It’s not just a guy thing.
When people hear the word “gaslighting,” they likely imagine a dysfunctional straight couple, the man manipulating and controlling his wife or girlfriend. While this is all too common, it isn’t the only form. Sometimes it’s a woman exploiting her boyfriend to wear him down. Sometimes gaslighting involves people who don’t identify as cis men or women, those in poly relationships, or those in same-sex relationships. Because non-heteronormative relationships aren’t talked about as much, it can be much harder to recognize.
I know because it happened to me.
I was bullied by girls growing up, so it wasn’t like I was under the rosy impression that women couldn’t be cruel. I knew women were as diverse in their morals and personalities as men were. I’d just never heard about gaslighting between lesbian couples, because no one talked about it. Even now, it’s rarely discussed or is simply dismissed. People erroneously assume relationships between two women are inherently less abusive.
At 19, I came out as bisexual, not realizing I was a lesbian until a few years later. I’d dated boys in the past who were manipulative and emotionally abusive, so it seemed logical to assume I’d recognize gaslighting again when I saw it, but I was too enamored with exploring this new side of my life, in which I dated and loved women, to see what was right in front of me.
I met “Katie” on a dating site. As excited as I was to have finally figured out my sexual orientation, I was also equally shy. I didn’t know how to talk to women romantically because I’d never seen it modeled, either in person or on TV, where every romance involved a man and a woman. Using a dating site put up a buffer and allowed me to grow a bit of confidence as I flirted with women for the first time.
Katie sent me a message saying that it was cool I was a writer and that she sometimes wrote stories, too. She also said I was cute. I remember the overwhelming rush of happiness I felt. Flirting with a woman felt so right compared to my half-hearted flirtations with guys.
We talked constantly for a couple of weeks before we finally agreed to meet at a bar. I went with a couple of friends and spent the first hour or so looking around for Katie, even though she said she’d text me when she got there. I finally got a text from her telling me to join her on the dance floor. I found her bouncing away to a song I didn’t recognize and steeled myself as I walked up to her. She grabbed my hand and encouraged me to dance. We danced, talked, and flirted for hours and I experienced my first kiss with a woman.
Katie and I saw each other several more times over the next few weeks, always in public places. She never wanted to hang out at my place or hers and said I was being weird and nosy when I asked why. I shrugged it off.
One night we decided to go to the movies. Katie asked which movie I’d like to see and I suggested The Woman in Black. She promptly shot that idea down and decided we’d see a rom-com. Throughout the movie, I started to feel like I’d failed some test; she was moody, not laughing or even smiling at the jokes I cracked. When I asked if I could hold her hand, she ignored me.
Afterwards, she asked if I’d enjoyed the movie. I told her that, truthfully, I thought it was pretty awful. This was another test I failed. She drove me home in silence and refused to kiss me goodbye like we had at the end of all our previous dates. I held back tears as I got out of the car.
I spent much of the night staring at the ceiling wondering what I’d done wrong. Did Katie not want the truth when she asked me a question? Did she not want me to be attentive or affectionate? Was I just bad at reading her? I understood that she hadn’t come out to her parents or friends yet, which was fine. But why didn’t she want to meet mine?
The next day, I was incredibly tired and unable to focus. I wondered if I should apologize to Katie for being rude. Before I could decide, Katie texted me a cheery, “Good morning.” As she texted more throughout the day, it began to feel like the previous night never happened. She was so sweet the next time we hung out that I pretty much forgot about the incident at the movies.
After that, it became normal for Katie to snidely tell me I’d look a lot better if I wore a different shirt. Or to suggest that I should pick up more shifts at work, despite my chronic illness, so we could go out more. I knew her comments weren’t kind and that my friends would tell me to dump her if they knew the way she was speaking to me. I don’t know why I accepted her behavior when I never would have accepted a guy treating me that way. Maybe I just liked having a girlfriend too much.
Katie ended up dumping me on St. Patrick’s Day. I’d told her days in advance that I didn’t want to go out that night because it was the one-year anniversary of my friend’s death, and I was upset. Yet she texted me that night around 10, asking me to meet her at a bar. When I declined, she called me up and drunkenly told me I was never any fun to be around because I was always tired. I tried to explain that my illness made me tired much of the time, but she cut me off and said she didn’t want to see me anymore.
Of course it upset me that she didn’t even try to sympathize with the fact I was going to be sick for the rest of my life, and she disregarded my sorrow over my friend. But deep down, I was okay with our relationship ending. I ignored each apologetic text she sent me and eventually blocked her number.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I was able to see that throughout our entire, short-lived relationship, Katie gaslighted me. She tried to make me question myself, manipulated me, and preyed on my sensitivity to either make me feel emotionally bad or to get what she wanted. My best friend and I were discussing the way past boyfriends gaslighted her and much of what she described rang true for my interactions with Katie. I was finally able to recognize the damage she’d done to my self-esteem in a very short amount of time. And recognizing it has allowed me to heal.
If gaslighting in same-sex relationships were talked about more, I might have recognized it sooner. I was lucky to get out of a potentially abusive situation before it escalated. I’m lucky now to be in a relationship that is both healthy and affirming. Everyone deserves that.