One summer, a long time ago, I found myself carted into a therapist’s office so that I could talk about my ex-boyfriend. It was very embarrassing. I had gone to a doctor for insomnia and he asked me when I had stopped sleeping well. I told him I’d had this bad break-up recently and that I was just, I don’t know, upset? And I started talking about it. And crying. He looked at me like, OK, no drugs for you, and walked me downstairs to a therapist’s office, where he booked me an appointment for the hour.
So I told the therapist my story, which I was quite convinced of at the time. It went like this: I met this guy and he was really smart and I wasn’t. I knew that because he told me so and, since he was really smart, it had to be true. Also, this guy was really cool and I wasn’t. I knew that because he told me so. Also, this guy really knew how to have fun. I didn’t know how to do that—he’d told me I was always getting in the way of fun. Also, this guy had a lot of problems and I didn’t do enough to fix them. I mean, I tried. But I was actually the reason he wasn’t getting anywhere in life. How did I know that? He told me so.
I felt so lucky to be with a cool, smart, fun guy. He was so generous to date me, even though I wasn’t cool or smart or fun. And then we’d broken up, and it was all my fault, and now I had a new boyfriend, but I didn’t deserve one because I was awful.
The therapist looked at me. She spent a while looking at me. And then she did me the biggest favor that anyone ever has: she cracked up laughing.
The story I was telling did not make sense. There was no reason I should believe it. And once we’d established that, we could talk about my actual problem, which was not that guy, and it wasn’t that I was awful, either. My problem was that if someone told me I was awful, I would believe it. And I would reorganize my entire life—including my feelings, thoughts, values, tastes, clothing, habits, and personality—and sit there wondering why I wasn’t happy.
People do this all the time. Every friend I’ve ever had has done this, at some point, to some extent. There are a lot of intense feelings—often sexy feelings!—that go along with first relationships. There are lots of stories about what it means to love someone and when you haven’t loved many people, you tend to believe them.
You tend to believe, for instance, that being in love is the most wonderful and important thing in the world. That being in love means you are pretty, even if your partner is unkind about your appearance. That being in love means you are likable, even when your partner doesn’t honor your thoughts and preferences. That being in love means you aren’t alone, so you want to stay with someone even when you feel lonely in the relationship.
And girls? Girls are supposed to play it cool and not be clingy, so I never asked for more when he didn’t bother to call me on my birthday. Girls were supposed to have a good sense of humor and not be nags, so I didn’t object even when he insulted me to my face under the guise of “constructive criticism” or “just joking.” Girls are supposed to be sexy, so I was endlessly responsive to his sexual needs even when that included denigrating or neglecting mine.
These notions are harmful. Lots of them entail losing yourself, or hurting yourself, or giving away your own power. But we tell these stories all the time. There’s a part in every Twilight installment where someone is like, “So, Bella, can we talk about how your boyfriend’s plans entail literally destroying your soul and sucking the very life out of your body?” and she’s like, “But he’s the sparkliest boy in school! I will love him forever.”
I get it. I’ve done it. And so have a lot of people. But if you’re in that situation, or if you’ve just gotten out of it, there are certain things you need to know to make sure it does not happen again.
1. Learn the Term “Gaslight”
The first thing to know about relationships is that they should never be about control. There are lots of ideas about what constitutes a good relationship, but, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to define “bad relationship” in one way: a bad relationship is one in which someone else attempts to control how you behave, think, and feel about yourself.
Sometimes, a controlling partner may be very obvious and extreme. They may keep track of how much you spend or tell you how to dress or tell you to stop hanging out with family or friends. They may threaten you with punishment if you don’t obey them. If any of this is happening, you need to walk away. This is abuse and it has to end.
But many controlling people aren’t obvious or extreme. Some relationships exist on the continuum between “abusive” and “great.” They’re codependent or toxic or they rely on what is called “ambient abuse”—not overt, visible forms of harm, but subtle ones that gradually take away your ability to function. If people overtly harm you, you might leave them. Many controlling people know this, and have figured out ways to make their behavior seem like your fault, which is called gaslighting. It’s presenting someone with false information in order to make them unsure of what is happening and unable to respond correctly. If you’ve ever said something like, “What you said really hurt my feelings” and the other person responded with “I didn’t say that” or “You’re too sensitive” or “It hurts my feelings when you say I’ve hurt you,” you’ve experienced gaslighting. You’re being manipulated into thinking you can’t remember things, or respond appropriately, or that you’re a hurtful person, so that someone else can avoid apologizing.
The gaslighter may change the “rules” of the relationship very rapidly or create a no-win situation in which you’re told to do two contradictory things and will be punished for failing to do either. This can be overt: You’re lazy, so you should work harder on your homework, but you’re also uncaring, so I need you to pick up the phone when I call you during homework hours. Or it can be subtle: I need my girlfriend to have a good sense of style, so never wear a shirt that I don’t like, but also, if you have a good sense of style, you shouldn’t have to ever ask me which shirts I like. No matter what you do, you fail. And then this person punishes you for failing.
And here’s the thing: Gaslighting, the tactic, is named after Gaslight, the 1944 movie, which is about a guy who tries to get his wife diagnosed as incurably insane by doing this. It’s not always fully intentional, and it’s not always done primarily to harm you—alcoholics, for example, are almost invariably gaslighters, because that’s how they get people to enable or overlook their drinking—but it causes real and profound damage. It erodes your sense of reality, destroys your self-esteem, and reduces you to a depressed, fearful, self-loathing, hysterical person. At which point, the gaslighter tells you that they treat you badly because you’re hysterical!
2. Don’t Blame Yourself
Your first reaction, when you realize you’re being treated badly, may be confusion. You may spend a long time trying to figure out why they did it. So I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to tell you why: because you are awesome. These relationships do not happen because you are a bad partner. They happen because you are a good partner and someone else used that against you.
As discussed, people who treat you badly often say you deserve it because you’re not giving enough, or you don’t care about their problems, or you’re too demanding. But here’s the rub: people who date mean or controlling people, or even overtly abusive people, don’t do it because they lack empathy or forgiveness or patience. People date mean or controlling people because they have too much empathy, forgiveness, and patience. You can see a good person in your partner even when other people wouldn’t, you can exercise an unusual amount of compassion, and this partner noticed that you would put up with things that other people wouldn’t. It’s awful. And now, it’s done. Because you are leaving.
3. Do Not Ride the Escalator
You can’t make this person be fair to you. I repeat: you cannot make this person be fair to you. And you do not have to try. You need to have your self-respect, your dignity, and your own firm belief in the fact that you are kind, fair, and trustworthy. I’ve lost that a few times. But I have never lost it more profoundly than on the occasions when I tried to get someone who was toxic to treat me nicely.
The fact is, people call these relationships “toxic” for a reason. They make you sick. And the longer you keep yourself entangled in one— whether that’s by forgiving the person, or by trying to get even with the person, or even just trying to get that person to understand the impact of his or her behavior—the sicker you become. I’m not trying to say that you should walk away from resolvable conflicts. We’ve talked about how there are good and necessary ways to resolve conflicts. You should try those. If you’re old enough, and this relationship is very serious, you can even ask that person if they are willing to get help with you to work through the relationship’s problems. (Although you should also get independent help to take care of yourself.) But if that’s not working, you need to leave before you start acting out.
It’s very hard to respond in a healthy way to an unhealthy situation. If someone keeps twisting your words, or blaming you, or manipulating you, eventually you’re going to start thinking that word-twisting and blaming and manipulation are the way to win an argument. If someone wants to prove you are a mean or weak person, they’re going to do and say things that would cause any reasonable person to feel upset so that they can watch you fall apart or lose your temper. You’ll become the one escalating the fight. You’ll scream awful things, you’ll cry for days, you’ll do mean stuff to even the score, and you’ll lose yourself completely—all because you thought there was some way to make this person be fair.
You cannot justify being cruel or inappropriate because of someone else’s actions. So you need to have rules here for what you will let yourself do or say, and you need to stick to them. You can’t make this person do, feel, or say anything, not even “sorry.” All you can do is believe the following:
4. You Have No Power Over Me
When I was little, I loved the movie Labyrinth. This was because my grandparents told me it was made specifically for me. It was about a girl who picked on her little brother. I also picked on my little brother. Clearly, this was an instructional film about how, if I were not nice to my little brother, he would be taken away by goblins. I tried to get my little brother taken away by goblins like 14 times after I watched it. Sometimes my grandparents’ plans backfired.
But Labyrinth is a very instructional film—it just happens to be about dating. The girl, Sarah, clearly has a crush on the David Bowie character because who doesn’t? And Bowie clearly has a crush on Sarah. Because of this, Sarah gets dropped into this complex and dangerous maze. There are rules, riddles, bogs, monsters, and awfulness, and David Bowie just stands there and says: “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.” That’s the actual line! That’s the line every toxic partner will always feed you. And that’s why this is so instructional.
Because it turns out that fearing him, loving him, or doing as he says is not necessary for Sarah. She didn’t even have to walk through the maze. What she has to do, in the end, is look him in the eye and say one thing. There’s a whole big build-up around it involving how much he’s put her through and how awesome she is—“through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here,” blah blah, “my will is as strong as yours and my kingdom is as great”—but that’s not it. That’s a waste of time until she says the one thing that counts: “You have no power over me.” She has to say those words and know how true they are. And then the whole maze falls apart. And she’s home.
You are going to get home. You already are: you are in control of your own life. All you have to do is remember that. Granted, in order to realize that, a professional therapist, who is hired to hear people say nonsensical and unhealthy things without reacting judgmentally, may have to actually laugh right into your face. Or not. Maybe you just read an article on the internet and things started to make more sense to you. ♦