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I Did Not See I Was Being Abused by My Husband for Over 20 Years
Ambient Abuse, Gaslighting, Crazy-Making, and Controlling as Spousal Abuse
If you would have told me a few years ago that my husband of 28 years, and the father to my children, was abusive and would abandon us a year later, I would have never believed it.
"That would NEVER happen to ME!" Or so I thought.
I am an intelligent, reasonably strong, outgoing woman with a B.A. degree in psychology. I have had over 500 articles, photos, and web sites published. I've raised two great kids as a full-time stay-at-home-mom who works from home.
I am no sap. I do not cower in corners. I am not "the type" that people imagine as being a victim of spousal abuse. And yet...well, I was. And it has taken a long time to get free and make headway in recovering (as of August 2015).
Ambient abuse (also called gaslighting, crazy-making, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, mental abuse) is about manipulation and control. It is very hard to see because the abuser is extremely skilled at hiding his true nature, lying, and twisting the truth.
I want to share what I am learning about the cruel mind games run by husbands, controlling spouses, malignant narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths. When my own abuser's web of lies began to fall apart, it took me months to figure out what was happening. I hope to save others from the same maddening crazy-making journey. I want to speak out to spread awareness of this surprisingly common (but mainly silent) kind of emotional and mental abuse.
Need Help? Call the
U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline at
1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224
(Link to my page with more worldwide hotlines & help near the bottom of this page)
On twitter, please speak out with the hashtags #SpeakOut, #DV (Domestic Violence), #Abuse, and #VAW (Violence Against Women) if it is safe for you to do so.
("very professional" drawing and image by me [call it therapeutic] - ©Janienne Jennrich, 2012)
This book helped me understand and escape abuse.
After months of agonizing torture,
keeping written records,
and comparing notes with my children,
I finally figured out
what my husband was doing.
He was TRYING to hurt us
and drive me crazy.
I was shocked later to find out
that his cruel behavior and thinking
already had names:
-- Author of this Page
What is Gaslighting (or Ambient Abuse)?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false or distorted information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception, or sanity - having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own thoughts.
Gaslighting is about
getting and keeping
power and control
over another human being.
Other Definitions and Descriptions of Gaslighting by Those Abused
- "Abuse can be by stealth - ambient, a kind of background, permeating everything."
- "Gaslighting is systematically lying to control another person's entire experience of them...not just one part, one situation, one consequence. To manipulate their entire self-image to another person, and tell them the moon is the sun from insistence (including discounting, dismissing, disparaging and debasement tactics), relentless insistence, repetition, even over years or decades, that is closer to brainwashing than lying."
- "Gas lighting is a conspiracy to deceive. Lies are a big part of it, but there are other elements (omissions, misdirections, abuses, etc.)"
- "Gaslighting attacks a person by attempting to alter his or her perception of reality."
- "...this form of abuse can be torturing especially if you do not realize what is going on; yes I believe that a person could really lose their mind."
- Gaslighting is a kind of torture and brainwashing. Control freaks and narcissists do and say odd things over and over to keep another person feeling confused, enraged and under their control.
Gaslighting may consist of (but is not limited to):
- lying and covering lies
- manipulating and controlling situations
- manipulating and controlling people
- attempting to confuse
- mind games
- hiding or moving items to make someone off-balance
- telling someone the are forgetful (when their memory is fine)
- saying things that make no sense (crazy talk)
- double talk, fast talk, talking loudly to change the subject
- denying things happened that did
- attempting to make someone doubt themselves
- making someone feel fat, ugly, stupid, weak, sick
- getting angry for no real reason (which may be a distraction)
- storming off when asked something to avoid answering
- getting mad when caught doing something wrong (which may be a distraction)
- changing the subject when asked a question (which may be a distraction)
- misdirecting attention to something or someone else (another distraction)
and more, all with INTENT to distract or harm another. Why? Because they are extremely self-centered, they need/want control over others.
-- Janienne Jennrich
- Gaslighting is the practice of systematically convincing an individual that their understanding of reality is mistaken or false.
My children and I
named these constant attacks "paper cuts."
One paper cut is annoying.
Five paper cuts hurt.
Thousands of paper cuts could kill you...
or at least, drive you nuts.
In My Case... Specific Examples of How He Hurt Us through Gaslighting - "Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts"
Keep in mind that these sorts of weird things were going on every single day, without us seeing that they were intentional and meant to cause us harm and distress.
Some of the many things he would tell me:
"You just want to cause trouble."
"You can't handle a job." (when I felt strong)
"You have horrrrrrrible headaches." (often)
"You're out of control." (when I got rightfully angry about the things I did notice)
"You keep pushing my buttons."
"You're just trying to make me mad."
"Fine! Don't believe me."
"You never listen to me."
and as it got worse,
I was told over and over for years that I was "sooo sick" (and it seemed like sympathy or normal frustration). I must have heard those words a thousand times, easy.
When I began to challenge him on being abusive, the verbal abuse escalated. He began telling me over and over that people did not like me and weren't calling me because they didn't like me or thought I was the abusive one (when he had intercepted calls or knew something I did not know).
Some of the things he would do:
(many of which often seemed, for years, to be simple thoughtlessness, forgetfulness, or preference changes):
Deny he said things and tell me my memory was faulty (constantly).
Deny rude and mean things he did, even in the rare times when there were witnesses ("You're mistaken," "You misunderstood").
"Forget" things we asked for at the store or bring home something slightly different ("Oh, sorry").
Kept the house too cold (often 63 to 66 degrees) and made us feel bad about wasting money on heating it.
Make the coffee obviously too weak, too strong (on purpose) and then act offended and mean if I mentioned it tasted "off."
Tell me on different days that we made the coffee with "3 1/2 scoops," "6 scoops." or "4 rounded scoops" until I wrote the correct measure on the lid of the coffee maker.
Yell at the kids about something trivial (like the dishes), every day, just to upset me.
Accuse me of "bringing up ancient history" if I needed to talk about something that we disagreed about 2 hours before.
Move things slightly off from where they were (like holiday decorations I had placed carefully).
Snap at me out of the blue, as if I "started something."
Change the temperature of the kids' bedrooms.
Outright lie to my face.
Tell the kids and (in a sympathetic tone) we did not have enough money for decent, nutritious food. in the last year he was doing the grocery shopping and trying to keep us on a budget of $200 a month for 4. According to the USDA, a thrifty plan (lower than "low cost") for our family budget should be about $470 a month. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/usdafoodcost-home.htm
Constantly "forget" to close the kids' bedroom doors, even when they repeatedly asked him to or yelled after him.
"Accidentally" step on and break my son's toys when they were left on the floor.
Any one of these things may not be all that offensive or hurtful, but they were all being denied and it was happening many times a day. They were also meant to keep us (and especially me) off-balance. Why? For control and power over us.
My children and I named these constant attacks "paper cuts." One paper cut is annoying. Five paper cuts hurt. Thousands of paper cuts could kill you...or at least, drive you nuts.
My kids were being hurt in this way about twice a day. I was getting it about ten times a day, with more major offenses thrown in. If we noticed and asked him to stop, he did stop that one behavior...and then simply switched strategies. In the last six months, we stopped letting him know what we noticed.
It took me only seconds (just as I was writing this!) to find out that this is not a new concept. Wikipedia has this explanation of how small things can add up to huge change over time:
Creeping Normalcy refers to the way a major change can be accepted as the normal situation if it happens slowly, in unnoticed increments, when it would be regarded as objectionable if it took place in a single step or short period. Examples would be a change in job responsibilities or a change in a medical condition.
Emotional abuse is the systematic, patterned and chronic abuse that is used by a perpetrator to
lower a victim's sense of self,
self-worth and power.
(Mezey, Post & Maxwell, 2002).
Are you a survivor of some kind of psychological abuse?
What Others Have to Say About Gaslighting (Crazy-Making, Ambient) as Abuse - (These statements echo my own experience as well.)
These are personal accounts and observances by people on online forums, wishing to remain anonymous.
- "Victims of gaslighting don't "ignore" reality...if they did, that wouldn't be gaslighting. It would be "denial"....completely different concept.
Gaslighting is the systematic attempt to erode the reality of someone. By definition: To deliberately drive someone insane by psychologically manipulating their environment and tricking someone into believing that they are insane. It's a form of intimidation and psychological abuse."
- "It's scary how someone can look you dead in the face and lie about something that you know isn't true."
- "Gaslighting is not just 'lying'. It is manipulation and control."
- "The person doing the gaslighting does not have a personal view of reality that is different, but fully understands that they are falsely representing reality for the purposes of deception... They are in fact attempting to deceive a person, to deny reality, by trying to make that person believe that their own perceptions and experiences are false and presenting alternate memories, incidents and time lines."
- "...telling me over and over, for decades, that I am delusional - that that ripping comment in front of my friends or family was just teasing, or meant to help me..."
- "He would deliberately work me up so that he COULD tell me I was crazy. If it didn't bother me, he'd keep going until it did."
- "I would try to validate and verify my reality, but such great pains were taken to keep me from finding out the truth that the lies looked more plausible even though my instincts were screaming they were wrong. I honestly felt like there was something wrong with me and I have never felt that paralyzed. But I kept looking and looking....no matter how crazy I was starting feel...and eventually was able to uncover what was really happening. At that point....I was able to come out of it really quickly."
- "Gaslighting 'works' because often the victim doesn't recognize what is happening....it is a slow process, with the gaslighting being built up in slow increments."
- "Gaslighting can also be poisoning or drugging in small quantities to induce confusion, hallucinations, or panic. It can include altering reality to undermine confidence and believability, especially when a victim stands up to hold an abuser accountable."
- My very first boyfriend in high school was overtly abusive. I remember being nervous that I would not have GUM in my pocket because he would get kind of angry if I did not have some when he wanted it. Is that nuts or what? He was obviously mean...even my friends could see he treated me lousy. I ended that easily. But my husband? Nope - he had everyone fooled, even though we all knew he could act thoughtlessly and rudely at times."
- When an abuser refuses to listen, appears to misunderstand what he is completely capable of understanding, or declines sharing his emotions, he is "withholding" a part of the essential intimate actions of the relationship.
-- The Extremes of Emotional Abuse By Jeanne Sparks-Carreker
- "They twist facts so they can blame others for their unhappiness, when in fact the sufferers themselves are the key contributors to relational problems. But this insight into the truth would require them to change."
-- Dealing with the CrazyMakers in Your Life: Setting Boundaries on Unhealthy Relationships
- "Every statement has a hint of truth to hide its deception. He lies about the most trivial thing. He lies about his flight times, "I'll be home by 9pm on Tuesday." But he arrives around 6pm instead and claims I misunderstood. Or he'll say he hasn't talked to his mom in a while; yet, she calls & mentions just talking with him."
-- September 3, 2001 Gaslighting to Hide a Duck
- "I was constantly told that I was wrong and he was right, and the fact that I didn't even understand how wrong I was just proved that I was much better off listening to him instead of thinking for myself. He controlled EVERY single aspect of my life this way."
-- Forum Post
- Slowly, my sense of self-worth was eroded by this needy, manipulative, narcissistic man.
The techniques of brainwashing are simple: isolate the victim, expose them to inconsistent messages,
mix with sleep deprivation,
add some form of abuse,
get the person to doubt
what they know and feel,
keep them on their toes,
wear them down, and stir well.
In My Case...
Before I proved to myself what was really going on, did I think I might be crazy? Yep, sure did. In fact, I repeatedly asked my adult daughter (who lives at home) if it could me and not him. Without her constant reassurance and the support of other family, he might have actually convinced me to check into a mental hospital.
I think my children saved my life many times.
(I took this photo of roses in the grocery store in one of the few times I left the house in a year.)
Have you ever experienced this type of manipulation and control?
"...there are individuals on this earth who have been taught from infancy that control is love, and extreme control is extreme love, which includes justifying any action in the crusade to control."
-- Abuse forum post
A Good Explanation of Ambient Abuse - (Caution - this video may be a bit disturbing if you have been abused)
Why We Didn't See the Abuse for What it Really Was - Things Survivors Have Said and Written (and my comments)
- "He lies with ease. There is no pause, no slipping up. It is as natural to him to lie as it is to him to walk. I assumed my husband would be honest with me." (It can be very hard to see.)
- "I became this dependent, fearful, insecure person about one year into my relationship. I did not trust my thoughts, my feelings, and my intuition." (It is hard to see clearly when you are kept afraid.)
- "I believe now that he was changing my medications, in order to keep me off-balance, busy with doctor visits, and confused." (Hard to believe, but it does happen.)
- "You expect your true love to love you back in the same healthy way." (That is normal and healthy.)
- "I was purposely distracted in discussions, disagreements and conversations by subtle interrupting and demeaning phrases like 'You just want to cause trouble' or 'You're delusional; I didn't say that.' (It is hard not to be 100% sure)"
- "He is REALLY good at being manipulative and fooling people." (He has been doing this all his life.)
- "I was once such a happy and confident person... I didn't know people could be so nasty... I just didn't want to believe she was the way she was... Everyone swore she was so "great"... she is the opposite... " (They are experts at hiding their true self-centered personalities and intents.)
Do the examples and descriptions above help make this kind of abuse more clear?
In My Case...
I trusted this man and loved him with all my heart. You're supposed to be able to trust your husband to be an authentic, loving person to you. It is healthy and normal to assume your husband wants what is truly best for you and your family.
The fact is, I don't think he ever did truly love us in a normal way. I think he looked at the kids and I as possessions, like favorite toys. When we were not exactly as he wanted us to be, or if he needed to release anxiety (for whatever reason), we were "broken" toys that were no fun, disliked, and even punished.
It's not like I thought everything was perfect, but neither did I think everything was bad. While I often considered my husband's actions and attitudes to be too harsh, rude, or somewhat self-centered, I saw these as personality quirks. He was a tough guy, but I had seen him be soft and gentle as well.
I did stand up for myself, all the time. I was often unhappy with how my husband would treat the kids (beginning about the time they could talk back; before that he was a great dad). That was a constant point of discussion. He claimed he had no good role model to follow and vowed to do better. I believed him, of course.
Looking back, though, I can see that the change in him would be short-lived. He would get involved with our son in some activity for a couple days, for instance, but then things would go back to the way they were. And knowing what I know now, when my confidence got stronger, most likely so did the cruel crazy-making techniques.
I did not see any obvious cycle of abuse. The manipulation and control were very covert. Lies were unnoticeable. Mean and nasty attitudes and comments were explained away as bad moods, stress, hypoglycemia, or a misunderstandings. Demeaning words were often masked with concern or dismay. No one saw his true nature, but him.
-- J. Jennrich
"Gaslighting attacks a person by attempting to alter his or her perception of reality.
There are not alternate realities.
Only what is actually real is reality."
-- abuse forum post
Some Reasons Ambient Abuse is So Devastating
A few good descriptions from other survivors...
* "At one time you felt great love and passion for this man, and there is some part of you that WISHES he wasn't what you know him to be, WISHES it wasn't all true, that it didn't happen the way it did, and that you could GET BACK that guy you thought he was. I was always tempted to think maybe this is some sort of aberration, something going on in his life, stress, mental illness, and that the OTHER GUY, the one I fell in love with was the REAL HIM. I hated having to finally face the fact that I fell in love with a Jekyll and Hyde facade. It absolutely sucks."
* "It was the losing of myself that caused me the most anguish. I could feel it, like a brain washing, like a vampire, and he claimed he didn't know anything was wrong, didn't know what I meant when I said I was sad all the time and couldn't trust a word he said."
* "...this crazy-making gaslighting is really hard to explain to someone who has never been on the receiving end of it. So, we keep quiet, which makes us even more crazy!"
* "Even after the abuser has left, the survivor is subjected to ongoing trauma via legal hassles, having to explain his or her confusing situation to friends and family, and re-abused accidentally by people who take it too lightly or do not believe this could have happened."
"To deliberately drive someone insane by psychologically manipulating their environment and tricking someone into believing that they are insane.
It's a form of intimidation and psychological abuse."
In My Case...
The abuse seems as if will never end.
Once we saw the abuse for what it was, our abuser stopped communicating with us on any rational level. My husband - and my kids' dad - just dropped us completely.
The kids and I have no real sense of closure. We have no answers about what will happen to us in the future. He refuses to admit any fault. He cut us off from financial support in December 2011 (divorce was final in May 2013, with no alimony). He will not talk to our kids without twisting the truth or saying something hurtful. At this point they have chosen not to speak to him.
My son says our situation is like one of those movies where you find out your best friend is the horrible, evil villain. It breaks my heart, and it's true.
I did lose the person I thought was my friend for life, my true love, and the person I thought I could count on in hard times. It hurts so much to realize we cannot lean on that person...because he is also the man who is hurting us.
It is nauseating. It is unfathomable. We are wounded beyond measure.
Still, we do our best to move forward without him.
Domestic violence causes far more pain than the visible marks of bruises and scars. It is devastating to be abused by someone that you love and think loves you in return.— Dianne Feinstein
What's in a Name? A LOT! - Please share here.
A clear name helps people become more aware of an issue. It seems to me that "Gaslighting" is difficult to understand. I have also heard this kind of manipulation and control "Ambient Abuse" and "Crazy-Making." Crazy-Making seems too whimsical to me. "Ambient Abuse" seems better, but vague.
What should this be called? Do you think Gaslighting is good enough? Feel free to add your answer to the comments section at the bottom or tweet it to me on Twitter @JJNW.
Why I Am Sharing My Story...
"I decided it is better to scream. Silence is the real crime
Thank you for visiting. I hope this page helps you or someone you know avoid or escape an abusive atmosphere.
To my online and real life friends and family: All of you are so caring, loving and nurturing. You help me on the path to freedom from pain every single day. Thank you so very much. You make a difference.
The secret to having a good marriage is to understand that
marriage must be total,
it must be permanent,
and it must be equal.
-- Frank Pittman
Sources & Disclosures
Families Against Court Travesties, http://www.factscourtwatch.org/Emotional-Psycholog...
Dealing with Toxic People, http://dealingwithtoxicpeople.blogspot.com/2010/04...
Identify "The Gaslight Effect" March 19, 2009 by Robin Stern, Ph.D., Psychology Today Online
Gaslighting is Psychological Abuse, July 23, 2009, Cassandra, Voice of Cassandra
Disclosure: Janienne Jennrich is a domestic abuse survivor with a B.A. degree in psychology (the survivor part being most important to this page). She is not a mental health professional.
If you or someone you know is being abused, please - when you are ready - contact your doctor, local abuse program, YWCA in the USA, or someone who can help you get help, safely. You deserve kindness and respect.
-adjective, a parent who neglects parental responsibilities, esp. one who does not pay child support: deadbeat dad.
- Submit a Deadbeat Dad
(it's just like it sounds)