Gaslighting: The 'perfect' romance that became a nightmare
Nicole spent years living with a charming man, but she always seemed to be doing something wrong. Eventually she began to realise that it wasn't her that was the problem, it was him - and when she met one of his previous girlfriends, Elizabeth, everything made sense. Here Nicole tells her story, followed by Elizabeth.
Other people seem to manage it, sharing a life with someone, content and peaceful in each other's company. But the thought of a relationship still terrifies me. Many years on, I still well up with panic at the mention of my ex's name - that charming man who I feared and adored in equal measure.
A charming, beautiful, successful man had made me his. He was everything I could ever dream of. He was a high-flyer, his charisma was magnetic and I was entranced. When I was with the charming man doors opened for us and the best tables suddenly became available. We travelled the world for his work, staying at the best hotels and eating at the finest restaurants. He seemed to be able to charm his way through life in any language.
But I failed him.
I ruined everything: dinners, conversations, evenings out, holidays - by mentioning an ex's name, getting my purse out in front of his friends or wanting to carry my own passport and money when we were overseas.
He could be furious for days. My inappropriate behaviour had shown him up, he didn't know if he could continue being with someone like me, he could do so much better.
I also ruined birthdays and Christmases, simply by being "too stupid and cruel" to understand what was best for him.
He wanted me to buy him expensive presents: "It's just £4,000, use your savings," he would say.
"But those are life savings," I replied. "I can't touch them, it's impossible. I want to make you happy but I can't afford that."
The charming man cried - I had let him down and nothing I did could make up for it.
He didn't sleep much, so neither did I. I was not allowed to "ruin his night" by going to sleep before him. If I did, he woke me in the early hours, wanting to talk about our relationship and what I was doing wrong. I was exhausted. I felt like I was going through life in a blur, catching sleep whenever and wherever I could. The disabled loo at work became a refuge for a lunchtime nap.
Why didn't I leave sooner? Well, he was charming and my family loved him. And I was at an age where life was a blur of engagements and weddings. Well-meaning relatives would tell me that I was next. The tick-tocking sound of my biological clock got louder as the weddings made way for christenings.
Besides, I adored him and this incredible man had chosen me. He was troubled and I had to help him. I knew I hurt him so I wanted to make it better.
If I went out with my friends he would lock himself in his study. His cries would echo as he curled up under his huge leather-topped desk, so I hardly ever went out without him.
He told me I was easily replaceable and showed me pictures and letters from the other women who wanted him, so I would cry and try to be a better girlfriend.
Whenever it got too much and I did try to leave, he would curl up in the foetal position in front of the door crying and screaming at me not to leave him - so I didn't. I would sit on the floor and hold him, promising that I would work harder to make it better.
It was exhausting, but relationships are hard work and no-one is perfect.
Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship
In 2015 the Serious Crime Act - England and Wales - was changed to recognise controlling or coercive behaviour in a relationship
Controlling behaviour: A range of acts making a person subordinate and/or dependent on their abuser. These include isolating them from sources of support, depriving them of means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
Coercive behaviour: A pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
"You will never do better than him, he's perfect, don't you want children?" people would say.
It got to the point, though, when I knew I couldn't stay.
It felt as if my body and brain were breaking down with the sheer exhaustion of having to manage life with this man. I put on weight, but I couldn't exercise because he didn't like me to be away from him. Food became my biggest comfort.
I dreaded the thought of leaving, but was terrified at the thought of spending the rest of my life with him.
Eventually an opportunity to escape arrived, and I was able to pack up my possessions without him suspecting my real reasons. With support from my sister, I was able to drive away, and collapse in an exhausted heap on her kitchen floor.
It took therapy for me to understand that it wasn't normal for your partner to take the bathroom door off the hinges because you had "left him" to go to the loo or have a bath.
I used to treasure my moments of solitude sitting in the bathroom with a book. When I was with him I would clock-watch, thinking about when I could next escape for a few minutes of peace behind that locked door. He soon got wise to this and my heart would sink every time I heard the screwdriver in the hinges, with him crying that he just wanted to be with me.
When I first said these things out loud I could begin to recognise that it was madness but at the time it was just my reality.
Therapy opened up a whole new world of understanding and terminology: words like "narcissist" and "gaslighting" were new to me. I had no idea abuse could look like this.
It was through therapy that I understood that I had been "gaslighted" and that my perception of the world had shifted during those years of trying to do the impossible - to satisfy a narcissist.
I finally realised that I wasn't the cause of our problems: I had been set up to fail.
But there was still more to learn.
It was my therapist who suggested I contacted the charming man's ex.
"Really?" I said. "But she was crazy, she attacked him."
The therapist just nodded sagely and reminded me of all the other ways in which he had twisted reality. He was always the victim - nothing was ever his fault in the alternative reality he had created.
What is gaslighting?
- Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and abuse that makes people question their own memory, perception, and sanity
- The term comes from a 1938 stage play Gas Light in which a husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane - when he dims the gas lights, he insists she's imagining it
- There are three stages to gaslighting in a relationship: idealisation, devaluation and discard
- In the idealisation stage the victim is whisked off their feet as the gaslighter projects an image of themselves as the perfect mate
- The devaluation stage hits hard: the victim goes from being adored to being incapable of doing anything right, but having tasted the ideal they are desperate to put things right
- Then comes the discard stage where the victim is dropped, ready for the next one - this often happens simultaneously with the idealisation, or grooming, of the next victim
I tracked down his ex. Now living overseas, she sent an instant reply to my nervous message. It said:
"Yes, I want to talk to you, I have been waiting for you to get in touch."
The moment that the phone connected, I felt a surge of relief: here was someone who understood. We spoke for four hours, finishing each other's sentences. She had spoken to other women who had come before me - the charming man had never been single for long. Hearing about their tales of depression and suicide attempts was chilling. This charming man was systematically destroying lives.
Yet on that summer day there was hope: in the background I could hear her husband mowing the lawn and children playing in the garden. That snapshot of a shared life, of a family life that had once seemed so terrifying, suddenly seemed within reach.
I hear the charming man has a new girlfriend. I want to tell her to: "Run! It's not you, it's him, the law has changed, what he is doing to you is illegal, you can stop him."
But I know that for now I am just another crazy ex. She needs to approach me in her own time. For now all I can do is to live life to the full, to provide that little slice of hope on the day she finds me.
Years earlier, Elizabeth had fallen for the charismatic man. This is her story.
I was young, educated, and independent, in my first serious job. I was living in the big city, eager for love and to be loved. I was willingly swept off my feet by this handsome man, and did I mention charming? Very. Love notes and sexy weekends away - I thought I had it all, the perfect romance.
Then there was that ball. The invitation was firmly in the diary, a date not to be missed. I had ordered a new dress, booked a hair appointment. My friends were excited for me - this Cinderella really would go to the ball. Except that the date of the event suddenly changed. "It's this weekend?" It clashed with a long-planned trip home to see my family.
"What a shame," he said. "You must have got the dates mixed up - you don't mind if I take another female friend do you? Just an old colleague I had a fling with once. I wouldn't want the embarrassment of turning up without a date - after all it was your fault this mix-up happened."
The humiliation, the lies. "That's strange," my girlfriends said. "Are you cross with him?"
Defending him. I blamed myself. After all, how stupid must I be to have confused those dates?
The bouquets, the lavish gifts, the shopping trips to find "suitable professional wife clothes" - we weren't engaged, it was just an idea he dangled over me, like a prize.
The dinner dates to fancy restaurants booked on the same night I went to exercise classes with the girls. I tried to accommodate both: "Could we make it 8pm please? So I have time to shower after the class?"
"Oh sorry, another time perhaps," he said. "I suppose it's not that important to spend time with me."
"I guess it's only one class," I thought. I didn't go to the gym again for three years. Funny how things creep up on you.
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Three years into our relationship I was sitting in a sexually transmitted infections clinic, alone and ashamed - I had an STI. "How many sexual partners have you had in the past three years?" the nurse asked. "One," I replied. How could this have happened? There must be some mistake.
My mother said: "Has he hit you?"
"No," I said, tears rolling down my face.
"Well darling, he has a good job, you need to sort this out - you won't find any better you know!"
I couldn't go back to my rented home because he'd seduced my housemate. She told me what had happened and told me to leave him, but how could I trust her? She probably just wanted what I had - after all, wasn't it perfect?
I went on "sick" leave from work. "Taking some time out," the GP called it, as he prescribed Prozac.
Our mutual colleagues sent me "Get well soon" cards which read: "So glad he is looking after you so well."
He carried on as normal, the successful man at work, asking female colleagues out to dinner - "getting to know our staff" he called it.
One night, in the car parked in his driveway, I saw him with another woman. I vomited in a bush. The humiliation. "How will I show my face socially ever again?" I wondered. "How do I confront him?"
He said it was innocent, that I was being paranoid. When I had a panic attack, he told me to "Take the tablets."
Even as I write this, years later I'm haunted by the "what ifs" - what if I'd behaved better, could we have stood a chance?
"You were the only person I have ever truly loved," he'd say. "I would have made it work, but you just ruined it for us."
The sound of the lawnmower in the garden where my beautiful children are playing is interrupted by a phone call from someone who understands. It's like looking in a mirror: what's happened to us suddenly becomes clear. The hope I can offer her gives me a sense of catharsis and healing.
We are not alone.
Both women have been given pseudonyms to protect their identity
Illustrations by Katie Horwich
More from BBC Stories:
- 'He wasn't happy until he had me all to himself'
- Cheating and manipulation: Confessions of a gaslighter