugging me for six years; gaslighting has the same effect. I had felt disconnected from my own reality on so many occasions as a result of gaslighting. This phenomenon, I read, commonly occurs in cults for brainwashing, and is also used in torture, for forcing false confessions. I felt utterly devastated. I realised that my constant confusion, bafflement and bewilderment all stemmed from having my reality overwritten by his lies which he presented as reality, and the only truth.
The six years I spent in this relationship left me with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, sometimes labelled c-PTSD (Mind, 2017), from repeated traumatising episodes and bullying. I was gripped by uncontrollable tears. Sometimes I could not stop crying. I have bad dreams. I still have a recurring nightmare that I escaped from him and, when I wake up, I am confused as to what is real – had I really escaped or was I still asleep and in the relationship with him?
During the relationship, I developed a stammer and was alarmed to find that I was talking to myself. Today, although I feel somewhat safer than I was, I still ‘jump’ in fright at a loud noise or disturbance, or even something benign, like a friend coming up behind me. It’s as if my body and my unconscious has perceived something my conscious world has not. I find it hard to concentrate or enjoy fully the things I used to. I often feel hyper-aroused and hypervigilant. My breathing becomes fast and shallow, and my heart sometimes pounds when I think of my past life with him. I have constant intrusive flashbacks of traumatic episodes from our time together.
I received crisis counselling from a women’s aid centre for two years. My daughter attended counselling at school to help her manage this awful situation and my son had to find ways of coping during his A-level period.
During counselling, the therapist needs to psycho-educate the individual in an understanding of a narcissistic personality disorder, something misunderstood or denied by the gaslighted person. Instead, she is fearful of upsetting the gaslighter, tells herself there is conflict because he loves her. She defends him against friends who try to rescue her and gives her power away to the gaslighter (Louis de Canonville, 2018).
I found from the Rights of Women (2014) that when you report CC to the police, the only evidence you need is your report. In my case I had to educate the police about this law as the legislation was new and they did not know.
My abuser did not get my home. I managed, with the help of a counsellor, an expert in domestic abuse and gaslighting, to extract myself and my children safely from this toxic relationship. Working with this counsellor, I was taught the value of a healthy relationship, one which was just not possible with this very damaging and sick man.
In some sessions we worked in a group. This lasted ten weeks and each week addressed an aspect of CC and was designed to give you the tools to leave this toxicity if you could and if you chose to. The course included sessions which specifically focussed on how to spot the dynamic your gaslighter uses and how to resist it. For example, there were days learning about resistance and building resilience; learning about how healthy relationships exclude damaging power-and-control behaviours; observing women’s responses to domestic abuse; learning coping strategies; developing boundaries and personal needs; and using recovery strategies and post-traumatic growth.
Immediately after we broke up, my abuser started a new relationship and was married within five months. With the help and support of my counselling, friends, family, the police, solicitors, the courts and the internet, I am happy to say that I finally escaped for good. I was granted a year’s restraining order which allowed me time to slowly recover, but I am still suffering some of the effects from complex PTSD (Mind, 2017).
For anyone who needs help
- Women’s Aid UK: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/ Freephone: 0808 200 0247
- Jewish Women’s Aid (UK): http://www.jwa.org.uk/ Freephone: 0808 801 0500
- Women in Distress (US): https://www.womenindistress.org/we-can-help/counseling-services/
- Men’s Advice Line (UK): http://www.mensadviceline.org.uk Freephone: 0808 801 0327
- ManKind Initiative (UK): https://www.mankind.org.uk Tel: 01823 334 244
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