3 Women Share the Moment They Knew It Was Emotional Abuse

"I cried, thinking something was really wrong with me. I thought I really must be crazy."

Woman on couch
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Gaslighting is a special, awful kind of emotional abuse that leaves you feeling like you're dumb, or crazy, or making things up—all because a partner is manipulating you, and making you doubt your own sanity.

This sort of abuse is unfortunately common, and women often don't know they're in a gaslighting situation until they read about someone in a similar situation, or hear the word for the first time. While each story is nuanced and different, some common themes apply: you start to feel like you're losing your mind, can't figure out why, and ultimately are left feeling crazed and powerless.

We spoke with three women who've experienced emotional abuse via gaslighting in their relationships about how they realized they were being manipulated. 

1. "He'd pick me apart with aggressive questions until there was some kind of inconsistency in my story or my point. I told him I try to be genuine in all conversations, but he would call me a liar, and if I would just stop lying, we could be happy."

"I didn't consciously realize it was bad until about a year into the relationship. I'd moved to a new state with my him, lost touch with four of my best friends, and was feeling suicidal when I brought myself to therapy behind his back. I'd been in a constant state of confusion. Almost crippling confusion. We'd been fighting so frequently and extremely during the move, I wasn't able to keep a job for months.  I would wake up and not know what to do with myself—clean up after him? Job hunt? I'd never woken up so flustered every day. I felt like I didn't look or act like myself. 

During the second therapy session, my therapist said I was in an abusive relationship.

In hindsight, I can see the red flags. He was extremely romantic when I first met him—trips and fancy dinners, very attentive and endearing. When we met, he was too good to be true. Now I know that too good to be true on the first date is what a narcissist looks like. Very early on, he had to convince me that I was so in love with him. He would lie and say that I told him I wanted to marry him in my sleep, or when I was drunk. I would laugh it off, knowing I didn't feel like that yet.  

Once we took an at-home IQ test together, and when we switched tests to grade each other's, I saw that he changed a few answers on mine so that I got a lower score than he did. I felt too embarrassed to care about a small thing to bring it up to him. But the man I loved wanted me to think I was less intelligent than I am. Which really privately struck a cord. 

When I started therapy, my doctor would ask what started the fights, what was said, what was the conclusion... and I couldn't answer any of these questions. In my head, I couldn't remember a timeline for any of the fights. I cried, thinking something was really wrong with me. I thought I really must be crazy, he really was taking care of me. Then she reassured me that it's normal not to be able to recall these events, since they're nonsensical arguments. 

I never felt heard or understood during conversations with him. Not once. He would listen, and then say 'but what you say doesn't matter,' or 'this is stupid, you're just wrong.' As if that should make me just shut up and accept his point of view. But I still tried to argue because my need to be understood was so strong. 

He'd pick me apart with aggressive questions until there was some kind of inconsistency in my story or my point. I told him I try to be genuine in all conversations, but he would call me a liar, and if I would just stop lying, we could be happy." —Amy*, 23

2. "I can't explain it, but he just had this weird charisma and confidence that made me think I wanted to do the things I did with him—like going to dinner with him in public, and having sex."

"I had just started college when my boyfriend of a year and a half broke up with me out of nowhere. I was absolutely crushed. So I started talking to this young teacher from my high school, Tyler*, more often because he was someone I looked up to, and he was really helpful in seeing things from another perspective. 

Then things started escalating, and a month later, we had this weird couple-type dynamic. I was 18 and he was 23 when we started dating. I honestly did think he was really charming and fun to be around, and not some sociopath. He seemed so human to me—I liked getting to see what he was like on the inside. 

The manipulation started from the get-go, when we started seeing each other while he was still with his then-girlfriend—but he'd told me they weren't together anymore. I can't explain it, but he just had this weird charisma and confidence that made me think I wanted to do the things I did with him—like going to dinner with him in public, and having sex.  

I look back on all of it now and I just wish I could reach back into a physical timeline and grab myself by the shoulders and pull myself out. I was always texting him all day, or staying at his place for maybe a day and a half without eating, always trying to be this weird crutch in his life when he would break down. But he kept so much from me at the same time. And when I would question him, or question where we stood as a couple, and he would turn an argument around on me, and he made me believe that something wasn't wrong with us, that it was all in my head, and I would feel compelled to apologize. 

I would catch someone texting him, calling him baby, and when I confronted him, he would pretend like he was so open with me and tell me a completely different story that didn't implicate him. He'd offer to take me home if I was uncomfortable, and then of course I would brush it off and stay with him after hearing his fake apology. 

About nine months after this whole mess started, I met up with a friend from high school who told me this girl my age, also from my high school, Amanda*, was in a relationship with Tyler, and there were texts and pictures to prove it. It became this whole messy thing, because again, he was one of her old teachers. I was so devastated and hurt. I couldn't eat for days. 

I confronted him about it immediately. We didn't speak for a week and it killed me, and he acted like it killed him. I wish I could say I walked away, but he told me he was just being a mentor for Amanda because her father is out of the picture, and she was going through personal problems. He even said he asked Amanda's mom if being a mentor to her was OK. He said Amanda was reading too much into the situation, and was just lying to her friends that they were having sex. He said he was concerned about her for making all this stuff up.  He told me he understood if I stayed mad, even though he absolved himself of all wrongdoing, and he promised he'd make it up to me. He told me he wanted to start over, to take me to this new restaurant he'd started going to, to take me out in public. 

For a whole month, I believed him, and thought there was even a chance we might get back together. Before classes started sophomore year, my roommate Jamie* was talking with a friend of ours, Charlotte*, and they got on the subject of Tyler and Amanda. Charlotte said she'd seen the text messages between them firsthand. Charlotte didn't know about me, that I'd dated Tyler, so I asked her what she remembered reading in those texts. 

My gut dropped, because as she told me what they'd said to each other, she used exact phrases that Tyler used with me—details he shares about himself that are so unique to him, requests he makes... it's almost as if he has them memorized to use on any unsuspecting woman he wants to collect. That's when I finally realized he really was full of shit, and I left. I sent him a long-ass text message telling him what a piece of shit he was for manipulating me, and threatened to get even if he ever contacted me again. 

I can still hear what he would say if he read what I'm typing, that he was good to me, that he trusted me. It's fucking ridiculous how he can still be in my head." —Laura*, 22

3. "It's terrifying to think back on all of this, because she made me into someone who I know I'm not."

"My relationship with Roxanne* lasted on and off for about seven months. When we first met, she was perfect. She had lot of friends, and was very outgoing and confident. There was a lot of chemistry and passion and things moved really fast. I think that clouded my judgment from the get-go. She made me feel so confident. She'd say things like, 'my friends think you're so hot,' and would compliment how I looked, but not much else. She knew I had confidence issues in the past and I think she wanted me to feel I could be more attractive with her.

Things started going sour when we started going out to bars at night. She had a reputation for hooking up with a lot of women, and I noticed she would still talk to them when we ran into them at night. She'd shoo me off to go flirt with someone else, and if I called her on it, she'd accuse me of being jealous (just enough to make me paranoid that I was being unreasonable) and would say they were just old friends. I bought that for a while—until even her friends admitted to me that these people were actually old hookups. 

I started catching her in lies, mostly little ones, about how she spent her time. I mostly shrugged it off because I didn't want to argue, and I knew she would fight to make me believe her. When we argued over lies and those sketchy moments, it felt a lot like I was misremembering things. That's probably the earliest bad sign I ignored. Looking back now, I realize that letting things go contributed to digging the hole deeper. 

We agreed that while I was studying abroad that summer, we would keep things casual. But a couple weeks before I left, she got very possessive. She said I love you, and I had an uneasy feeling about it. But I thought it would ruin everything if I didn't say I love you back. She was worried I would leave her or forget about her while I was gone, she didn't want us to see other people. I agreed to it—but by that point I started seeing signs that she had possessive, manipulative tendencies. Still, I didn't want to lose her. 

She did a really good job of making the situation seem almost existential. She would make these grand statements about wanting to marry me and I felt so conflicted but so attached. On one hand, I knew it was ridiculous to think I would marry this girl; but on the other, the passion was so strong and she made me feel so confident, it was almost like I believed her. 

It took her only two weeks after I left for my trip before things started getting really, really bad. She accused people on my study abroad program of wanting to steal me away. I started staying in more, skipping weekend trips, just to text with her. She had total mental and emotional control over me. She pressured me into sending personal photos. I was afraid she'd leave me, knowing all these girls back home were still flirting with her and wanted her. I felt like if I couldn't satisfy her, she would leave me for one of them. She'd back that up by saying ominous things like I just don't know if I can do this, and I'm trying really hard for you, but you might be asking too much of me. Like it was my idea to stay exclusive all summer. 

I began to feel guilty, to the point of becoming depressed, because she made me feel like I was the one forcing her to be with me. I spent a lot of time abroad in my room crying, my all my friends were out having fun and making the most of their trip. 

Finally I gave in and told her she could hook up with other people, the agreement being that she would 'work on herself.' She soon started hooking up with a girl who'd moved into her co-op. The girl started popping up on Roxanne's Facebook, in her Snapchat. They went to a Pride festival together, the girl took her on a birthday date, they posted couple-y things online. It tore me apart. When I called her out, she made me explain why posting all of this was wrong of her. 

We had a few terrible fights when I got back. I tried sticking up for myself and knew I needed to break up with her for good, but it felt like without her, I had no one. I'd lost my drive for school. She had completely changed who I spent my time with. She'd get mad if I made plans with other people, saying we should be working on us. It's terrifying to look back on all of this, because she made me into someone who I know I'm not. I was emotionally weak and she fed on that. It's like she picked at me, piece by piece, pushing things further and further, so when something really shitty happened, it just seemed like another thing. 

I stopped talking about myself because she stopped showing interest in my life. Everything was about her. It sucked, because I had a lot going on with my family that I could've used her support with—but she made it feel like when I took time away from her, I was being selfish. 

What really made me snap out of it was when she started using my friends to control the relationship. She found out a close friend had heard some things about her behavior, and she accused him of trying to 'turn me against her.' She didn't like when I brought him up, she didn't want him around anymore. She knew he didn't think I should be with her. She told another friend of mine that I 'had a problem.' She'd texted her: 'I know you see that Carli* has a problem, and I know you're a good friend and will help her face that.' 

She came over really drunk one night and started ranting about how she knew she could manipulate people, make them feel important. This was the moment I saw that this was what she had been doing to me all along. She made me feel really important, to the point that I needed her as a source of confidence. I remember feeling so scared to break up with her, but in that moment, I knew I had to end it. I had to get as far away from her as possible. I had to break whatever fucked up spell she had on me. 

I read an article online about gaslighting a couple weeks after I broke up with her, and it made me realize that this was something that happens to other people, and there was a name for it, and there was a way to get out of it. I had to cut ties with her completely. I lost friends, I felt like it really hurt my study abroad experience, and the breakup was worse than anything I'd experienced before. But I feel so much better now. And I have a sense of clarity to see that yes, what she did to me was really fucked up. 

For other people who think they are experiencing gaslighting: the biggest sign is feeling really confused about details. If you get this weird feeling of I thought I remembered what he or she said, but they say something else, so maybe I'm wrong, know that you need to trust yourself. Look at the big picture. If there's a long pattern of lying and manipulating words, it's toxic." —Carli*, 21

*Names have been changed.

Follow Marie Claire on Instagram (opens in new tab) for the latest celeb news, pretty pics, funny stuff, and an insider POV.