Ending any romantic relationship is never easy. But perhaps the hardest breakup of all is with a gaslighter—someone who uses lies and deception to make you doubt reality and thus gain power over you (aka, gaslighting).
The reason it’s so tricky is simple. Typically, gaslighters do not want to break up. “In most cases, they want to stay in the relationship and keep it on their terms,” says Tennessee-based mental health counselor Rebecca Weiler.
When gaslighters are faced with a breakup conversation, they’ll turn to their familiar tactics: deceit, distortion of reality, and defensive attacks. Tell a gaslighter why you want to part ways, and the response could be a denial of an event happening, claims of being misinterpreted, or calling you names, like overly sensitive or crazy, says Weiler.
Making this breakup even more difficult is that after being involved with a gaslighter, your confidence and self-worth may be particularly fragile. Gaslighters get you in the habit of questioning your own reality, says Weiler, which means you’re trained to wonder if your reasons for breaking up are valid. The more you second-guess your decision, the less likely you’ll follow through.
But since breaking free of the emotional abuse and dysfunction gaslighters cause is imperative, it’s something you have to do. To help, we asked experts for the exact steps to take and problems to anticipate.
Break up in one quick conversation
One key to a successful split with a gaslighter is to make it fast, ideally in a single conversation. Tell them it’s not working and the relationship is over, and say it in a straightforward, calm, and direct voice. It can’t hurt to enlist a friend to act out the breakup convo with you, so you know exactly what you want to say. Try to avoid language that offers any wiggle room the gaslighter will use to try to change your mind. (And they will try, see below.)
Don't believe promises to change
As soon as you say the relationship is done, your former partner will try to win you back. Expect instant apologies and promises that things will be different, says Florida-based therapist Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free. Their words will sound sincere, and part of you might want to believe them. Don’t. It’s all part of the manipulation. If you do cave, the unhealthy relationship dynamic will return and perhaps get worse, says Sarkis.
End all communication
Because gaslighters are so bent on trying to win you back, both Weiler and Sarkis recommend ceasing communication once you’ve officially ended things. “Block their phone numbers and emails. Do not answer any calls from unknown numbers,” advises Sarkis.
A gaslighter may attempt to communicate with you through social media, so make sure you’ve blocked them from all your accounts. They will also try to enlist mutual friends in their effort to get back together. Sarkis calls these emissaries “flying monkeys,” after the characters in The Wizard of Oz. “Tell these flying monkeys that you will not be discussing the gaslighter with them, and if the gaslighter is brought up again, you will need to walk away from the conversation,” she says.
Ask friends to remind you how bad things were
Even when you know breaking up was for the best, you still might be grieving the end of a relationship that at one point seemed so promising. This is when leaning on loved ones comes in, says Weiler. When thoughts of giving the gaslighter a second chance creep into your head, your support network will remind you of what it was like dating someone who lied and deceived you—and that you deserve better.
If friends and family aren’t on hand, counseling can really help, particularly group therapy. “Group therapy can be great because it helps you realize that you are not the only one who has been through a relationship like this,” says Sarkis.
Make a list—and check it in moments of doubt
A simple list can be a helpful tool after a break up, says Weiler. Write out all the times you felt gaslighted during the relationship. Whenever you have doubts about just how toxic the relationship was, or when your ex reaches once again with hopes of reconciling (and they will; gaslighters don’t give up easily), read through it. The point is to remind you that the relationship was unhealthy and unworkable, and to reaffirm your commitment to staying away from them forever.
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