The ending of a relationship can be a difficult thing for anyone to overcome. Even if a breakup was amicable, there are bound to be hurt feelings or some healing needed in most cases. If the relationship was a toxic one, however, there are a lot of other factors to take into consideration when trying to move on — so if you’re trying to figure out how to overcome gaslighting, know that healing can be a much more involved process.
As a form of emotional abuse, gaslighting can be hard to initially detect, and even harder to deal with once it becomes routine. A partner who gaslights you may make you question your own reality, lose trust in yourself and others, or feel out of control over your own thoughts and decisions. Because of its psychologically dangerous nature, Dr. Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, licensed mental health counselor and author of the upcoming book Healing From Toxic Relationships, says gaslighting is a form of domestic violence — but it is possible to come out on the other side.
It can be hard to spot the signs of gaslighting, but once you’ve confirmed that you’re being gaslit by your partner, you’ll want to take the right steps in order to move on. Below, Sarkis shares her expert advice on how to start the healing process and take your life back after being gaslit.
How To Overcome Gaslighting
In many instances of domestic violence and emotional abuse, leaving the relationship is complicated and not an easy feat. There might be elements like shared children, combined finances, or a fear of retaliation that can keep a victim feeling stuck in their situation. When it comes to the point where you are finally ready to leave a relationship in which you experienced gaslighting, Sarkis explains that it’s crucial to have a concrete plan — ideally one that you discuss with a mental health professional. “Create a safety plan for leaving and review it with trusted family, friends, and a mental health professional,” she tells Bustle.
This plan should consist of a list of actions you can take to lower your risk of being hurt by the abuser. For example, Sarkis recommends staying at an undisclosed location. Just be aware that your digital footprint — like phone location or online accounts — can possibly be tracked, she says, so make sure you turn off all data sharing or change passwords where needed.
Even if your former partner tries to reach out and apologize or mend the broken connection, Sarkis warns that this is a common part of the cycle in an abusive relationship and that a truly toxic person will never take full responsibility for the ways in which they abused you. “When you leave, the toxic person may try to ‘hoover’ you back into the relationship,” she says. “If you do return, however, the relationship resumes at the same level of dysfunction.” It’s important to be aware of the trauma bond you’re likely to have with a partner who gaslit you, and let that fuel your desire to sever the connection altogether.
Note that the work doesn’t always stop after you’ve officially removed yourself from the relationship; the emotional toll of gaslighting may have some lingering effects. “Be aware that it is normal to have difficulty leaving a toxic relationship, especially when your partner intersperses kindness with abuse,” Sarkis says. “It’s important to remember that even if a relationship is abusive five percent of the time, it’s still an abusive relationship.”
Moving On After The Relationship
Once you’ve been removed from a gaslighting relationship, the healing process can begin. While it may take a long time and involve a lot of emotional labor, Sarkis says that it can definitely come with time and the help of a mental health professional. “Know that the more time you spend away from the gaslighter, the more you will heal,” she tells Bustle. Pro tip: “Seek reconnection with emotionally healthy friends and family.” Acknowledging your need for support from those the gaslighter may have removed from your life can be instrumental to not only your healing but also in assuring that you won’t be drawn back into the abusive relationship.
It’s also important, according to Sarkis, to block off all potential contact with your abuser. This may include social media, their phone number, or even filtering connections with some mutual friends — especially since they may try to “bait” you. “Let mutual friends know that you don’t want to talk about the gaslighter, nor will you accept any messages that the gaslighter may be passing along from them,” she says. As Sarkis shares, severing any possible points of reconnection are a critical step to healing.
“Know that the more time you spend away from the gaslighter, the more you will heal.”
While it may seem overwhelming and frightening to move on from a gaslighting partner, there are so many possibilities on the other side of an abusive relationship. Chances are you probably lost a significant amount of self-esteem and the ability to trust in yourself and those around you. Even with time and therapy, there may be moments when those feelings creep up again, especially when you feel ready to move on and start dating again. But, as Sarkis notes, reminding yourself that you’re capable and deserving of healthy love is the first step to finding it.
There’s also no need to rush into a new romantic relationship. “Go at a pace with which you feel comfortable. Do take time to process your trauma from the toxic relationship,” says Sarkis. She recommends educating yourself about red flags to watch for on a first date, such as pushing for commitment. Contacting a mental health professional to help you process the trauma from an abusive relationship can also help. All in all, ensuring that you’re feeling emotionally stable and have processed enough of your former relationship can help set you up for success in future dating endeavors.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
Dr. Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, psychotherapist and author of Healing From Toxic Relationships (coming July 2022)