He was way too attractive to be interested in me. The questions still nagged me, even after many years together: What does a guy like him want with a girl like me?
It's still a bit difficult for me to understand why this happened or to put into words what our relationship did to me. I still feel bad, a year after leaving him, for maybe having been too harsh to him. After all, he loved me, and he never physically hurt me, right?
It took me months to put a name on it: gaslighting.
In short, gaslighting is a kind of psychological and emotional abuse that works by making the victim doubt their own sanity. It comes from a play called Gas Light, where the antagonist (the husband), who wants his wife's money without the wife, starts playing with the gas lights in the house. Whenever his wife would say, Hey, did you see that?, the husband would respond, No, there's nothing wrong with the lights — you're crazy.
And this is the essence of gaslighting: whenever a victim expresses a perception or an emotion, the abuser responds with something like: "No, you're wrong."
It wasn't very obvious, at first. I was eager to please and make him happy. But there was always a feeling of walking on eggshells whenever I expressed emotions regarding our relationship. When approaching him with issues in our relationship, we'd always finish the conversation with me feeling that I was guilty of something — that it was always my fault. That he was doing nothing wrong, and that I was crazy for having these feelings.
The first instance I can really put my finger on is about two years after I'd returned from studying in another city. I felt extremely guilty for having gone, and he never let me forget that I left him. Although he said he forgave me, somehow, it didn't feel like he did. So one day, I told him exactly that.
"I still feel like you're resenting me for having left. I still feel guilty somehow. I don't know how to deal with that guilt."
"Oh, I've forgiven you and moved on," he said. "You're the one who's feeling guilty for no reason. You shouldn't feel guilty about this."
It's subtle, but this kind of denying of my feelings was a constant in our relationship. No matter what I expressed, it ended up being "just me," and he didn't see it that way at all, so I must be wrong.
The second instance I can clearly point to, and the one that started to make me seriously question our relationship, happened about a year after the previous one. We hadn't had sex in over two years, and it was starting to really affect my ability to function as his partner. We'd had several talks about this problem, but nothing ever came out of them.
One evening, as he came back from work, I was really upset about our inability to find a solution. I talked to him for a half-hour, expressing all the feelings I had and the need that I felt to be close to him again.
His response? He stood in the living room doorway, his arms crossed as if protecting himself from something, and said: "So, in that whole half-hour tirade, you said NOTHING about me."
I had no idea how to deal with that. How could expressing my emotions and my needs be about him? How could he still, after all this time, turn anything around and make it about him and about how wrong I was to feel whatever I was feeling?
I can only analyze what this emotional abuse did to me with a year's worth of hindsight. But the conclusion is certain: I was a shell of myself for all those years. I spent so much energy trying to explain his behaviour, putting it on his stress, or my leaving him to study, or the death of his father, or the following depression he suffered from.
And yet, none of those things justify what he did to me. I don't know if he did it consciously; it's not for me to decide whether he was deliberately abusing me, or if that's just the only way he knows how to handle relationships. But the effect on me was unmistakable: I drank heavily, fell into the deepest depression of my life, constantly gained weight (further ensuring his not having sex with me anymore), and just felt purposeless, rudderless, and without joy.
The friends who knew me before I met him tell me I changed; they tell me they never liked him, but they didn't dare tell me. Some of them stopped talking to me because they couldn't bear watching him continually abuse me. Those who've known me during and after also tell me of the amazing change: I have a spark in my eye now, and I'm full of joy and purpose again.
The first step towards my escaping his emotional abuse was joining a Zen sangha. Meditation, and the truth that it enabled me to see, was essential to my recovery. At first, I joined it to get rid of this constant feeling of guilt, to try to repress those emotions that were so inconvenient to him. But it did the opposite: it showed me that my feelings were right and true, and that they had a purpose in my life.
I also developed a deep friendship with a man I now date and love. The way he treated me was such a contrast to the way my partner dealt with me that I couldn't but start feeling like something was really, really wrong. He listened. He acknowledged. He made me feel accepted and appreciated. He never told me that my feelings were wrong. In fact, he encouraged me to explore them and express them more.
Of course, the last thing I did was leave. It was the work of months, of several hours of meditation, and focusing on finding the kindest way to approach this breakup. Nine years, after all, is not something you drop with a text message.
During the past year, I've re-learned all about feeling my feelings. I've re-learned that I have a right to my emotions and needs. I've re-learned that expressing them is never wrong. I've re-learned that expressing feelings and needs isn't "needy" or "naggy" or "demanding." I've re-learned that partners who really care want to hear about how you feel.
Leaving is a decision only you can make. But you can take an uncompromising look at your relationship. You can meditate on it and see its truth. That was enough for me.