Most people know that if you are delivering bad news, you shouldn’t make jokes. There’s a reason why coroners and cardiologists are not known for their sense of humor.
So let’s start with a disclaimer: This story isn’t very funny.
When I was dating Roberto,* I always suspected he had relationship ADHD. We all have it to some degree. With hookup culture, everyone is juggling a roster of partners, so no one gives anyone their full attention. And let’s face it…to be a great lover, you have to pay attention.
So one night, I finally had enough liquid courage (bourbon) to ask him the dreaded intimacy question — are you having sex with anyone else?
To be fair, we had never discussed exclusivity. But after eight months, I assumed he wasn’t sleeping with other people. (Never assume that.) He was also pretty inebriated, so this probably wasn’t the best time to broach this subject. But if you want the truth, either ask a drunk person or a baby. Neither can lie.
Thus, he gave my question about as much deliberation as a baby does when rejecting peas. Without missing a beat, he responded…
“Only two people.”
“Excuse me? ONLY two people??” I parroted back.
(Let’s be honest, if he was confessing to two…there were probably at least four.)
The room emptied of oxygen, and bile filled my mouth. I made a lame excuse and left without him. I needed time to think.
The next day was somber — like a pantomime hanging himself sort of somber.
Because there was a thirteen-year age gap (in the wrong direction) between us, I told Roberto on our first date that polyamory was not part of my DNA and I was looking for a relationship.
So his confession was a deal-breaker and a safety issue. But when I explained why non-monogamous relationships make me wildly uncomfortable, he responded with the worst possible response.
“I was just joking.”
Now guys, when you hurt a woman either through malice or misunderstanding, you can respond with aplomb or a bomb. This “I was just joking” bullshit was a cherry bomb.
It takes a lot to wake my sleeping Sicilian, and he did it.
“Ok, so let me get this straight…this was all an elaborate ruse? A figment of my imagination? You didn’t really sleep with two women. You just wanted to brighten my day with a little infidelity humor. You know…because it is hilarious to make someone feel horrible?”
Let’s be clear about people who claim they were “just joking” after cutting you. It is obviously juvenile, but it is also one of the most common and cruelest forms of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is emotional abuse in which someone makes you doubt your reality and sometimes even question your sanity.
Unfortunately, gaslighters never employ one method to distort reality. Here are a few common gaslighting phrases that immature people will use.
“That never happened.”
When Roberto realized I wasn’t buying the “it was a joke” defense, he denied the entire confession ever happened. But it did happen. I was there. I know the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Three glasses of wine might make me doughty, but it doesn’t make me delusional.
One way to make your reality more real is to document it. For example, I wrote in my journal after every fight with one gaslighting ex. Then I would read it back the next day to remember that I didn’t imagine the harsh words spoken in that argument.
Remember, the gaslighter’s main objective is to make you doubt your reality. Writing it down makes it more real.
“Stop being so dramatic.”
Dramatic, emotional, and crazy — this is garden variety invalidation. The gaslighter is telling you that what you are feeling is wrong, and you have no right to feel the way you do.
Calling someone crazy is just another way of saying, “my bad behavior doesn’t match your reaction.” And that might be true. But it still isn’t a very loving response to your partner’s pain. You have to see the fire to put it out.
If there is a glimmer of empathy in your partner, try playing the role reversal game and ask them how they would feel if the shoe was on the other foot.
Unfortunately, when someone tells you that you don’t have the right to your feelings, there’s no use arguing with them. Even a cactus has feelings. You are on separate teams at that point, and the gaslighter is not coming to your side.
“But what about the time you…”
This form of gaslighting is called whataboutism or kitchen sinking. Instead of discussing the present issue, they weaponize past hurts and throw at you everything but the kitchen sink — i.e., that one time you were late, your loud chewing, or the fib you told six months ago.
My ex used to do this regularly. I would call him out on his disrespectful behavior, and instead of addressing it like a mature adult, he would say — “but what about that time you [insert past misdeed that we solved months ago].”
And then I would be on my heels defending myself, and his present heinous behavior would get swept under the rug. Even worse, we would spiral into a power struggle of who had committed the worst crimes. (And he was better at score carding than I was.)
To be clear, if a past issue is still bothering your partner, they have every right to bring it up. But their past issue should not trump your present issue.
The best way to respond to whataboutism gaslighting is to say, “I want to address your issue, but can we please stay on topic and discuss this current issue? Then we will discuss yours.”
I will warn you. Most gaslighters don’t have the emotional intelligence to shelve their grievance. Usually, they are not harboring any resentments. They are only using your past wrongdoings to deflect from their present wrongdoings. Don’t fall for it.
“It’s your fault.”
People who gaslight will often shift the blame to their partner. This constant blame-shifting traps couples in a cycle of who is wrong and who is right. Unfortunately, in most disagreements, the fault is rarely on one side.
Gaslighters play a zero-sum game when fighting. They will often use “always” or “never” when communicating, even if it is your first time committing a crime. Disagreements get black and white with a gaslighter.
When your partner shifts the blame to you, focus on a solution. Ask questions like “What did you wish I had done in this situation?” or “Here’s what I wish you had done in this situation.” That gets you future-focused on working together as a team instead of battling it out with more “whose fault is it” fist-a-cuffs.
“Why are you with me if I am so horrible?”
Ah yes, that ole’ narcissistic shame. My ex used to say this to me every time I called him out on acting disrespectfully. (And this was not eating crackers in bed misdeeds.)
When a gaslighter makes this statement, they shift the onus onto you to solve the problem by leaving. They are basically saying — well, you know I am a jerk, so why are you tolerating it? That makes you culpable in their abuse.
Regroup and make sure you are addressing your partner’s behavior and not attacking their character. There is a big difference. Behaviors can be changed. Character is damn near impossible to change. If you can honestly say you have not resorted to childish ad hominem arguments, then you should believe them — they are telling you that they can’t be in a loving relationship. Run.
“I was only joking.”
If the joke isn’t funny to the other person, you are punching down and not up. People who use humor to deflect their wrongdoings are acting out of shame. And shame always gets in the way of intimacy.
Being able to see the humor in a situation is a gift. Is your partner using your gift to manipulate you? If yes, tell them that their actions are not funny and call them out of using jokes to deflect.
Sometimes people don’t realize they are using humor to deflect. Humor becomes a knee-jerk self-preservation reaction.
Gaslighting is death by a thousand cuts. It’s the slow corrosion of your confidence. And if you let it continue too long, you will doubt more than just your reality. You will second guess every aspect of yourself.
But part of the reason why gaslighting is so common is that it works. Not only does it work, but it becomes a learned habit that is hard to break. So if you have said any of the above to your partner, ask yourself if your goal is love or manipulation. Manipulation is power, and love is never power-hungry.
As for Roberto, he did give me some great writing material. Unfortunately, none of it was very funny.
*Names changed because using real names is also not funny.