I learned more about gaslighting than I ever wanted to know
It’s not uncommon these days, to read about women who are victims of manipulation or gaslighting. People they love who claim to love them, try to manipulate them into believing that they are a bit crazy, that they’ve lost all perspective. Sometimes I can see elements of this type of manipulation in my relationship with my ex-husband. But I never truly identified with this experience until I met Juan in Medellin.
Gaslighting: manipulation of someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.
I met a sexy and sweet guy on Tinder. Juan immediately grabbed my interest. I was enjoying his flirty banter and the way he jumped right in with all the sweet sexy talk. Everything was “my love, my sweet, my life, my heart, my lovely, my sweetie, my beautiful one…” you get the picture. Of course, I know partly, that is how men communicate with women here in Colombia, lots of chatter, lots of “mi amor.” I also know that as often as not they are sending the same “Good Morning Bonita” message to more than one woman. I am polyamorous, so that doesn’t bother me too much. What would bother me is the dishonest aspect of this. But that’s not what this story is about.
After knowing him about three weeks, and having two sexy, just plain fun dates, I was getting excited about the possibilities of this relationship. Both of our dates started late in the evening and were overnight. Then we spent the whole next day together. I felt like we had enjoyed some very concentrated and special time together. I was even excited enough to think that if things kept going the way they were, I might consider being monogamous with him here in Colombia. (Not giving up my partners in Germany mind you, but not seeing other Colombian men.) But we were definitely not there yet. (My mind tends to run away with itself and I see possibilities long before they are truly options.)
Then one day, I had a bit of a wobble. I don’t know why, but when I saw a photo he posted on facebook, I literally got a “punched in the gut afraid” feeling. That was strange, so I tucked those feelings away to keep them as a reminder, but didn’t do anything with them. It was just a photo. There was absolutely nothing to garner a reaction like that. That same afternoon, I noticed he had changed his profile picture in Tinder. That also made me feel something, but since I had to be in Tinder to notice it, I couldn’t really be mad about him being on Tinder. LOL I did, however, mention these strange reactions to two of my friends that evening. I find telling other people about these things, helps me stay accountable to myself when I need to be.
That evening while we were chatting he brought up the fact that he wouldn’t be able to see me on the weekend. He said he really just didn’t have the money and since he was trying to save up to pay for the insurance on his motorcycle, that had to be a priority right now. That made me sad because when he was at my place on Monday he had said he would come down on Saturday after work and now he was changing the plan. I was very much looking forward to seeing him. But also, I didn’t want to make him feel bad about not having the money right now. I have been in financial straights before, and it can be embarrassing to admit and frustrating the way it limits one’s ability to do the things you want. My response was to try to be supportive. I told him that I was sad, but that I understood that he has to take care of himself and his finances first. I would miss him but hopefully, we can see each other soon.
I never suspected this was the beginning of an expert manipulation.
There is a “thing” that happens in tourist cultures where there is a marked difference in income between foreigners and locals. The stereotype of rich Gringa and playboy Colombian man is, sadly, a real thing. Already I was aware that we had not gone out to eat or anything together yet. Both dates were at my house, by my choice, not by any insistence on his part. (The first time he came to see me, he almost didn’t come because he didn’t have enough money for a hotel (he lives pretty far outside the metro area) so I offered him to stay in our spare room. As if I didn’t know he would probably end up staying in my room with me!)
We did go to the mall and food market where we had a small snack which he paid for. I gladly bought all the fixings for a nice lasagna dinner for us because it was his birthday. He picked out a t-shirt for himself and we added it to the cart, planning for him to pay me back at the house for it. We never got around to that payment exchange. I wasn’t worried, but I was aware it had happened.
Anyway, I responded sympathetically to his plight and was surprised when his response was to be put out. His feelings were hurt. He said that I had not been very nice. I didn’t offer to come to see him. I must not really care about him or us, because I was clearly unwilling to do my part. Hmm, say what? This felt very much like manipulation. What did he mean I wasn’t doing my part? This is when I started sending the messages to my Colombian girlfriend for clarification and interpretation. (I am fluent in Spanish but it is not my first language and this is not my culture. I wanted some expert advice.) Immediately she was on high alert and told me, “I don’t like what’s happening here.”
I asked him to tell me what he meant and his answers were more stories of how sad he was that my response was not to try to see him but to just say, “Oh well, take care of it yourself and I’ll see you when I can.” That WAS my answer, but I thought that was totally appropriate. I didn’t want to embarrass him by offering money. I also did not want to get myself into a situation where I was financing this relationship.
Because if I loved him and wanted to see him I would help us out.
He told me that he was saving for his moto insurance. I knew that. He added, if he didn’t have to save for so much, then he would have enough money for us to do things. He could see me so much more. If his moto was on the road, he could even come down during the week and hang out. All the things we want to do together, like explore the countryside of Colombia, we could totally do because he would have the moto. (But if he didn’t have enough money for the moto, how was he going to have money for gas? For food and hotels if we went places?) He was just telling me this so I understood that HE wants to see me, but since I clearly don’t care, I was breaking his heart.
Then it came. He told me how much the moto insurance would cost. First in pesos and then in dollars. After that, he only told me in dollars. Now listen, the amount isn’t a lot, $50. But that isn’t the point. The point is now he progressed to asking me to pay it. For us. Because if I loved him and wanted to see him I would help us out.
Honestly, I was pretty surprised and then not surprised. After getting that weird gut feeling the day before, it almost felt like that had been a warning from the universe to expect craziness. The next texts went back and forth between telling me how much he likes me and then finally just flat out asking me to pay for the insurance. He offered his cell phone as “collateral” to ensure he would pay me back. (He has two and neither of them works very well.)
I was sad. I really thought he liked me. Now I understand the kind of “romantic chatter” didn’t mean he was in love with me or even had feelings for me, but I certainly thought he had some feelings for me and that this was going to be a nice relationship while I am here in Medellin. I felt taken advantage of.
Eventually, as it got later and I was feeling more and more hurt and annoyed, I said, “I am uncomfortable with this conversation. I would like to take time to think about what you are asking and we can talk about it tomorrow.” He was easy and light and said ok, good night. But then I got one more message just reminding me that if he had the money it would be so much better for us.
Thursday morning I received my usual, “Good Morning, Bonita!” message. I knew I had all day to craft a response and decide what to do because he wouldn’t be online again until after work. I talked it over with my friends again. I wondered if maybe I would do it. I mean how much fun would it be to have this hot guy with me for a few months and go all over the country and see cool things. But wait, what? Also- there was no guarantee that if I did pay for the insurance, he would actually still come around and see me. Plus, seriously? Maybe if there hadn’t been all the manipulation, but he was being very cunning.
Eventually, I wrote to him and told him I was sad that he was in a tough financial position and it was difficult for us to see each other. I said his asking me for money made me feel like he was using me and I wasn’t comfortable with that. I did say I would go up to his place this weekend, so he didn’t have to put out the money himself. However, I was not going to finance the moto insurance.
I assumed two things would happen. 1- He would try to cajole me and tell me I misunderstood and he hadn’t actually asked me for money, and then 2- he would get angry, assert blame, and accuse me of thinking badly of him. Both of those things happened. The only surprising thing was how quickly the cajoling turned to anger, and how frequently he popped back into the “pero mi amor…” and then back to anger.
He even told me more than once that he had money and didn’t need anything from me. “No necesito nada de ti!” (He even sent a picture of the cash for good measure!) He swore he had never asked me to give him any money, he was just telling me of his circumstances. Thank goodness I had asked my friend to listen to the messages because she helped me stay sane. She reminded me of which messages he had actually asked specifically for money.
I had even asked him, “Well if this is all such a misunderstanding, why are you so mad at me? Just explain what I don’t understand and we can figure it out.” I knew we weren’t going to figure anything out. Anyone who could be that angry with me over what he was saying was a misunderstanding, cannot stay in my life. But I really couldn’t believe this was happening.
Finally, I gave up. Stopped. I told him that I am sorry this ended this way. That I had really enjoyed all of our time together and I wished him well, and I stopped responding. He did too. :(
The thing is, it didn’t end there, not for me. For days after, I kept thinking, what if I was wrong? What if I just totally threw this nice guy away? What if I really did totally offend him and that isn’t what he meant at all? What if he really did like me and I fucked this up? How could I be so mean!? What if he really was thinking of us, and was embarrassed to ask and then I accused him of manipulation? These thoughts kept filtering through my head. I couldn’t make them stop.
It made me realize how effective real gaslighting is. My relationship with Juan was so short that I think this situation was more of an expert manipulation. But I understand there is a fine line between manipulation and gaslighting when ongoing manipulation in a relationship starts to reach a point of attempting to control the other person.
These thoughts that kept plaguing me, kept circling around my head, made me realize how easy it could be for someone to truly gaslight another. It was scary. I KNOW what I heard and what he said. I have the messages in my WhatsApp thread. My friend heard them and confirmed my understanding of the Spanish and cultural contexts. But I still had doubts.
This article tells more about gaslighting and manipulation: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting
If you like this story, you might like this other one I wrote about Ghosting.