· You and your loved ones live by different rules depending on whether or not he or she is present. You feel freer to be yourselves, and generally have a more optimistic view of life when they’re not present.
· You work hard to manage life within a rigid standard of living (food budget, family rules, limited personal time, etc.), yet they have an expensive hobby or personal indulgence that consistently dwarfs your efforts.
· You have shaped your life to become their ultimate helper and supporter, while your deepest hope is that someday your partner will finally appreciate it, and then do the same for you and your loved ones.
· They occasionally stun you with an out of character selfless deed, or express a burst of good nature or humor that makes you somehow forget all wounds they’ve inflicted.
· You have a bond with your children that your partner doesn’t share, because that bond is the mutual life experience of living in conflict with your partner.
· Your identity has become enmeshed with your usefulness to your partner, to the point that you don’t remember what life was like without them and trying to imagine your individual identity feels like something you shouldn’t be doing.
· As the keeper of secrets, you are well acquainted with the multiple personas your partner employs depending on the environment they’re in.
· You consistently feel devalued, that your accomplishments, achievements, and contributions are never enough to balance the scales of your partner’s expectations and self-assessment.
· You hang onto the hope that someday they’ll finally give in to you, give up the act and admit they’re wrong, and that they’ve hurt you.
· Your emotional radar is always tuned to how they feel and behave, and when they become upset, you adjust your own responses rather than expect them to.
· During conflict you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and overpowered by your partner, yet they seem so sure of themselves that it makes you wonder if you might going crazy.
Narcissists have a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack empathy. They are master manipulators, and one of their primary methods is Gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which the offender essentially steamrolls over the legitimate observations and concerns of the offended by assaulting their perception of reality. Tactics of manipulation include: bold, unabashed denials of culpability; flamboyant claims of personal righteousness; steadfast lying and evasion of responsibility; and a determined certainty that they are in fact, the victim. Like a wounded dog, they go on the attack. Their only way out from under the weight of guilt is to reject looking inward and plow right through their victims with deflection, projection, and mythical accusations meant to confuse and bewilder their accuser.
The term originates from a film called Gaslight in 1944 (See the trailer here.), about an international criminal driving his wife mad by isolating her to the home, manipulating her physical environment and limiting her contact with friends and loved ones. “Ingrid Bergman stars as a meek, uncertain heiress courted and married in a whirlwind romance by the debonair Charles Boyer, but when they move back into her childhood home she begins losing her grip on reality and becomes convinced that her husband is trying to drive her insane” (Amazon review)
Here’s an example of the impact of Gaslighting in an emotionally abusive relationship. A woman is married to a man who has been emotionally and sometimes physically abusive to her for 20 years. He’s highly intelligent and manipulative, with a keen ability to push the right buttons in others in order to get what he wants. Over the years she’s tried her best keep him happy, attending to his needs, modifying her expectations, praying to God for change, etc. But gradually, she’s lost her identity. By staying in the relationship, she’s become deeply frustrated, conflicted and unfulfilled. One day, her husband says something particularly offensive and belittling to her. She gets upset and confronts him. He then steps toward her and, in a mocking tone, mimics the hand gesture of a TV evangelist casting out a demon from her mind while yelling, “I think you’ve got an evil spirit in you. Come out! Come out!” That’s Gaslighting. Think of what the woman felt in that moment. She’s stunned, horrified, enraged, and isolated. No two ways about it, she knows one of them is nuts. To the outside observer, that one is obvious. But the person who’s been subject to years of this kind of systematic mental torment has had their perceptions twisted and distorted. He projects a strong sense of his own “rightness,” with a force that overpowers her self-image. Rational people actually have an awareness of the possibility that they could be wrong. Sociopaths do not. And so, she retreats into bewilderment. She’s stunned silent. He walks away feeling like the victor.
Gaslighting is a long term, systematic process of destabilization. It’s a long con, where the perpetrator progressively builds more aggressive attacks into the system, on top of previous incidents of dominating their partner. The abuser knows how to restrain themselves from being overly aggressive too early in the relationship. And when they’ve “gone too far,” they can usually make grand gestures that give the illusion of making amends, regaining their partner’s trust. In the case above, had the incident happened while they were still dating, the woman likely would have had a much clearer understanding of who she is and how she deserves to be treated. But now she’s 20 years down the slippery slope of emotional abuse. She may have access to tools necessary for addressing her problems, but she doesn’t trust herself anymore to use them.
Fighting to preserve your true self from being warped into a mold crafted by your emotional abuser’s ideal is exhausting. Living with a narcissist means constantly being in a psychological war with a ruthless, relentless emotional parasite. A narcissist assesses your value only in relation to what you do to make them feel better. It’s your job to make them happy, and it’s your fault when they are not.
Being isolated from friends and loved ones is one of the most powerful contributing factors to the exhaustion, confusion, and self-doubt that people in emotionally abusive relationships suffer from, because they are cut off from opportunities to reality-test their experience. They are likely haunted by a sinking feeling that what they experience is not normal, but they rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to speak freely with friends and loved ones who could validate their concerns by contrasting it with their own more positive experiences in healthy relationships.
Participating in therapy can be an ideal opportunity to process your life experience without the concern of “getting caught” talking about it with your friends or relatives. In a confidential setting, a professional counselor can listen to your story, validate your experience, and help you rediscover your true self, apart from the person you’ve become while under the influence of your narcissistic partner. The purpose of the therapeutic process is to help you discover what is “normal” in healthy, loving relationships, and to help you identify and rebuild boundaries that protect your emotional well-being from being assaulted or manipulated. Discovering your true self can be a frightening process, because it involves looking within, asking tough questions, and making firm commitments to change our thoughts, beliefs, and behavior. This is not about accepting what is or isn’t “our fault” in the relationship. Therapy is about recognizing how our emotions have led us to trade away our ideal self in exchange for self-defeating scenarios where we’ve turned over our autonomy to someone else. Encouraging individuals to regain their autonomy is usually not about encouraging people to sever relationships with narcissists- though they will likely perceive it that way. In fact, if the prospect of finding your autonomy scares you because of how your partner will react, that’s a pretty clear sign you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship. Healthy relationships are built on autonomous individuals making a choice to share themselves with another, in an equal exchange of commitment and emotional investment.
If you or someone you love is in an emotionally abusive relationship, please consider reaching out and talking with someone about it. There are safe people who can help you develop a clearer picture of what is “normal,” how you should expect to be treated, and how to find more fulfilment in life. Professional therapy offers you a safe environment where your confidentiality is guaranteed (*Mandated Reporter exceptions apply).
Jason D’Amour, MA
Lighthouse Counseling, Ltd.
Waconia & Hutchinson locations
More information on narcissism and Gaslighting can be found here: