Stories

'He wasn't happy until he had me all to himself'

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When two women wrote about how they had been "gaslighted" - made to question their sanity by an abusive partner - many readers, male and female, got in touch to share similar experiences. Here, three of them explain how they were left feeling utterly isolated.

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"I actually thought there was something wrong with my memory"

I moved from southern England to a small Scottish village to be with the love of my life, a handsome and charming man who made me feel more alive and special than I ever thought possible.

Just before I moved, a friend said he thought my boyfriend wouldn't be happy until he had me living in the middle of nowhere, far away from anyone and all to himself. At the time I laughed it off but it turned out it couldn't have been more true.

At first he was completely attentive. He worked away as a lorry driver but he called every morning, throughout the day and last thing at night. I thought this was really nice of him but I started to notice he was really ratty if I missed a call because I was in the bathroom or in a shop. He became more and more short-tempered when I told him I had begun to make friends, causing us to have arguments on the phone.

One day, after he had left for work, a woman from the village asked if I would like to go round to her house for some wine. I had a really nice evening. When I got home, my mobile had several missed calls and many text messages. I had left it behind and not thought about it. The text messages started off asking why I wasn't answering the phone, and descended into calling me all sorts of horrible names, accusing me of being out with other men and so on. I couldn't believe what I was reading - this had come out of nowhere. I sent him a text explaining where I had been. He immediately called and shouted at me for 10 minutes, not letting me speak.

These arguments would make me feel terrible and he would blame me for not being able to concentrate or sleep because he was worrying about me, and therefore a danger on the road. But then he would send lavish flowers and I would feel grateful he wasn't angry with me any longer. I lived in a constant state of confusion and worry, never knowing what I had done to make him angry, and worried in case he had an accident.

Another time, when he was home, I was walking up the lane to our house when the farmer who owned the land stopped by. We leaned over the farm gate and had a long chat, looking out at the beautiful view. When I went into the house my boyfriend was sitting in a chair, staring at me. He kept denying there was something wrong, but he wouldn't speak to me and kept glaring. Eventually he said he knew what had been going on all this time - I was making a fool of him and having an affair with the farmer! I couldn't believe my ears, but he wouldn't listen to me.

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I soon stopped visiting my friends in the village. I didn't dare go out in the evenings because he would call the house phone to check where I was. He didn't like me going out to work either, so I was pretty much stuck at home in the middle of nowhere. In some ways it was a relief because I didn't have to pretend to people that all was well.

I spent the next nine years walking on eggshells, never knowing if I was doing the right thing or the wrong thing in his eyes. His ultimate punishment was to attempt suicide. He did this more than once after an argument, which completely destroyed my confidence in myself. I was a confident, independent person when we met, and by the time he eventually left me I was a shell.

He would also try to make me think I had gone mad by claiming I had said things that I knew I hadn't.

Silly things, like I'd make spaghetti Bolognese and he'd accuse me of adding carrots just to upset him, even though I followed the same recipe every time. Or he would say I hadn't cleaned a room when I had, and would clean it all over again.

Taken individually, those incidents seem stupid and trivial but he would be so convincing that I would start to question myself. I actually thought there was something wrong with my memory.

I couldn't argue any more. I couldn't get my brain to think of a good response because his arguments were completely irrational. It was easier to just agree. I became a quiet, dull person - a shadow of my former self.

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What is gaslighting?

  • 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
  • It is one tactic of coercive and controlling behaviour that aims to make a victim doubt themselves, their perception of events and even their own sanity, with devastating consequences, says Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women's Aid
  • Techniques include calling into question the victim's memory of an incident, trivialising a victim's thoughts or feelings, accusing the victim of lying or making things up, denying things like promises that have been made, and mocking the victim for their "misconceptions"
  • Some of the signs to watch out for include: feeling confused, continually apologising to your partner, having trouble making simple decisions, and withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to make excuses for your partner
  • Am I in an abusive relationship?
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I didn't really look like myself either - he didn't like me going to get a haircut because I had a male hairdresser, so I started cutting my own hair. I stopped wearing make-up or high heels. If I wore nice clothes, I was "dressing up" for somebody. I had to think about everything I did.

Before, I was confident, I was always happy, always laughing. If I laughed at something on TV, he would get angry - he thought I was laughing at him.

I trained myself not to be happy. Friends of mine have said, "How on Earth do you do that?" But it's the only way to cope. If you don't let yourself be happy, you can't get too hurt or upset by what's happening to you. It doesn't make a lot of sense, looking back.

I made two failed attempts to leave. But mostly I felt like I'd made my bed with this person, and I had given up too much to be with him. I hoped it would all turn around and it would be OK - but it never was. It's a bit like a dog that isn't treated well - it stays loyal to the person that feeds him.

The day he told me we were splitting up I thought I had won the lottery but a few months later, he decided he wanted to get back together. When I refused, he tried to lure me back to the house. That was really quite scary. He was on a mission - if he couldn't have me, then nobody could. I was afraid he was going to kill us both.

I spent about three years hiding from him, constantly moving house. I completely disappeared.

What I didn't realise was that it would take years for me to get back to being myself and repair the damage he did to me.

I will never forgive him and I'm telling my story so that hopefully it might help somebody else.

Caroline, UK

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man, alone

"As a man, I feel I have to keep quiet about it"

I'm glad that abuse like this is finally being taken much more seriously. Because although some of the other abuses I had suffered with my wife were long-lasting, the psychological abuse, especially in the form of gaslighting, was maybe the worst. It has taken me a lot of therapy to work through the pain.

I still look back at things that happened, even petty things like how she had hung up a picture in the main hallway of our apartment and when I commented on how nice it looked, she insisted it had been there for two weeks and I was stupid for not noticing it sooner. It was such an obvious place because it was hung right where the living room met the hallway. You could clearly see it from two parts of the apartment. I couldn't believe I would have missed something so obvious for so long.

shadowy hallway

This was the kind of thing that began happening more and more.

She would call me at work and say there was something wrong, that I had to come home - then, when I did, she would say I shouldn't have left work and make me feel like I'd overreacted. I ended up losing a job over this.

I would plan to do things with friends, but in the lead-up she would create problems so I couldn't go. Then she'd say: "Oh, weren't you supposed to go out?"

I could no longer make any plans, big or small. I became afraid of the consequences of anything I did, because I didn't want to be punished. I gained weight and got depressed, but still had this hopeless desire to make things work.

Sometimes things escalated and she became physical, but I had been raised to never hit a woman, so I didn't fight back. I couldn't see what good would come of it.

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Further help and resources

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The situation came to a head when she threatened my life. We were having an argument while we were driving, and she purposely wrecked the car. Luckily our child was not with us at the time.

That was when I knew I had to get out.

Since I left the relationship there have been a few difficult things to deal with because I am a man.

The help for men who come out of abusive situations can be incredibly slim. When I was in the process of leaving my wife, there was no shelter assistance and I was frequently referred to homeless shelters. As I was also trying to take our very young child out of the situation with me, that was not an option. We ended up living with family in the end.

Then there is the social stigma. I feel I have to keep quiet about it because many people, even potential new partners, view the abuse as something that I, as a man, "should have done something about" - as though if I had just put my foot down, it all would have been fine. That sometimes feels like an extension of the abuse.

Dwayne, US

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Bride

"He stole everything from me"

Things started to go really wrong at the wedding. The vintage bus he had booked to transport our guests didn't turn up - it had broken down, he said. In fact he had never paid for it. At the reception, I found out later, he asked our guests for cash, saying he still had things to pay for and he didn't want to spoil my day.

We had met on a dating site a year earlier. He was a widower and told me he missed his child, who was living with his late wife's family. I felt for him, he seemed like such a good guy. A contractor working in IT, he was generous and looked after me, taking on the boring little tasks of life, like sorting out the car insurance or my medication.

Soon I made a discovery that shocked me. His wife had not died a year before we met, like he'd told me, but just six weeks earlier. He said he was sorry. He had been unhappy and lonely. Somehow, I forgave him. That's what marriage is about, right?

He managed to alienate me from all my friends and colleagues. He said one of my friends made a pass at him, so we avoided her. Another friend was "taking advantage of me" so I should cut her off. Or maybe he didn't feel like going out because he was feeling low, or he hadn't been paid, so we would stay in.

I always ended up doing what he wanted, to try and make him happy. But it got to the point where no matter what I did, nothing would make him happy.

When he was offered an exciting new opportunity in Spain, I left my well-paid job and removal men packed up our belongings. But there were delays - payments kept not coming through, contracts weren't honoured. Nothing was ever his fault. My redundancy money drained away.

I tried to help him sort his finances out, but every time I was due to meet an accountant or a solicitor, something happened: a mix-up, they were ill or they'd had an accident - a couple of them actually died, he said.

Nothing made any sense, I thought I was losing my mind. I was very depressed and considered killing myself. He did absolutely nothing to dissuade me. I realise now that if I had died, he would have had a payout from my pension. Was that the price he put on my life?

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He was often away for days at a time, taking my car. Summonses for unpaid parking tickets began to arrive in my name. Bailiffs knocked on the door, demanding payments for other unpaid bills - he had taken out credit cards in my name.

The car turned out not to be insured. When I confronted him, he said it was a mix-up, he had definitely paid. I tried to hide the car, but he found it. He said he was hurt by my lies: why had I not told him where it was parked?

He said he couldn't talk to me any longer because I wasn't on his side. He felt like he was all alone in the world - and it was all my fault.

One day, when he came back from one of his jaunts, he left his bag in the car. Inside, I found a letter from another woman. She wrote that she loved him, and was sorry that he was homeless.

Homeless? He had several homes - the one we were renting in Spain, and one here with his wife.

I walked back upstairs to find him waiting for me. He demanded his bag back. I said "No." He twisted my arm and slammed me up against the wall. My dog put her ears back and growled at him, which she had never done before. He let me go.

Distraught, I took my dog and drove to my friend's office in London. When she came out to meet me, she said: "You do realise you're wearing your pyjamas, don't you?"

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He disappeared six months ago. He has stolen everything from me. I lost my income, my credit rating, and for a short time, my sanity. I can't even get my stuff back - I thought it had been shipped to Spain, but actually it's been in storage and about to be auctioned off.

I can't go back to my old life, I can't face having to explain. And who would believe me? If they know him, they'll say: "But he's such a nice guy."

He was so clever at picking up on my weaknesses and my good nature. He destroyed me from the inside out - he made me doubt my own sanity.

When I went to the police they said: "Everybody lies, there's nothing we can do about it."

And the lies keep coming.

His mother was surprised to hear from me - he told her I was in hospital in Germany, following a suicide attempt. She had given him thousands of pounds to pay for my care.

When I tracked down one of his other women, she was horrified. He had told her I was his mentally unstable sister, who had a controlling husband. They were planning to move in together.

I don't know where he is now but I fear he has found his next victim. I wish I could warn her, but nobody will listen.

Esther, UK

All names have been changed

Illustrations by Katie Horwich

Interviews by Vibeke Venema

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