How Gaslighting Is Used to Break Plans and Promises:
A Sample Dialogue Between an Abuser and His Partner
One of the myriad tactics an abuser will use on his partner to keep her in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety is to make plans and promises only to break them at whim and often blatantly deny that any plan/promise was ever made in the first place (contrary to his partner’s clear memory of events and conversations).
Here’s how an abusive Narcissist, Psychopath or Borderline might gaslight his partner in the context of breaking a promise or a plan:
It’s Thursday evening, and John and Mary are making plans for Friday night.
John: “So, you wanna see that new Clint Eastwood movie tomorrow night? It’s supposed to be really great.”
Mary: “Oh, yeah! I saw that listed in the paper. I’ve been wanting to see that.”
John: “Great! So, how about I pick you up at 8 tomorrow, and then after the movie we can go for sushi from that cute little Japanese place around the corner from the theater. You remember? The one where we went on our first date.”
Mary: “Sounds wonderful. I’m looking forward to it.”
John: “Cool, it’s a plan. Remember, don’t eat anything too heavy before the movie, or you won’t be able to eat any sushi!”
Mary: (laughs) “No, I won’t. I promise I’ll save up my appetite. See you tomorrow night.”
John: “See you then, Babe. I love you. Bye.”
Mary: “I love you, too. Bye-bye.”
Fast forward to 8pm on Friday. John has not arrived at Mary’s, nor has he called. By 8:15 Mary decides to call him to find out what’s going on. She dials his number. He answers.
John: (coldly) “Yeah?”
Mary: “Hey, what’s going on?”
John: “What do you mean?”
Mary: “You said you would pick me up at 8.”
John: “What? When?”
Mary: “Last night!”
John: “No, I never said that.”
Mary: “John, yes you did! We made plans to see the new Clint Eastwood movie and then go for sushi!”
John: “I said MAYBE we could do that. I told you it wasn’t DEFINITE.”
Mary: (hears loud music and people talking and laughing in the background) “Where are you right now?”
John: “I’m with some guys from work. We’re just having a few drinks.” (sarcastically) “Is that okay with YOU?”
Mary: “But John, WE HAD PLANS! Why are you out with your friends now?”
John: “Hey, I told you last night that it wasn’t definite, and that I might have to come to this thing with some guys from the office. Or maybe you conveniently left that part out of your memory so you could accuse me of being an asshole now.”
Mary: “I never called you an “asshole”! And you NEVER mentioned anything about having to go out with guys from the office.”
John: “Oh, yes I did! But as usual, you have selective memory. You only hear what YOU want to hear. So now I get to be the bad guy, right? What, I’m not allowed to hang out with my FRIENDS once in a while? Is that it?”
Mary: “That’s NOT the point, John! That’s not the issue at all! It’s not about you hanging out with your friends—it’s about the fact that we had PLANS!”
John: “You know what? This is bullshit. All my friends—who can hear this conversation, by the way—think you’re crazy, controlling lunatic. They all think I should dump you. They’re always telling me that. All you ever do is try to control me. I can’t believe this. I’m just out having drinks with a few friends after a long week at work, and I’m not even allowed to enjoy that much without you freaking out and getting all possessive and needy. You know, this isn’t good at all for our relationship AT ALL, and if you can’t learn to lighten up, this just isn’t gonna work.”
Mary: “John, this is NOT FAIR! How can you treat me like this! I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!”
John: “I can’t deal with this right now. You’re totally hysterical. I’m hanging up. We’ll discuss this later when you’ve had a chance to calm down and really think about your behavior.” (He hangs up.)
Mary is shattered. She tries to ring him back, but now John has turned off his cell phone. How convenient.
John has effectively gaslighted Mary, with cunning doses of projection and devaluation thrown in for good measure. What has John accomplished?
1) Mary is confused and thrown off balance. John’s adamant denial of the previous night’s conversation has Mary questioning her own memory. She’s SURE they had a conversation the night before, and that they definitely made plans for dinner and a movie Friday night. But now she is replaying the conversation over and over in her head. WERE the plans definite? DID John really make any statement indicating that the plans were only tentative? DID he say something about going for drinks with his friends after work? IS she possessive and controlling? WAS there some part of the conversation that she missed? IS she really a poor listener, hearing “only what she wants to hear”? Mary is torn between what she’s CERTAIN was said while she and John were making plans, and what he is NOW saying. The incongruity of what she clearly remembers versus what John is now saying has put her on the brink of insanity.
2) John is doing exactly what HE wants to do, and what he wanted to do all along. He is with his friends, at a bar or a disco or a strip joint or a party or wherever, without Mary.
3) Mary is stuck at home alone on a Friday night (exactly where John wants her), crying, depressed, angry, and deeply wounded by John’s inexplicable behavior. Not only is it too late for her to make plans with anyone else (ie. friends, coworkers, family), but even if she had other options at this late hour, she’s too hurt, confused and anxiety-ridden to enjoy anything.
If you find that you are questioning your own memory of conversations or events despite your absolute certainty of how things really went down, there’s a good possibility you’ve been gaslighted. Remember that gaslighting is an insidious method abusers use to control and manipulate their partners. Gaslighting is virtually undetectable if you are the victim, so always try to remember to follow your GUT INSTINCT. When your abuser starts saying or doing things that set off that little voice inside you that says, “Hmm, something about this doesn’t ring true or right,” it probably means he is gaslighting you. He is trying to make you mistrustful of your own memory, your own mind, and your own reality so that he can suck you into HIS twisted and self-serving version of “reality” in which HE is God. It’s that simple. Stay on your toes, girls, and don’t let “God” pull the wool over your eyes.
We have used the male gender. Your abuser could be female.
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