• Recovering from toxic relationships takes time. (iStockphoto)Source: iStockphoto
Almost two years after my gaslighting relationship ended and several failed attempts to get back into dating, I found renewed strength and relished my independence.
By
Na'ama Carlin

19 Aug 2021 - 9:14 AM  UPDATED 19 Aug 2021 - 10:18 AM

When I broke up with my last partner, I moved into an exceptionally tiny studio. The place was so small that only I could fit comfortably in it. The living space fit a lamp and single armchair. A thin door separated the bathroom and a kitchen that comprised mostly of a sink and a small bar fridge. There was no room for non-essential food, let alone spare cookery. It was, in many ways, a flat of one’s one. 

I moved there deliberately – because I needed to know a space existed in the world that was only mine. That I could know every single area of it. I thought that if I knew everything in the unit as truth, then perhaps it could be a place where I’d be safe from deception and manipulation.

Before moving, I’d spent months recovering from a relationship with a gaslighting partner. Gaslighting is an insidious form of control and manipulation. Gaslighters try to make their victim question their narrative, experiences, and reality through tactics like persistent lies and ‘crazy-making’. I was made to doubt my memories and reality.

Gaslighters try to make their victim question their narrative, experiences, and reality through tactics like persistent lies and ‘crazy-making’

My sense of safety after this relationship was so fragmented that I chose to rent a 20sqm studio apartment, simply because I found comfort in the ability to see an entire space and know every single corner. I would touch the floors and walls of this small unit, tracing and recognising every crack and dent, slowly rebuilding my once-shattered world piece by piece.

Recovering from toxic relationships takes time. Those of us who leave gaslighting partners need to learn to regain trust in our narratives and reality. We also need to learn to trust our friends and families again; relationships that are often explicitly targeted by gaslighters since they gain tighter control by isolating victims. 

A year or so after my breakup, I focused my energies on strengthening my sense of self.  I began contemplating spending time with people outside of my close inner circle. But it was a tentative return to the dating world that showed me just how hard the recovery process could be. 

Dating is generally fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. Arguably any person stepping out to a date is taking a risk. But to the traumatised mind of someone recovering from gaslighting, dating brings with it fresh challenges.

For instance, before going on a date I’d feel anxious, unsure of myself, and couldn’t trust my intuition. After all, I thought I could trust my ex, who went on to deceive and undermine me and those who would challenge him. I quickly realised how my ability to trust was compromised. While trauma counselling allowed me to develop a sense of trust in my own narrative, the limit of any progress was made evident when it came to believing others. 

I began going on occasional dates but never quite feeling comfortable. Meeting new people became a source of anxiety rather than discovery

I began going on occasional dates but never quite feeling comfortable. Meeting new people became a source of anxiety rather than discovery. I couldn’t verify anything they said. Each story was a potential lie. How can you build trust when the starting point is suspicion? To be clear, I have no reason to suspect anyone I met lied to me. But I quickly discovered ‘reason’ goes out the window when it came to dating strangers. I felt vulnerable, and was worried that people may take advantage of me, or feel sorry for me, or simply walk away. 

Almost two years after my gaslighting relationship ended and several failed attempts to get back into dating, I found renewed strength and relished my independence. I knew what I wanted from another person and how to ask for it (absolute honesty, no lies). I would not accept anything less. The only unknown was who might this person be. In a way, it didn’t even matter if I met them – I was happy alone and comfortable in the spaces I occupied. Slowly I began to acknowledge that I had outgrown the little studio. And I allowed myself to take up more space, extending beyond 20sqm. My world was expanding. 

One day, I got a drink with a guy from Twitter. This isn’t a date, I made clear to myself, putting aside the anxieties and expectations of previous encounters. But one drink led to two, and one non-date led to another. 

My sense of safety required me to be honest and true – something that could only be achieved because I finally felt confident to speak about my recent past.

When I said, ‘How can I know you’re who you say you are?’, he took the time to understand why I was asking. My sense of safety required me to be honest and true – something that could only be achieved because I finally felt confident to speak about my recent past. I had taken control of the narrative. I explained that lying and deception are “deal breakers” and explained why honesty was paramount because what’s at stake is my sense of safety. 

Emphasising the need for honesty from the start isn’t about distrust. Rather, it’s about establishing parameters for a healthy relationship. Setting clear boundaries meant that I could feel safe. And my non-date understood it. Then, months later, when COVID lockdown began, we decided to combine our worlds.

And this time, despite no longer being in the safe haven of my tiny studio, the ground feels stable beneath me. 

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