Twenty one years ago I married a narcissist. Five years later we were divorced. Sixteen years after that and my life is still affected by the trauma of gas lighting, and verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. I look at these numbers and think how did such a short period of time affect my entire adult life? How did I let this happen?
The first thing I learned when I finally began mental health therapy was to stop asking questions that assigned blame to myself. Easier said than done right? I honestly can’t stop the thoughts. I can’t block the mean version of my inner voice from posing these questions. I can’t keep it from making judgmental statements about past choices that I can do nothing about now. But I can interrupt that voice. I can say “Stop it. This is not your fault.” I can even answer that mean inner voice. How did I let this happen? I didn’t. A monster and master manipulator did it to me. Why is it still affecting me? Because it was really freaking traumatic so shut up! Bottom line: Don’t let that voice minimize your experience. Don’t let it tell you it was your fault. That’s the narcissist talking. They make their way into your head, create a mountain of self doubt, and tell you everything (and I mean every single thing) is your fault. Every one of us has a critical version of their inner voice. No one’s is cheery and perfect to them all the time. But this one is a little different, isn’t it? The inner voice the narcissist puts in your head is so much more damaging. It’s harsh. It hates you. And it’s ridiculously wrong.
For a long time after my divorce I continued to believe all the things X said to me. His toxic words became my inner voice: I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m useless, I’m an embarrassment, I’m ugly, I’m not worthy of love. But then (post therapy) I started to do something new when I heard that voice. I made a list to show myself how ridiculously, unbelievably, without a doubt, WRONG it was. You see, the narcissist will say all these horrible things without any logical basis. So I made a list of contradictions: all the things X had said versus the reality. Here’s the number one item one that list:
“You’re an anchor. You’re the reason nothing ever goes right. I’d be successful if it weren’t for you.”
This was said quite often actually. Usually when he had failed at something, like the business he was never able to get off the ground. Or when he was fired from yet another job. Or when he couldn’t even find a job. I held a steady job for the entirety of our relationship. I literally supported us on an income of $7.50/hour for a complete year while he sat at home “working” on his “business”. I moved up through the ranks of every company I worked for. I learned crucial job skills, got promoted, made more and more money. I made more money than he ever made when he would actually find a job. Of course he would always and inevitably be fired from every job he held. As a matter of fact he was fired not long after our divorce and had to go on unemployment. He didn’t have me to support him anymore.
You see how ridiculous his words were? I was increasingly successful but his failures were my fault? I’m far removed from the person I was then so I can look back now and see it. I can even laugh at his complete absurdity. But I believed every word he said then. Those words broke my heart. Those words rang in my head as I cried myself to sleep at night. By the time he made statements like this to me I was already deep inside his web of narcissistic manipulation. I can’t imagine hearing something so utterly insane today without laughing in the face of the person saying it. But he didn’t just randomly come up to me one day and start spewing hateful remarks. It was slow and subtle.
I was 19 and smack dab in the middle of a complete rebellion against my parents. I wanted to take a few years off from college and work. That was not acceptable to them. I briefly compromised with them and enrolled part-time in school before dropping out. Yes, adult me wants to smack teenager me. But at that time I wanted to live my life on my own terms regardless of what was actually best for me. The irony is that nothing about my life for the next six years was on my own terms.
I met X through a mutual friend. He was charming and funny. He was loving and kind. He cooked for me, took me shopping, told me how beautiful I was. He had told me he was 22, which he could easily pass for. That was his first of many lies. Months into dating him I found out he was 28. His reason was that he was really in to me but afraid a girl like me wouldn’t be interested in a man approaching his 30’s. “A girl like me”. A flattering compliment to make me forget the lie. These types of flattery lies are why I hate so many romantic comedies. Somebody lies to somebody else but they really wanted to tell the truth but couldn’t because they were afraid of losing them because they are the best thing to have ever come into their lives and in the end they are forgiven for their mass deception. Hey, I have an idea: DON’T LIE! Unfortunately I didn’t see this particular lie as a major issue or as any type of red flag. I didn’t care that he was eight years older. My only thought was what a stupid lie.
Along with flattery lies, X eventually began to give me insult compliments:
- You’re so beautiful. And I love that you’re chubby.
- You’re nose is so cute. It reminds me of Miss Piggy
- I love that you don’t care about what your hair looks like
- I don’t want a perfect girl. I’d rather have the diamond in the rough like you
These are the subtle ways pretty much anyone can slowly and methodically chip away at a person’s self esteem. I began to doubt myself. I began to think I was ugly and fat and lucky that anyone at all wanted me. X also began small criticisms of me that he’d say as if they were funny. Like it was hysterical that I was inept at something. He’d laugh and say “Wow! You really don’t know how to cook at all.” He’d follow that up with something like “I guess your mother didn’t care enough to teach you.” It was planting yet another seed of self doubt. Did she teach me? She cares about me right? Doesn’t she?… He even made fun of the way I shopped for groceries. Seriously, like I was incomprehensibly stupid for buying one brand of tomato sauce over the other. Trivial things that really didn’t matter. But he was older and I was still young and naive. He’d remind me of that. He’d say my parents didn’t do anything to teach me how to live in the real world, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. But here I was doing everything wrong and he was going to show me the “right” way to do things. He knew better than I did, right? He played the “you’re too young to know better so I’ll teach you” card all too often. He eventually was able to make me believe I couldn’t adequately perform the most simple task. I couldn’t even wash the dishes correctly. But it wasn’t constant. Not yet. It was peppered in the middle of showering me with love and gifts and telling me how wonderful I was. How incredible and smart I was. It was slow. It was methodical. After a year of this I believed I needed him. I believed I wouldn’t make it in this world without him. He made me question everything I thought I knew until eventually I took his word for it. I was gaslighted. My reality was flipped.
All this time while I was supposedly inadequate, while I couldn’t perform the simplest of tasks, I was the only one holding down a job. His source of income consisted of pawning off all my belongings that were of value because I needed to get rid of all my childish things. Childish things like:
- Expensive jewelry that I’d had since I was in grade school. Jewelry that my parents had gotten me but according to X was ugly and cheap looking and proved they didn’t love me.
- The camera I used for my high school photography class that my dad bought. It was an old AE-1 Canon and if he really loved me he would’ve bought me a new one (even though it’s the exact camera I had wanted).
- My TV because his was better. He was a self professed expert on electronics and only fools fell for the sales ploy and bought the type of television I had.
- The Mac computer my dad had bought me for my high school graduation. It was the cheapest model according to X and thus proved, again, that my father didn’t really love me.
It was if two “me’s” existed. The smart, confidant, work me that could tackle any task and the worthless, stupid, home me that didn’t even know how to properly make a bed. I wish work me had talked to home me. I wish work me had called my parents or confided in a friend. Instead I married X a year after we began dating. And so continued 5 more years of escalating abuse.
All of these things that I now know, all of these revelations, I couldn’t see back then. Even after we were divorced I still did not see the reality for several more years. I still believed everything he told me. It wasn’t until I went into therapy that the veil was lifted. All those years I truly thought it really was me. Something was wrong with me. But it was not me. It was him.
I always want to end my posts by saying that if any of this is relevant to your life, and you haven’t already, please seek help. Therapy is paramount to healing. Whether it’s a spouse, partner, parent, sibling, or any other relationship, know that you’re not alone. There are ways you can get away from this person or set boundaries and distance. If you’ve been isolated from your family and friends, try to find a way to reconnect. If you are in the beginning, middle, or end of this type of situation, know that it is not you, it’s them!