Today has been a hell of a day in my world of Living-With-My-Separated-Husband-And-It-Sucks-Balls. So much that I’ve written two Medium articles tonight, sitting in my drafts aching for review and publishing.
Through a series of arguments, I found myself in a heated discussion with Joseph while he was in the office and I stood in the doorway. He was angry and cursing. I repeated that I didn’t want to discuss things at that moment, that it all stemmed from asking when we could sit down and go through our list of assets. Over and over, I repeated that there was no need for the level of rage and language.
Finally, Joseph yells “I told you that I was done talking about this! You’re the one who followed me and kept bringing it up!”
In the past, I would have fallen for that. I would have considered myself an erratic basket case who follows someone around after the conversation ends to escalate a situation.
Not this time, muthafucka. I know he didn’t yell that he was done talking about it. I know he yelled that he wasn’t going to agree to anything and that I was being ridiculous while making dozens of accusations.
It’s taken me a long time to recognize when that game is played.
I’m not a psychologist. But I know gaslighting. The gist is when someone spins the truth so much that you believe the lie, thinking you’re crazy for not remembering the events the same way they did.
What I also know about gaslighting is that for me, there are two reasons I fell for it.
Keeping everything a secret
No one in my life knows the drama of my marriage. I kept it a secret out of respect for him, so things wouldn’t be awkward when I hung out with friends. I was also embarrassed that I had such a shitty marriage. By doing this, I never got a “sanity check” from friends to receive validation or alternative perspectives.
On our umpteenth time of marriage counseling, I briefly mentioned how I needed help with Joseph when it came to the dishes based on him working 2 hours away while I juggled work and the kids. It made things more difficult for me when I rushed home from work and picking them up when the sink was completely unusable from the piles of dishes.
“She’s just trying to be controlling,” Joseph told her.
The marriage counselor leaned over and looked him dead in the eye. “No one thinks it’s okay to leave their sink full of dishes at night. People normally clean that up before going to bed. Leaving it full and dirty night after night isn’t okay. You’re acting like a bachelor.”
I think I cried like a baby. I finally had validation for something I desperately needed his help with since I did 99% of the work with the house and kids. I wasn’t wrong. He was.
When I began telling my friends about the divorce, very few were surprised. Almost all of them said, “well no kidding. You were a single mom this whole time.”
“He thinks I’m exaggerating how much I did compared to him,” I’d reply. Every single of them would yell at me about how much they saw me do over the years on my own. How I didn’t go out with them because he was never home to watch the kids. How I was the one who left work to attend every school event because they saw me there, by myself. How much I dealt with insurance on the phone for my son’s autism treatments when those who shared an office with me heard it all. I didn’t have to tell them I was on my own; they saw it for themselves.
And yet, Joseph still insists that it was very little work in comparison to what he did. I had no right to be upset at the unequal distribution of work.
Why did I tolerate it?
When you grow up in a dysfunctional, abusive, and violent home, you don’t tell anyone what’s going on. We’d like to think that kids will tell a teacher or a friend’s parent. Sadly, that’s not how it works.
Not only do kids not want to stand out for being different in a negative way, but they’re also fiercely loyal to their family. It’s an unspoken Mafia-like deal. You don’t tell anyone the family secrets unless you want a horse head in your bed.
My mother often yelled at me, “I bet you tell all your friends just how awful we are!” which further reinforced my secretive nature. I didn’t want to be the snitch she insisted I was.
Years later, as adults attending a friend’s wedding, I shed light on a few situations I dealt with growing up to my childhood friends. They were floored. “Why didn’t you ever tell us?” they exclaimed.
It never crossed my mind that by telling others the truth about my life, they’d show me that I wasn’t the reason for the trauma. Keeping secrets protects others but it destroys you and allows gaslighting to creep in.
Being told you’re a bad child
In another marriage counseling session, I unloaded about how our evenings were spent with little quality time once I put the kids to sleep and Joseph returned from his commute. He’d flop on the couch and I’d try striking up a conversation about our day. He loathed his job; any time I asked about his day at work he seethed that he didn’t want to talk about it.
This continued for over a year. Finally, he snapped that I was to never ask him about his work or how his day went ever again. Since he never asked how my day went, it only allowed small talk about the kids or just watch TV.
“She’s desperately trying to connect with you, Joseph,” the marriage counselor told him. She told him that talking about each other’s day is normal for couples in the evening.
“I thought she was trying to rub it in to purposely make me feel bad when she asked about my day,” he replied. Yeah, I asked him daily for years how his day went so that I could make him feel shitty and allow myself to be snapped at because I enjoyed sobbing later (note sarcasm).
That sums up the role he placed on me in our marriage. I believed myself to be the nagging wife or the asshole who pestered her husband when he ignored her. I was the one at fault when I initiated sex but he had already jerked off from his porn addiction. When we fought, he turned it into a character assassination and name-calling; since I don’t do that, I believed it to be true.
When Joseph accused me of something I didn’t do for nefarious reasons that didn’t exist, I defended myself while deep down believing his version of me. Looking back at our shitty evening routine, I think about guys out there who would give their left nut for a partner to ask about their day and genuinely want to hear it.
Recently, a friend mentioned in passing how she told her husband that I was “so sweet and caring”. It took all my strength to not automatically convince her that she’s wrong, even though she’s known me for 15 years.
It’s a no-brainer why believing you’re a semi-decent person is difficult when you’ve experienced childhood trauma. The most formative years of your life were spent being taught that you’re a shitty human.
I can list dozens of reasons why I believed I was a horrible person as a kid and yet, if it were another child, I’d rationalize that these were normal behaviors. My children don’t lash out because they’re assholes (…well…I mean…all kids are little assholes but it’s not their fault), they lash out because their feelings are too big for them and they don’t have the skills to manage them. Teenagers are moody because they surge with hormones; I jokingly tell my kids that when they’re older, they’re going to yell that they hate me while slamming doors because I washed their jacket.
There’s no set moment when I felt that I morphed into a crappy human. For as long as I can remember, I felt that I was a bad, bad person. I have a picture of myself, 5 years old, at a friend’s birthday party. My smile is massive and there’s a big bowl of spaghetti next to me. Looking at the picture of that innocent child, I know behind that smile I believed I was an evil and bad person. My heart breaks for her.
When you grow up with others telling you from birth that you’re a shitty human, you’ll believe it in your adult relationships as well. I allowed someone else to dictate my motivates and thoughts even though I knew I had the best intentions. This is Gaslighting 101.
Back to this evening’s argument. When Joseph spewed that it was my fault the argument continued and that he wanted it to end, I replied “Oh, I must have missed that. I apologize. I shouldn’t have kept talking about it. Just let me know when you’re ready to sit down and go over the spreadsheet with me.”
I didn’t apologize out of guilt or to accept blame. I apologized because I recognized Joseph’s game and I knew the only way to end it without him continuing was to throw a token gesture to appease his hysteria. What matters is that I didn’t fall for it and allow it to play mind tricks.
I remind myself that this won’t be my life forever anymore. My days of gaslighting are numbered.
Previously Published on medium
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