There are many things to regret about dating a gaslighter. You regret being naive, you regret selling yourself short, you regret the years you probably took off your life from the stress of someone continually making you question your own mind. When I first met the Gaslighter, I was swept off my feet. He was charming, funny, and seemed as interested in me as I was in him. Five months later, I was having regular panic attacks and questioning whether I could trust my own memory because of how often he convinced me I didn’t say that or you’re imaging things and you’re just being difficult.
For those who don’t know, to “gaslight” is to manipulate someone into questioning their reality. The term comes from the early 1900s book/movie: Gas Light. In the story, a husband tricks his wife into believing she is losing her mind. At one point, he makes the house gaslights flicker. When the wife asks why they are flickering, the husband tells her they’re not and that she’s imagining things.
A gaslighter distorts someone’s reality so much that they, the victim, no longer trust their reality or their own mind. A gaslighter does this (whether intentionally or unintentionally) by constantly telling the other person that the way they perceive things is incorrect. They’ll accuse someone of “overreacting” or “making things up” or “being too sensitive.” Overtime, the gaslighter will repeat these claims so often, and mix it in with some positive reinforcement, that the victim will start to question if they really are just overreacting or if what they are feeling is valid. Did they mishear the gaslighter when they said they’d come over Saturday? Because now the gaslighter says his plan was always to go to Pattaya with his boss and you are being controlling if you say that that hurts your feelings. Whose memory is correct?
It took me longer than it should have to permanently kick the Gaslighter out of my life–and I only managed it when he said something unbelievably cruel about my 12 yr old Thai students. When I did, I was able to so clearly see the red flags that had made me miserable during my time in Thailand. I scoured my journals and found all the breadcrumbs of “Gaslighter said this, but I don’t think that’s true…but maybe it’s me? Am I being unreasonable? Maybe I phrased my concern the wrong way and he misunderstood.” I wanted to jump back through the pages and slap my past self.
Now, living in Portugal and seven months removed from the Gaslighter, I have a gnawing fear that somehow I will get into this situation again. I have a heightened awareness that the moment a date does or says something that rubs me the wrong way, I bolt. In the past, I’d let moments of rudeness slide. Now, with an emotionally exhaustive cocktail of grief from a death, a major breakup, and someone making you legitimately question your sanity for nearly a year, I’ve found that I am more blunt than I used to be.
Which brings me to an event from a few weeks ago: the second worst date of my life (still not the No. 1 Worst, but it came really close).
The Awkward Engineer and I met a month and a half ago. I give any guy I date a nickname: Gym Boy, the Marine, One Lung, The Tall One, The One I Actually Like, etc. Awkward Engineer earned his nickname because a) he’s an engineer and b) on our very first date he kept constructing houses out of Legos as we talked in a bar. I liked the Awkward Engineer right away. He was smart, easy to talk to, and asked me questions about myself–something that has been severely lacking in my dating life in Portugal. We ended our first date by playing foosball against another couple and having a last drink at a rooftop bar.
For our second date, Awkward Engineer came over to my apartment. We had a few drinks, a good conversation, and he fixed a piece of IKEA furniture that I had failed tremendously to put together.
Our third date was less than spectacular, but I chalked it up to my mood. I’d not only been toiling under a deadline at work, but I’d also recently started tutoring a colleague in English. Our class that day had completely drained me. Awkward Engineer is Portuguese and his English is decent, but at times he has to pause to search for words or asks me to define and re-explain. After eight hours of work followed by 1.5 hours of teaching, I didn’t have the energy to explain to someone that sea and ocean are the same thing and no, I don’t know why we use both in English–English is dumb.
For our fourth date, Awkward Engineer called me before my evening run. “Do you want to take a beer?” he asked.
“How about wine at my place?” I suggested.
At 9:45 p.m., Awkward Engineer was at my door with a bottle of vinho branco. By 10:00 p.m., I was debating whether to pay him back for the wine and throw him out of my apartment, or just throw him out and keep the wine.
The date began to teeter when Awkward Engineer asked how my tutoring was going and I said that my student was improving, but slowly.
“Your student is doing fine,” he said.
“Your student: he’s fine. He is doing better than you think.”
I pulled the cork from the bottle. “Yes, I know that?” I said. “He’s doing well, but the vocab he has to learn for our company is hard, so he’s struggling.”
“Come on, he is improving!” Awkward Engineer insisted. “You need to be patient.”
I stared at the Awkward Engineer. I wanted to ask where in my sentence did I sound like I wasn’t being patient? Also, what did he know about my teaching or my student without ever being in the room? “I am being patient,” I said. “He needs to learn English for his job, so I feel a lot of pressure for him to do well.”
“He is doing well,” Awkward Engineer said. “You should calm down.”
In Bangkok, the Gaslighter would constantly twist my words or ignore them all together. I would tell him that it hurt my feelings when he ditched me to get drunk and high with his boss. Once, we slept together and within five minutes he was leaving my apartment. “My boss wants to get a drink,” he said.
“But I thought we were hanging out?” I said.
“No, no–you’re tired.”
“I drank coffee just to hangout with you. When did I say I was tired?”
“You are very tired.”
“But I’m not.”
“Okay, get some sleep. I’ll see ya later!”
This is just a snippet, but Gaslighter would constantly tell me I felt one way, when I was sure I didn’t. In fights, he’d even reference stuff that I said–stuff that I was positive I had not, yet he said it with such conviction that I wondered if maybe I had said it? Or maybe I phrased something the wrong way and he misinterpreted? Towards the end of our relationship, I started recording our fights on my phone just so I could listen to them later and understand if I was losing my mind or if the Gaslighter was just screwing with my mind (turns out, it was the latter).
As the Awkward Engineer continued to tell me how my student was progressing, despite not knowing a bloody thing about my student, I realized that that’s what had bugged me on our third date as well: he kept explaining to me the way that I felt. I said I was stressed from teaching, he said I wasn’t. I said I was worried about a hurricane hitting my hometown in the US, he said I wasn’t. I felt my mood slipping and slipping, but, because apparently I am a slow learner, I just shouldered the blame and figured something was wrong on my end, not his.
The Awkward Engineer and I cheers’d our glasses of wine. “My student is fine,” I said, with a bit more annoyed emphasis than I intended to. “I think I can judge it myself.”
“You sound like Trump.”
I choked on my wine. “Excuse me?”
We sat on my couch, which is really just a twin bed in my living room
“You sound like Trump.” Awkward Engineer smiled widely.
“Because we both have northern-sounding accents?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “You’re very direct in the way you talk. You say something and then you are like no one can tell me I’m wrong.”
“Because I said I’m being patient with my student? You don’t know anything about the student or how I teach–”
“And your vocab is similar,” he added.
“WHAT?!” I asked if he was joking just to get a rise out of me. “Donald Trump has the vocab of an eight year old. That’s insulting to say to a writer.”
Awkward Engineer said he wasn’t joking. “You use small words,” he said. “Very direct.”
I wanted to tell him that his English wasn’t good enough (and my Portuguese is shit) for me to use my typical vocab, but I didn’t want to be rude.
“Let’s change the subject,” I said. “Tell me about your new job.”
Instead of telling me about his new job, Awkward Engineer proceeded to tell me how, as an American, I must like Trump and I obviously voted for him. We went back and forth on how not every American voted for or likes Trump. Awkward Engineer then said how Hillary Clinton would have been worse.
“I don’t want to talk about politics,” I said. “Seriously–tell me about your new job.”
“Come on, you can’t think Hillary would have been good for the US.”
“What I think is that we should change the subject.”
Awkward Engineer then shared his opinion about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“That’s great,” I said, finishing my glass of wine. “At least you left one President off of your list.”
“Obama?” Awkward Engineer furrowed his brow. I held my breath. “That’s because he wasn’t a president. He was a ‘yes-man.'”
I threw my hands in the air and stood up. “Are you trolling me?” I asked. “What the hell is happening with this conversation?”
Awkward Engineer scoffed. “You can’t tell me you like Obama?”
“OF COURSE I DO. I think that’s obvious. For the love of god, change. The. Subject.”
“But this is all I know about America.”
“Why do we have to talk about America? We’re not in America. We can talk about anything. TELL ME ABOUT YOUR NEW JOB.”
“There is cool architecture in Los Angeles. The buildings are made to withstand earthquakes. I like that.”
I went into my kitchen and grabbed the bottle of wine.
“I also like New York,” the Awkward Engineer continued. “If I could go to any city in US, I would go to New York and then Los Angeles.”
“Yes, those are cool cities.”
“But I would not go to Chicago.”
I stopped mid-pour. “Why?” I thought of the Chicago city flag hanging above my bed.
“It is an ugly city. Not nice at all.”
“Have you been to Chicago?”
“No, but I hear things.” He made a face as if he were throwing up. “Chicago is a shithole.”
“Do you remember where I’m from?”
“So why would you say that? I would never say something negative about Porto to you.”
“Yes, but I am speaking in facts. When you compare the three: Chicago is shit.”
I downed half of my wine glass in one swallow and checked the time on my phone: 10:00 pm. Normally, this is when, out of sheer politeness, I’d let a date just keep talking and talking, and I would just nod and half-listen. I’d probably also drink more and eventually kiss the guy just to make him shut up, rather than actually tell him how I was feeling at that moment.
Instead, as Awkward Engineer proceeded to bash on a city I love so much I have a small homage of it in a tattoo, I thought about the Gaslighter. From the beginning, Gaslighter said things that upset me, but I just let them slide because…well I have no idea why. When you’re still coping with the sudden combined losses of a parent and a man who was practically a fiancé, you do stupid things to avoid thinking about all the loss.
Obviously the Awkward Engineer wasn’t saying anything directly mean about me, but the Gaslighter’s comments had also started off light: people who take antidepressants are weak (me); people from developed countries are weak (me); you obviously slept with your male friend when you traveled to Malaysia together, and then you probably hooked up with that Pakistani guy when you got back (again: me).
I pulled a chair up to the couch and sat facing the Awkward Engineer. “Do you realize that in the span of ten minutes you’ve compared me to Trump, insulted Obama–who I happen to really like–and now you’re telling me that a city that I love and consider home is a shithole, even though you have never been there?”
Awkward Engineer spilled his wine on himself and sat up. “But New York and Los Angeles are cool. New York also has those buildings that just collapse. Do you remember 9/11?”
“Tell me you’re joking right now.”
“Those towers were built to fall in on themselves.” He held one hand straight up in the air and used the other as an imaginary plane to crash into it. “Isn’t that cool?”
“That was a tragedy,” I said. “I think it would have been cooler had it not happened.”
Awkward Engineer shrugged. “Yeah, but think about it–”
“I don’t want to think about it.”
“They could have fallen to the side–”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“They would have taken out so many more buildings!”
“I cannot express enough how much I do not want to talk about this.”
“But instead they collapsed in on themselves.”
“Stop talking! Não falas!”
“How great, right?”
I again threw my hands in the air. “WHAT is wrong with you? Are you understanding me?”
“Shhh you are having fun right now.”
“This is not fun!”
“I am only speaking in facts. It’s logical. Think about it: if the buildings had fallen to the side–”
I put my hand on his mouth. “I get your logic,” I said. “If the buildings had fallen to the side, then all of the people in the buildings would have died and the people in the surrounding buildings would have died, too. I get the bloody logic.”
He smiled and nodded, glad to have me agree with his point of view just like the Gaslighter was always happy when I finally conceded to his side of an argument: yes, it’s fine that you stood me up to go get drunk and high with your boss; yes, it’s reasonable for you to accuse me of sleeping with someone else because it just means you are insecure and I have to make concessions for that; yes, it is okay that you have threatened to hack into my email and Facebook account because you are just “too in love” and don’t know how to handle it. In my head, I could hear one of the last fights Gaslighter and I had before I accepted my new job in Portugal. Gaslighter had gone back home to India for a short visit and told me he was on Bumble “seeing what was out there.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say to me,” I’d told him. “I’m your girlfriend. That hurts to know you’re essentially looking for someone else.”
“You always see the negative,” Gaslighter said. “That’s how you are. Can’t be helped.”
That specific fight with the Gaslighter was the one that made me realize he was manipulating my mind. Was I a negative person? Was it normal for someone in a committed relationship to be on Bumble “just to look”? Was I being unreasonable or looking for problems where there weren’t any?
Obviously, the answer was no: I’m not a negative person and it is not normal for someone in a committed relationship to be looking through Bumble to “see what’s out there.” That’s a shit person doing a shit thing.
Logically, I knew Awkward Engineer was not the exact same person at the Gaslighter, but I was also tired of continually taking someone’s feelings into account, especially when there seemed little regard for mine.
I took my hand off Awkward Engineer’s mouth. “Speaking in logic,” I said. “What do you see happening after this conversation?” I drew an imaginary line between us.
For the first time, Awkward Engineer seemed to actually listen to me.
“I think you won’t want to talk to me again?”
“That would be correct.”
“But I am only talking in logic!”
“And, logically, I think we’re too different.”
“How are we different?”
“I care when I am upsetting someone. You don’t. This night is over.”
There was some pushback from the Awkward Engineer, and he managed to make me feel some guilt by saying that he really enjoyed the few times we’ve hungout, and that he does “care,” but the spell was broken. When he left, he accepted the fact that we’d never speak again.
I am not calling the Awkward Engineer an outright gaslighter by any means, but something about his insistence on knowing how I felt and his refusal to listen to me just made me think he was more than simply oblivious. I’d already spent nearly a year with someone else making me constantly question my own thoughts and feelings–I didn’t want to spend even one more evening doing that again.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have been so upfront with the Awkward Engineer. In fact, I probably would have just been slightly annoyed without really knowing why. After a night like the fourth date, I would have continued to answer his texts and I probably would have even seen him again because sometimes I swear I do not have a backbone. Now, however, I do have more of a backbone and I can (somewhat) more easily pinpoint when I think someone isn’t being considerate or caring.
I’m not saying this is a fantastic new trait of mine, nor am I saying I’m very graceful about it, but, out of everything that transpired from dating a Gaslighter, I am at least glad that it taught me to finally start speaking up when I should and recognize even small hints of gaslighting behavior.