I had a realization yesterday in therapy, and it’s going to sound to you like I’m just repeating something I’ve been saying over and over. Something about it was new information, or maybe it was a Gestalt moment.
My therapist is trying to nudge me toward speaking up and asking for what I want or need. I did my “homework” from last week by asking my ex for two things:
(1) that we have a discussion about how to handle illness with our daughter, since there was disagreement about it the week before, and there’s nothing in our negotiated agreement to fall back on; and
(2) that I meet his fiancee (I don’t feel nearly as strongly about this as my therapist does, but she feels it’s outrageous that I haven’t met someone who is there when my daughter visits. I wouldn’t let someone babysit my daughter without meeting him or her first, so I guess it’s just something that one does).
I offered/suggested that we make an appointment with the psychologist we consulted to help develop a parenting plan and/or with his therapist if that made him more comfortable. I also suggested that his fiancee be included in this since she will be involved in our daughter’s care as well. He stared at the ground and nodded, but didn’t say anything.
When my therapist praised me for doing it, I said, “It’s never going to happen.” She said it’s still good that I spoke up.
I feel entitled to ask for this from him because it’s for my daughter and/or to stop me from feeling I’m being neglectful as a parent.
I’m resistant any time she suggests I speak up or ask for something from anyone else. There are people with whom I am fairly content, and I feel I’m that what I’m getting out of the relationship is reasonable. In other cases, I want something more from the other person (usually information or a conversation about a particular topic). I don’t speak up either because I feel unentitled to ask for anything at all, or I’m too afraid to speak up or ask for something: the confirmation that they don’t care about me enough to respond, or that I’ll get what I ask for in the form of confirmation that best hopes are false and my fears are true.
I’m too afraid to even provide an actual example here, but we go through this during most of my sessions.
I think it just hit me this week that I have massive trust issues, and that I can identify the source. (All three people who read this regularly will say “DUH TREES,” but I don’t want to have trust issues, and I should be “over” the cause by now. Time and wishing them away hasn’t helped, so I’m going to deal with it now, decades later).
I’ve been reading about gaslighting lately, trying to get a precise definition that encompasses the behavior and the intentions. I’ve said that my ex gaslighted me for the first six years of our relationship in order to continue to get away with cheating, and then he did it again before and after he left in order to hide his affair. I no longer categorize that as “gaslighting”; he wasn’t trying to make me distrust myself so that he could control me. He was just lying.
My mother, on the other hand, did gaslight. She would do and say things, and then she’d deny them and get outraged if I brought them up. I learned to never remind her of anything hurtful she ever did (this is still true, because I think maybe she actually suppressed the memories, and I fear what would happen to her if she recalled what she actually did and said to me). She also said a lot of things that made me feel insecure about my own relationships–a lot of telling me negative things people were saying about me (true or not, I have no way to know) and telling me that it she didn’t think that friends/boyfriends actually liked me. She said that basically every time a visit with my ex (with whom I had a long-distance relationship) was approaching. She’d threaten to take it away because I argued with her or had a nasty tone of voice and/or tell me that it didn’t sound to her like he actually wanted to see me or liked me.
I always knew I grew up in an “invalidating” house (in which she was allowed to express the full spectrum of emotions, but only a very narrow range of emotions from me would manage not to upset her). I only put together recently, in my reading, that it was full-fledged gaslighting.
And here I am, almost 40 and in therapy for years…but I still haven’t accomplished the task of finding closure to my imperfect childhood.
The lies that my ex told had basically the same effect on me as gaslighting would. When I asked him where he was at 12:45 the night before, or I tried on and off all night to call him (this was pre-cellphone), it was because there was a certain kind of sickness I felt in my body. I would find out (soon, in some cases, but not until he confessed years later for other cases) that he was up to something that was a betrayal at the time the I was sensing that. It was like a sixth sense.
I also have knack for seeing two people in a room together and sensing that they’ve hooked up. He often had me hang out with, or pushed me to be friends with, the girls with whom he cheated on me. I’d do that and pick up on it. I’d ask him about it and he’d deny it unequivocally.
My instinct was a burden. The feeling made me feel physically ill, and it sometimes kept me up all night (especially when I was student teaching or a new teacher who was very afraid to take days off of work when I wasn’t actually sick). I tried so hard to override them, to quiet it, but I couldn’t.
After I found out that my instincts were correct, I dreaded ever getting those feelings again, because I knew that I would stand little to no chance of overriding them since they were correct every time before. I also resented him for tricking me into working so hard to deny what I KNEW in my body to be true, to listen to his voice instead of my own.
I pretty much stopped getting that feeling when he stopped cheating. I still worried, I’d still have my moments of anxiety until maybe once we were engaged, but it wasn’t an issue. I didn’t get THE feeling before he left, but I worried when he snapped his computer shut and started guarding things more closely. I didn’t think there was anyone else, but I was hurt because I felt he was hiding conversations about me with his friends, and I could barely get him to talk to me about us.
After he left, I asked several times if there was anyone else. I believed his unequivocal denial, but I asked more than once because everyone else thought he was cheating. Either I had extinguished that “he’s cheating” feeling, or I already felt so physically and emotionally awful that I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish that from every other terrible feeling.
I also believed him when he told me he was still in love with me, even months after he left (and, as I realized later on, well into his relationship with his girlfriend).
Hiding the cheating in the early years prevented me from making a decision whether or not to stay with him that was based on reality (I would have left). Hiding the affair and telling me he was still in love with me prevented me from moving on and carrying less than 100% of the blame for my own abandonment.
Time and therapy have not helped me get over this. In fact, it’s more of a problem in my daily life now than it was a year ago.
Here’s how all of this plays out now:
- When someone that I care about cares about me, I have trouble recognizing and accepting it. I hear thoughts to the contrary. I think this is more of an insecurity/anxiety/avoidant issue rather than a direct result of my childhood and formative romantic relationships. I also don’t think it would be pathological if I was able to work through it each time it crops up.
- I get “that feeling” occasionally about a guy I’m dating, but most of my relationships are ambiguous at best, so it’s not a situation in which I can ask about it without making things weird. The other person is probably not attached enough to want to deal with it. I am also aware that this is not normal thing for a partner to have to deal with, and I believe that I’m not worth the “work.”
- I am unable to comfort myself with the belief that the worst is unlikely/things work out for the best, because I’ve experienced the worst being highly unlikely and still happening. After three miscarriages, my very devoted partner leaving me and our 2-yr old, and one of my dear friends losing all of her children at once, that’s just not feasible. The worst does happen sometimes.
- I know that I have a gut feeling, and I have problems with anxiety. When I worry that things are bad, I am completely unable to sort out if what I’m feeling/thinking is instinct or anxiety.
- I don’t have much faith that my (family, platonic, or romantic) relationships will withstand much of anything
- I’m afraid to believe it’s just anxiety, because I’ve expended quite a bit of energy over the years trying to tell myself just that, and my negative feeling was “right.” Now I’m afraid to not believe the “bad” voice.
- I have to search for every worst-case scenario, because my ex fell in love with someone right under my nose, and I was barely suspicious of it as he planned his exit. So, even though I worry about everything, there’s obviously some things I’m still naive enough to miss.
Some people may consider this a “breakthrough” in therapy, but I feel worse. For one thing, I hate that I’m still so affected by the past. It feels like a failure. I can accept that my ex fucked me up much more in the last three years than I had realized, but I’m ashamed that I’m still affected by things that happened in the 90s.
I feel very much like damaged goods, and that it’s my fault for having difficult life experiences that aren’t any worse than anyone elses’ and not getting past them.
I’m sure I can find a way to forgive myself for apparently wasting years of therapy, and I think I can accept that I’m going to have very anxious (even paranoid) thoughts and feelings at times, but I have absolutely no idea how to be able to separate anxiety from instinct. It feels like literally the only way to learn that would be to have an actual psychic to reassure me or confirm the worst at all times and then slowly wean me.
I don’t know exactly what the plan is, but this is clearly what I’m in therapy for now.
I’m sick of failing to transcend.
I should also mention that there is a concrete factor in my hopelessness at the moment: although I’m on the pill and don’t get a period, I do get PMS at the end of each pill pack. I get more anxious, even slightly paranoid, and I feel hopeless at times. (I also get 2-3 migraines during this time). I’m two days away from starting my next pack. I am able to find comfort in knowing that this is likely making things worse, and it will likely get better in a few days.
Here’s a relevant song. I always loved the song, but I also hated the way she takes for granted the man who loves her and almost revels in her damage. There’s an arrogance to it. I’ve been dating for over a year, and guys have genuinely liked me but without really caring. If and when I find someone who loves me enough to see me through, I want to already be past the point of romanticizing being emotionally stuck in the past. Part of loving someone is a strong desire to not inflict this on him or her that translates into putting in the work before they give up on you.