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Relationships • Conflicts

On Gaslighting

We’re unlucky enough if we meet with people who want to do us wrong, show us contempt and take advantage of us. But this is as nothing next to the monumental bad luck of encountering people who do all this to us while also being extremely skilled at pretending that they aren’t; those master manipulators who are at once innocent-seeming and, deep down, profoundly scheming. These people won’t only hurt us, they will do something far worse: rob us of our understanding of ourselves, strip us of basic trust and, along the way, for a time, make us lose our minds.

Photo by Renè Müller on Unsplash

However good we might be at fighting overt antagonists, many of us are constitutionally unprepared to detect ones that have entered our intimate lives; we expect and can deal with enemies at the office, but the bedroom feels like a sanctum where our guard is down. Yet this doesn’t mean that some very dark things can’t unfold there. There are people we can take up with who have been so badly hurt by something in their early lives that they are committed to exacting revenge on anyone who comes too close to them: they may semi-consciously be seeking to exorcise on their partners a latent rage against a dead or depressed parent, they may want to punish a bullying sibling or release themselves from a sense of intolerable vulnerability created by an incident of early abuse.

Such dark possibilities are rarely spoken of in useful terms. There are plenty of popular references to ‘psychos’ and ‘lunatics’ but far fewer patient analyses of how exactly other minds can be distorted and how widespread longings for vengeance may be beneath smiles and good manners.

When we meet with difficulties, we have two explanations to fall back on: the first is to doubt ourselves. The second is to wonder whether, and how, the other person might be ill. If we almost always pick the former, it’s because of how familiar and reassuring it is not to take our own sides. It is so much easier for us to think that we are (as they also quickly tell us) irrationally prone to anger, over-excited, ‘insane’ and complaining for no reason — rather than deep in a relationship with a cruel soul.

Those who are most prone to being gaslit in adult love are, sadly of course, the very people who may have been gaslit by their own parents. The idea sounds yet more curious, but parents too can be adept at polishing their reputations and will insist that they are kind — while simultaneously expending enormous hostility on their thoroughly confused child.

Despite decades of training in self-doubt, we may need to do a remarkable thing: trust in what our unhappiness is telling us about those we think of as good. The test isn’t whether they tell us they love us, it’s how at peace they make us feel. We may have to accept that the world is filled with some very dangerous people who look entirely safe to our fatefully untrained eyes. We may need to think a bit less badly of ourselves and substantially worse of some sweet-seeming characters who claim with great sincerity to love us — and don’t.

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