Many years ago, someone I trusted called me a liar.
I had been on a work trip to London and my flight back was delayed. I phoned ahead but the usual laughter I was used to in my new romance was replaced with icy coolness, stilted speech, a silent accusation I couldn’t quite place.
When I got home, I was met with questions. Not questions about my trip, but accusatory questions: where had I been? Who had I been with? With my answers came exaggerated nodding and frowning that said, I don’t believe you.
I should have known then.
As this behaviour continued, my world began to narrow. I took care to over-explain everything. I stopped travelling on overnight stays, or making journeys where there might be delays. Then, almost six months later, I stopped travelling at all.
It happened gradually but, on reflection, I will never forget the night it became clear I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. I had been out with friends and returned in a cab. We’d eaten fried chicken and drunk cold beer. I’d had one drink and I was happy. Until I found my door locked. I was locked out of my home. It was 10pm.
I knocked. An upset stare met me. All the lights were off, which was unusual, and my dog was outside crying. There were only three words: “Who is he?”
“One evening I was sitting in my car in traffic, tapping my finger on the dashboard. I knew what I would face when I got home...”
A huge argument ensued. I couldn’t believe that I was accused of lying – or cheating. I was angry. I was not a liar, and I had nothing to lie about. My life was straightforward.
The next day there were apologies.
Fast forward to two months later, I was cancelling plans with friends, and I was even timing my journey to and from work. One evening I was sitting in my car in traffic, tapping my finger on the dashboard. I knew what I would face when I got home: a sullen attitude and questions, then the qualifying statement: “It’s only because I love you.”
It was a long wait, and I’ve always been thankful for that. When the traffic cleared I drove to a friend’s house and asked if I could stay the night. I called home and, after a torrent of abusive words, I asked to meet the next day.
I explained that the whole tone of the relationship entirely depended on if I was late or not, if I saw friends or not, and that I would not tolerate this. Calmly, I explained that this was not love – this was control.
I had to return home – all my possessions and my dog were there. I was told that I was not seeing the situation as it was. That, no, they would not seek help, because it was my behaviour that was lacking. I was accused of not just cheating now, but somehow not seeing reality either. I remember the hardly discernible head shakes, the raised eyebrows at friends while I was speaking.
I ended the relationship but the abusive behaviour went on for some time. Calling late at night to “make sure I was okay”. Notes. Texts. All things that, in a loving relationship would be completely normal. And that’s how it looked to everyone else. But they were unwanted and he persisted.
I started to doubt myself. I sat in my car at lunchtimes and wondered if I was going mad. If it was me. I knew I wasn’t cheating, but was there something about me that suggested I was? The way I dressed? My smiley demeanour? I began to check myself, constantly and everywhere.
Many of the elements of psychological abuse are very difficult to identify for the person on the receiving end. They are often disguised as ‘for their own good’. Controlling someone’s behaviour and dress, restricting their finances and movement, are often framed as just ‘being part of a couple’.
When controlling behaviour is called out, it is because the prey is strong rather than passive. And that’s when the ‘gaslighting’ begins. The perpetrator will begin to socially isolate their prey and make them believe that they are mistaken by telling them they are ‘mad’, ‘insane’, ‘imagining it’, ‘need medication’.
This psychological cruelty is extremely damaging. It lowers self-esteem, can induce feelings of paranoia. Eventually, the person who experiences this psychological abuse questions reality as they see it.
The term “gaslighting’ itself comes from a 1938 play. Playwright Patrick Hamilton created Gas Light, a thriller that premiered in London and played there for six months followed by a 1944 film adaptation starring Ingmar Bergman. In the story, a husband convinces his wife she has gone mad by making her think she is stealing and hearing noises. He fixes the gas burners in the house to dim and light automatically but convinces her it’s ‘all in her head’. In the film, the wife escapes but in real life leaving this situation is much more difficult.
Since this happened to me, I have written extensively about psychological abuse. My novels Perfect Ten and How to Play Dead cover this subject through the lens of fiction, but it is and everyday reality for thousands of women – and men too.
“Like me, you should not feel uncomfortable or scared in a relationship. You should feel free.”
I now realise that this is the bottom line: someone who loves you would not hurt you. ‘Hurt’ includes any form of violence of course, but also making you feel uncomfortable on purpose, seeking to control you in any way, playing ‘psychological games’, lying to others about you or accusing you of things you haven’t done. That is not love.
Like me, you should not feel uncomfortable or scared in a relationship. You should feel free.
If you recognise any of the above in your own relationship, ask for help. Confide in your family and friends. Call a domestic violence helpline for help and advice. Find out if your local police have domestic abuse staff. If you are religious, tell someone in your place of worship, even just to share your problem. If you are still in education, you can find your pastoral service and get advice.
Not everyone will believe you – I know that from experience. But don’t give up. Tell people until you find someone who listens.
You will never be the same. But you will be free.
Jacqueline Ward is an author and psychologist. Follow her on Twitter at @JacquiAnnC.
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If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:
- The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership by Women’s Aid and Refuge): 0808 2000 247
- In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
- In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
- In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
- Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
- Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321