Chances are, you’re familiar with the term “Gaslighting,” but how do abusers actually gaslight you?
Tune in and read the full transcript below for more.
Abusers Gaslight Victims by Subtly Causing Them to Doubt Reality
Abusers use gaslighting to cause victims to question their own perception of reality.
One common tactic that abusers use is to covertly undermine what victims are good at, or what victims like about themselves.
In Laurel’s case, the abuser wouldn’t attend her work events or praise her art (which was both her profession and hobby). While he didn’t necessarily say disparaging things about her work, his lack of praise and involvement in her work events caused her to, over time, begin to wonder if she actually had talent. Ultimately, Laurel found herself seeking validation from others because she couldn’t decipher reality on her own:
“Because the gaslighting was so bad, I started asking a couple of other people, I said, this is what I’ve come to believe about my artistic work and I need to check in with you because you have hired me to do this and that. Is that what you think of my work?”
Laurel, Member of the BTR.ORG Community
Childhood Trauma? The Abuser Will Use It To Gaslight You
Laurel’s abuser, like many other abusers, used her past childhood trauma, to gaslight her.
“He used my childhood abuse to make me believe that I was crazy, to make me believe that I was unstable, to make me believe that I just had problems with anxiety.”
Laurel, Member of the BTR.ORG Community
When women try to communicate with the abuser and express that they feel unsafe with their husband’s abusive behaviors, the abuser will use this gaslighting tactic – shifting the focus from their own abusive behavior to the victim’s childhood. They may say things like:
- “You (the victim) are projecting your childhood trauma onto me. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
- “You need therapy or this marriage isn’t going to last.”
- “You see abuse everywhere.”
- “You hate men because of your abusive dad.”
- “Your anxiety from the abuse in your childhood makes you extra sensitive. You need help.”
- “Why didn’t you work these issues out before we got married?”
- “I’m so tired of being the scapegoat for all of your mental issues.”
Abusers Gaslight Victims With the “I Have Needs” Tactic
Often, abusers will gaslight victims into feeling that they aren’t contributing enough to the household, either through labor or finances. They do this because they don’t want to work and/or contribute financially, themselves.
Even when presented with logical evidence, such as spreadsheets that detail just how much work the victim is contributing the household, abusers will make nonsensical, but convincing arguments that STILL make the victim believe that she is lazy.
Toward the end of many covert-abusive relationships, many victims find themselves taking on the majority of the household tasks, childcare, and financial responsibilities in the home.
Abusers manage this level of manipulation by using the “I Have Needs” gaslighting tactic.
Their supposed “Needs” take precedence over:
- Facts (such as spreadsheets or other evidence that the victim may present to the abuser to prove that she is doing just as much if not more than the abuser)
- The rest of the family’s legitimate needs
- Medical complications such as chronic illnesses, pregnancies, and disabilities that they make a heavier workload nearly impossible for the victim.
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
When you begin to recognize gaslighting in your relationship, life can feel impossible to navigate. Please don’t do this alone. Attend a BTR.ORG Group Session today and find the community that you deserve.
Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne.
If you did not listen to the last two episodes where Laurel started sharing her story, go back two episodes, and start there.
She is back on today’s episode, and we are going to jump right in. So in your artistic endeavors and for our listeners, we are actually intentionally keeping it vague to protect her in her specific situation, just so you’re not like, what is happening? We’re intentionally keeping this vague to protect Laurel.
Laurel, can you talk about how he used you and his control of your artistic projects and your ideas and things like that, and how that was also an element of the abuse?
So we went to school together for the same artistic pursuits. I was in one particular vein of that pursuit. He was in another, however, it was the same type of education. Then we both went on to graduate school for the same artistic field.
When we got married, I was performing some of his things and he seemed to really appreciate that. And when I had a physical issue that caused me to not be able to do that as often, suddenly he started withholding from me. For example, I was expected to make posters for his events, announcing his events, do all this graphic design work for him (I have several different artistic skills). So to use that to serve him, I was also expected to not only attend the events, which I was glad to do because I wanted to support my partner, but I was also asked to work at them like an employee much of the time, which also didn’t bother me at the time, but he did not give me credit for any of the graphic design work that I did. He used a lot of my graphics work for his own artistic things, and he did not credit me on them.
The Abuser Refused to Credit Laurel For Her Work
Did he claim they were his?
He just didn’t say whose they were at all and who did all this beautiful work for him. And then after he left I said, I would like for you to please include a credit on all of my things that I have created that you’re using. That includes all paper copies, all digital copies. All you have to do is add a tagline with my copyright and that’s it. And he, rather than do that, just deleted everything as if I had never existed. Instead of giving me credit for my work, he had to erase me, which I found to be very telling.
In addition, when we lived at home together for almost two decades, he would hear me doing my art in the home and he would not encourage me. He would not say, Hey, I really like this, or anything like that.
He also would not come to my events. So where I went to all of his, I guess in a number of years, I had like 64 events and he came to three or four. I tallied it up and I attended basically all of his. So with all these combined messages, he told me that my work wasn’t worthwhile. That it wasn’t good enough because if it were, he would not only be attending, but he would be saying that it were good. The subtle looks of lips pressed together when I’d be making my art at home, no compliments, no support: it was very clear that he disapproved and that it wasn’t good enough.
The Abuser’s Gaslighting Caused Laurel to Doubt Her Abilities
My guess is that you’re way better than he is.
I guess that’s a matter of opinion. Thank you. Well, I will say as an aside, because the gaslighting was so bad, I started asking a couple of other people. I said, “This is what I’ve come to believe about my artistic work and I need to check in with you because you have hired me to do this and that. Is that what you think of my work?” And one woman said to me, “Laurel, would I have kept hiring you all of these years and would this organization that I represent have kept hiring you all these years if you were really that terrible?” I had to laugh cause I realized, you know what, you’re right. That’s absurd. I clearly am good enough.
“He Had to Keep Me Down to Pump Himself Up”
Yeah. But heaven forbid he let you know any bit of that because then you might be equal. And the power there has to be the power imbalance for abuse to occur, so he’s always gotta keep you lower.
You can’t see me waving my arms right now because it’s literally like you climbed into my brain and pulled those exact words out of my own thoughts. That’s exactly what it was. He needed to be the artist in the home. He needed to be the person who was thought of by everyone as the artist in our home. And he had to keep me down to pump himself up.
I’ve thought about this a lot because it’s so, I don’t know, mind bending. It’s like they want to just mine you for resources.
The Abuser is Exploiting You For “Resources”
They’re trying to mine you for resources and they want to exploit you and they want to have power over you. So if you were so terrible and awful that you had nothing to give them, then they wouldn’t want to exploit you or mine you for resources. They have to somehow live in these two worlds where what you have is worth exploiting, but they’re never gonna let you know that.
A hundred percent. That is exactly what happened in my marriage. And he spent a lot of times telling me before we got married how amazing I was, which is probably part of the love bombing and the grooming. But I didn’t know that at the time.
Oh, I should also tell you he had this big long letter he wrote to a faculty person about those who “have it” and those who “don’t have it”, that he’s a person who “has it” and what it’s like for people who “have it.” He told me I was a person who “had it”, so of course I was flattered. But then, of course, he also wrote in his letter about, well what happens when you think a person “has it” and then you find out that they “don’t”? Then you’re so upset because they betrayed you and they lied to you and you thought they “had it,” but they “didn’t.” And that’s how he treated me after we got married. As time progressed more and more and more, he was telling me over and over through his withholding and his disapproval that I had misled him. I never “had it.” I was just a horrible liar.
The Abuser Has to be the Authority Figure
Hmm. You tricked him into thinking that you were super artistic and you weren’t; you didn’t have that spark.
That’s right. What a horrible person I am <laugh>.
That’s funny because that’s something that you can’t self-assess. I mean you could have it or not have it, but a lot of people who don’t have it think they do.
<Laugh>, he was convinced he “had it” and that he knew who “had it” and who “didn’t.” He was the authority.
Abusers Weaponize Your Past Traumas to Further Harm You
We’ve mentioned a few times the abuse that you suffered growing up. Now, that has nothing to do with his abuse of you. And at BTR there’s just nothing about a child being abused that would mean that she’s deserving of abuse as an adult or that she picked someone on purpose or that she’s some kind of magnet for abuse or anything like that. We all know someone who has suffered childhood abuse and then grown up and married someone who is awesome, right? That just has nothing to do with it.
So that being said, abusers do like to use anything they can as a weapon, including past childhood trauma or past trauma, therapeutic modalities, spiritual stuff, scripture, any of those things. Specifically for you, when we’re talking about this covert abuse, I want you to talk a little bit about how he used your past trauma as weapons to kind of hook you in and degrade you and how that was especially difficult.
The Abuser Used Physical Intimidation to Abuse Laurel
Yeah, absolutely. The first thing that I wanna mention is that because I also experienced physical abuse in my childhood, he used that to intimidate and control me. And how he did it was he would use the rage attacks where he would scream and curse and call me horrible names and throw things and pound on objects, whether that’s a wall or a door frame or whether it’s a steering wheel or a dashboard. And he would like be close to me with his fists all clenched up, like he could just lose it at any time and I could be next at any moment. So he used that to intimidate and control me.
And there were times where I said to him, after the fact of course, “Hey, this behavior really triggers my childhood abuse trauma. Could you not do that?”
“Let’s find some other way of communicating or managing your anger or whatever is going on there.” And instead of saying what a good partner would say, which is, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I’m gonna fix that; I won’t do that again”, and actually never do it again, he took that as a note and he would say to me, “Yeah, I won’t do that again.” He wouldn’t actually apologize, but he would say he wouldn’t do it again. And then he would use that more and more often. So those periods of the violence accelerated over time, instead of stopped. So that was one of the ways that it showed up.
“That’s What Bothers Her? I’ll Use That More.”
Swearing is particularly difficult for me. So he would swear and I would say, “Please do not swear around me. I find it to be very disturbing when you’re swearing at someone.”
Sorry, I don’t mean to call you out if you swear. “Shine on people of the world.” Just for me, particularly in my own home, I just feel unsafe with that, right? Especially when it’s directed at me in relation to being angry.
So I said, “This is unacceptable in my home. I do not want this.” And it’s almost like, “Oh, that’s what bothers her. I’ll use that more.” I don’t think he ever tried not to. I don’t remember him ever holding back or anything. Once he knew that that was the case, it was like, “Oh, this will work. I will use this.”
“This will upset her,” or “This will push her over the edge or elicit some type of extreme response, and so I am going to use this method.”
I worry about that with communication with abusers, especially about kids. If people are like, “These things are upsetting to the children…”, and you might list a couple things, right? “It’s upsetting when their laundry isn’t done.” “It’s upsetting when they’re not on time for school.” You know, stuff like that. It feels like a lot of them are like, “Oh great, okay, I’ll make sure the laundry’s not done.” “I’ll make sure that I always drag my feet and I’m not on time for school.” It’s almost like they take it as a list of things for them to do because their aim is to distress or to upset or to gain control and they know that that’s a way to do it. And that’s super disturbing when you start noticing those patterns.
“He Used My Childhood Abuse to Make Me Believe That I Was Crazy”
Yes, and I experienced those patterns as well where we would have a conversation: “It’s really important that when you’re cleaning the basement, you don’t put the old computers on the tree lawn because someone could steal them and access our personally identifiable information.” And we had a long conversation where I explained why it wasn’t okay to do and then he went ahead and did it. So just like you’re describing, anything that I came to him with like that, he would do it more and use it as a tool. That’s something that I noticed as well.
In addition, you brought up other things from my childhood. He used my childhood abuse to make me believe that I was crazy, to make me believe that I was unstable, to make me believe that I just had problems with anxiety.
The Abuser Gaslit Laurel Regarding Her Desire to Be a Mother
And there’s nothing wrong with the world that I’m living in. It’s just my anxiety when it was actually a lot of his behavior.
Also, we had agreed to have children before we got married. I’m glad now that I didn’t have children with him, but we had agreed to wait about five years. About five years into that discussion I said, “Hey, I think it’s time we start talking about this.” And he said, “Well, I have to work a day job and do my art and so I don’t wanna spend any time doing anything else. So no, we’re never having children. I’m never going to do it, and that’s why.”
Then when we continue talking, he turned it around and later said to me, “Well, the real reason is actually because of your childhood abuse history. You wouldn’t be able to have children and be a good mother. You would abuse the children, and you wouldn’t do anything and I would do everything. You would be a terrible mother.”
So he told me I’d be a terrible mother because of my childhood abuse experience.
I’m so sorry.
Thank you. That was really horrible.
That is horrible and absolutely not true.
Trauma Mama Husband Drama
Thank you. I think I would’ve been a great mother.
I’m gonna take a break here for just a second to talk about my book Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book Trauma Mama Husband Drama, is a picture book for adults. So it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it. It’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations as well as infographics at the back.
Back to our interview.
And didn’t he also do that with housework? He said he would have to do everything, but then he didn’t do the housework. Or if he did, he resented it.
Abusers Will Minimize Your Familial Contributions
Actually, funny you should mention that because that was a pattern that came up throughout our marriage. He would, in my perception, go through a period where he would become stressed out about something and he would turn to me and say, “You don’t do anything. I do everything. You don’t do anything.” And it became such a pattern that I finally said to him, “Hey, it really hurts my feelings because you don’t acknowledge all these things that I do to contribute and you don’t appreciate the work that I do.”
But he kept on doing it and he started doing it more and more. So toward the end of the marriage, he actually said to me that the work that I did didn’t count because some of it I also enjoyed and therefore it was a hobby.
Oh, like cleaning the toilet. It’s a hobby for you. I heard that too. Listeners, listen up. This is a nugget <laugh>. They don’t think it counts if they say you enjoy it. Right…you enjoy scrubbing the toilet.
Sometimes it Makes Sense to AGREE With The Abuser
Right. It was a hobby, so he said it doesn’t count toward the household budget of labor. And the reason he said that was because he told me so often toward the end that I didn’t do anything and he did everything, I was like, “You know what? Maybe something’s really wrong; maybe I am doing less. I’m gonna put it on a spreadsheet and I’m gonna figure it out. Maybe I need to step it up.” And what I realized was that I was actually doing more than he was as far as hours per week of household labor.
When I shared that with him, he said, “Well, what do you want, a parade?” I said, “No <laugh>, I don’t want a parade. I just want you to stop attacking me and saying I don’t do anything.” And he said, “Okay.”
And I was like, “Oh, okay, well that’s good.” And then a couple days later, that’s when he pulled the, “Well I thought about it and this is a hobby, so it doesn’t count toward the household budget of labor.”
So he still did everything…
Yeah. …and I did nothing.
Here’s another nugget for all of our listeners. I don’t know if this would work, but I want you to consider it. I want you to think about it. When they say, “What do you want me to do, throw a parade?” Or when they say, “You don’t care about what people think of you.”, or something, our inclination is usually to defend ourselves, right? Of course you don’t want a parade, so of course you’re gonna be like, “No, I don’t want a parade.”, or, “I DO care about what people think, but I’m just not interested in wearing makeup every day.”, whatever the thing is, when they say that, just agree with them. “So what, do you want a parade?” Be like, “Yeah, <laugh>, I do want a parade!” They’re like, “You just don’t care what my mom thinks.” Be like, “I don’t, you’re right.”
“How Did You Get So Wise? Good Point.”
I love it. I think that’s a great approach. I wish that I had thought of it at the time. “Yes I do. I want a full brass band, 76 trombones. Bring it!”
<Laugh>. Yeah. And just agree with them sometimes in the moment. I’m not saying all the time, but in those moments where the reason they’re telling you something is to manipulate you to do the opposite thing. “You don’t care about my mom and she wants to stay here.”, and you just say, “You’re right. I don’t. I don’t care. Yep. You’re so right. How did you get so wise? Good point. Yes, yes, you’re right.”
I love that. I wish I’d had that tool at the time, because what came next was that he was so stressed out and miserable. I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna be the most supportive partner I can be.” Every day I said, “What can I do to support you today?” And he says, “Well, do this household task.” “Do that household task.”, that were actually his tasks.
So in a several week period, I was literally doing every single thing and he was doing nothing, and I wasn’t getting my own tasks done.
After, like, four weeks of this, I said to him, “Hey, I’m starting to feel a little anxious because I’m falling behind on these things that are my responsibility because I’m doing this other stuff and I’m getting concerned that it’s not getting done.”, and he had a fit. He started shouting and he was yelling, “See, you never cared about me! You never genuinely cared about me! You were just manipulating me, so none of this work you did counts!”
Abusers Are Transactional, Not Relational
And the issue there is, inside his own mind if he’s grooming all the time, then he’s literally tallying things up. So in his head he has an actual spreadsheet…
…and he thinks, “If I do these 10 things of grooming, then I get to cash out for my goal, my intended aim. THIS grooming is to have THIS effect.”
Because non-abusers don’t think that way, the it-doesn’t-count business doesn’t even make sense. It is completely nonsensical…
It is totally.
…because the toilet either gets cleaned or it doesn’t. There’s no part of that where you clean it, but it doesn’t “count.” Is it clean or is it not clean?
Right. Oh, but if you enjoyed it, it doesn’t count <laugh>.
Trying to Use Logic on the Abuser May Keep You In Their Grasp LONGER
It does count because the toilet’s still clean.
They just are so nonsensical. I think that was the hardest thing for me, cause I am so logical and just lately I’ve been wondering if I actually might be on the spectrum a little bit. I’m just so, so logical that these types of things were just the hardest for me. I would confront him: “This doesn’t make sense, let me tell you all the reasons why.” And it just kept me in the abuse, because they’re never gonna say, “Oh yeah, that’s a good point. The toilet is clean, so I guess the thing that matters is that you cleaned the toilet. Good job.”
Several of the things you just said really resonated with me. First of all is the internal score sheet, because he also did say that he would do all these things “for me” that I didn’t ask for and didn’t even want. Then he would rage at me and feel entitled to do so because he had done the things which I didn’t even ask for.
“He Would Get So Resentful Whenever I Used Logic”
And for him, in his head that was grooming and he thought it would get him something…
So when it didn’t work, it was infuriating because it was like it didn’t count in his own head: it was all for nothing because doing the dishes just to do the dishes doesn’t count unless you have some other goal that you’re trying to get. So if he does the dishes and it’s grooming and he doesn’t get what the aim of the dish doing is (which is may be sex or something), then it was like, “Well, doing dishes was a waste.”
Yes, a hundred percent. I love the way you articulated that so clearly, because for me, when I was in it, it was just so confusing. And I would revert back to what you were describing that you did, which is trying to logic-it-out and trying to explain things to him. And he would get so resentful whenever I used logic and get so angry because he couldn’t refute it, and then he would rage and tantrum and all the other things. So yes, you’re right on.
Does Standing Up To The Abuser Actually Work?
For our listeners, so many women have talked to me and they’ve said, “If only I could do what you did, Anne. If only I could have stood up for myself and told them that it was unacceptable and all that stuff, then maybe things would’ve been better for me.” And I always wanna say, “No. No, no, no, you cannot ‘logic’ them out of abusing you.”
I wasn’t the type to do service, for example, so had that happened in my case (and this is not better or worse, this is just different ways of dealing with abuse), I was like, “Heck no, I’m not doing that.”
And so I would just fight him on stuff, and rarely was he able to get me to do the thing that he wanted me to do. I was the worst victim in the world; I just would not do it.
And so a lot of women think, “Well, had I done that, things would’ve been better for me.” And I’m like, “No, because then I just ended up in an argument with him all the time.” We were just constantly fighting and I would win a lot of the time because I’m logical. So I could win and then he wouldn’t get what he wanted, but then the resentment would build up.
The only way to be safe isn’t to comply with abuse, but it’s also not to confront it either. Neither of those two things work. Make your way to safety by setting boundaries.
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
We have our BTR Living Free Workshop that teaches women how to communicate with abusers in a way that will keep them safe. (If you’re interested in that, go to our website, scroll down to the bottom. It says Join Our Community. You can submit your email and you’ll get weekly updates about everything that’s going on at BTR, and also when we’re gonna be doing that workshop the next time) It is amazing. It’s how to not do either of those things. It’s how to not confront and also how not to comply at the same time, so that you can just kind of fade from the abuse in a way that is safe. So I recommend everyone check that out cause it’s too complex really to <laugh> say in two minutes, and that’s not what this episode is about.
But that’s a hard thing for victims to wrap their head around that: you can’t confront it, but you also can’t comply. So where does that leave you? And I think most women fall into those two categories.
It’s very rare that someone is like, “Oh, I’ll just be like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna get in my car and move into an apartment’.”, right?
Most women love their husbands and they want to make it work. And so they’re either gonna try to make it work through confronting him or they’re gonna try to make it work through complying.
Stay tuned for the end of Laurel’s story. She’ll be back on the podcast next week. If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. And until next week, stay safe out there.