I have been described as a free-spirit on many occasions in my life. I’ve always been the happy-go-lucky one who can see the positives in every situation. When I first met Seth, a modern day Prince Charming, I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to grab hold of life with all of my might. Seth was drawn to my carefree attitude and innocent curiosity of the world around me. My spirit captivated him, but not in a healthy way. Seth wanted to suck my spirit dry and rob me of my emotions because he wasn’t capable of having feelings of his own. Seth was (and is) an emotional vampire.
By year nine of my relationship with Seth; you would never have believed that I once lived a cheery life. Year after year, I lost more and more of who I once was. It was a slow process but over time, I became robotic and empty. I found that my memory, once as sharp as a needle, became undependable and I was at times left questioning my own sanity. In 2008, a therapist said three words that would change my life forever: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
While I initially dismissed those three powerful words, they kept creeping back into my thoughts and eventually I began to study this disorder. Light bulbs began going off in every direction and the past ten years of my life suddenly made complete sense. I had been living one of the most intense and stealth forms of emotional abuse at the hands of a person who lacked a conscience and empathy. Education soon became the most powerful tool to ever land at my feet. In order to heal, I needed to understand what had happened to me so that I could make sense of it. It was at that point in my research that I discovered “gaslighting” or ambient abuse.
According to Dr. Robin Stern, Ph.D., gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse and there is a “dance” that she refers to as the Gaslight Tango. This dance summarizes much of my relationship with Seth. In an excerpt from an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Stern describes the Gaslight Tango:
“The powerful gaslighter (he has power both because he asserts it and because the gaslightee gives it to him!) engages in an ongoing, systematic knocking down of the other, less powerful person, purposely controlling the relationship by telling the other that there is something wrong with the way she sees the world or there’s something wrong with who she is — and– the gaslightee, by agreeing with him or allowing his perceptions define hers, over time, loses confidence, feels unsure and experiences a growing shakiness of self. Gradually, the gaslightee begins to question what she thought she knew—and gives up the power to stand in her own reality.”
Gaslighting played a huge part in my marriage and was constant. One particularly troublesome year towards the end of our marriage, the roof on our brand new home began to leak after a heavy downpour. It wasn’t a small leak. In fact, water was running down our wall in large quantities. I called Seth to let him know what was happening and he snapped at me. “Dammit, Tina! I told you to remind me to have the gutters cleaned out and you forgot. Do you know how much this is going to cost?!” He slammed the phone down on me in a fit of rage. Had this happened 8 years before, I would have known without a doubt that we never had a conversation about gutters and I would have stood up to his ludicrous allegation. By this point in time, I was conditioned to accept the blame and I was to the point where I questioned both reality and my memory. Seth could have told me that the sky was red and I would have believed him. Instead of defending myself, I apologized profusely for the leaky roof and make a note on my calendar to have the gutters checked next fall. Ironically, we discovered that the roof leak had nothing to do with the gutters. Yet somehow, I still felt like that leak was my fault.
I recently reached out to Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self-love – Narcissism Revisited, for his thoughts on gaslighting, or ambient abuse. According to Sam Vaknin, there are five categories of ambient abuse and many times, they are a combination of these components in play by the abuser:
- Inducing Disorientation: The abuser causes the victim to lose faith in her ability to manage and to cope with the world and its demands. She no longer trusts her senses, her skills, her strengths, her friends, her family, and the predictability and benevolence of her environment. The abuser subverts the target’s focus by disagreeing with her way of perceiving the world, her judgment, the facts of her existence, by criticizing her incessantly – and by offering plausible but specious alternatives. By constantly lying, he blurs the line between reality and nightmare. By recurrently disapproving of her choices and actions – the abuser shreds the victim’s self-confidence and shatters her self-esteem. By reacting disproportionately to the slightest “mistake” – he intimidates her to the point of paralysis.
- Incapacitating: The abuser gradually and surreptitiously takes over functions and chores previously adequately and skillfully performed by the victim. The prey finds herself isolated from the outer world, a hostage to the goodwill – or, more often, ill-will – of her captor. She is crippled by his encroachment and by the inexorable dissolution of her boundaries and ends up totally dependent on her tormentor’s whims and desires, plans and stratagems.
- Shared Psychosis: The abuser creates a fantasy world, inhabited by the victim and himself, and besieged by imaginary enemies. He allocates to the abused the role of defending this invented and unreal Universe. She must swear to secrecy, stand by her abuser no matter what, lie, fight, pretend, obfuscate and do whatever else it takes to preserve this oasis of inanity. Her membership in the abuser’s “kingdom” is cast as a privilege and a prize. It is not to be taken for granted. She has to work hard to earn her continued affiliation. She is constantly being tested and evaluated. Inevitably, this interminable stress reduces the victim’s resistance and her ability to “see straight”.
- Abuse of Information: From the first moments of an encounter with another person, the abuser is on the prowl. He collects information. The more he knows about his potential victim – the better able he is to coerce, manipulate, charm, extort or convert it “to the cause”. The abuser does not hesitate to misuse the information he gleans, regardless of its intimate nature or the circumstances in which he obtained it. This is a powerful tool in his armory.
- Control by Proxy: If all else fails, the abuser recruits friends, colleagues, mates, family members, the authorities, institutions, neighbors, the media, teachers – in short, third parties – to do his bidding. He uses them to cajole, coerce, threaten, stalk, offer, retreat, tempt, convince, harass, communicate and otherwise manipulate his target. He controls these unaware instruments exactly as he plans to control his ultimate prey. He employs the same mechanisms and devices. And he dumps his props unceremoniously when the job is done.
If you feel that you are the victim of gaslighting or any other type of abuse at the hands of a narcissist, you have the power to make changes and to leave the toxic relationship. Before ending a relationship with someone who suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or any type of Cluster B Disorder, I advise you to seek a therapist who is knowledgeable on this topic. I have discovered that the only thing worse than being married to these individuals is to divorce someone with a personality disorder. I encourage you to read everything that you can get your hands on and join in-person support groups or online support groups such as My Emotional Vampire, Respite from Sociopathic Behavior, After Narcissistic Abuse or One Mom’s Battle. Through a strong support system, you will be able to take your power back and be a survivor instead of a victim.
Click the link to purchase Tina’s new book, “Divorcing a Narcissist- One Mom’s Battle.” You will find insight, red flag reflections and strategies on how to survive (and thrive!) while divorcing of co-parenting with a narcissist. Tired of panicking at the site of a new email from the narcissist in your inbox? Learn how to decode the emails and see them for what they are. You will learn to forgive yourself and you will begin to heal.