Nikki over time became more and more isolated, as Ben would encourage her to prioritise time with him over time with her friends.
“I would feel so much pressure to make sure I was free for him and I would cancel things if he wanted me. I wasn’t allowed any privacy. I agreed to this because of my previous relationship where he wouldn’t let me touch his phone and we were together for 4 years.
“But with Ben we had an open communication policy where each other's phones were available, we knew each other's pins and we could check at any time. But I would never do that to him. It got to the point where he stopped asking and when I wasn’t in the room I would catch him going through my phone.“
Again we see another form of “creeping consent” here, where this escalated from Ben knowing Nikki’s pin in case of necessity (e.g. “replying to a text while I’m driving”), to asking for consent to check her phone. This further escalated to not asking consent and sneaking around to check her phone. Nikki explains:
“Sometimes all my messages were read when they hadn’t been read beforehand and he would’ve gone through it and not asked. And pretended like nothing happened. If I tried to bring it up, it’d be like “oh yeah sorry, but we do have this open agreement and you can check my phone anytime.”
The act of pretending nothing had happened, when Ben in fact had gone through Nikki’s messages is the first example of gaslighting she describes.
According to Solace, a women’s Domestic Violence organisation in London, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse, where the perpetrator manipulates a situation to make the victim doubt their own reality and memory of events. In this story, we see Ben not just lying, but making Nikki doubt her memory or reality on whether the text messages in her phone were already read by her or not.
This is also accompanied by Ben’s seemingly stoic response, where he is not only causing Nikki to doubt the reality of the logic of the situation, but also whether her emotional response (being angry or upset) is the “correct” emotion to the situation. This can also be called minimising.
Over the course of my research, I’ve often been asked how can we tell the difference between someone making a genuine mistake and gaslighting? This article from Stephanie A. Sarkis in Psychology Today offers seven points to look out for. But I am also going to add my own interpretation below.
The difference between someone misinterpreting an agreement or gaslighting someone is usually visible both through the intensity and consistency of their response. A partnership where a mistake is made usually allows space for acknowledging the error, clarification so that the error may not happen again, renegotiation of the agreement and amends or coming together process where the partners acknowledge there has been discomfort without blame. Alternatively one member of the couple could decide in light of the clarified agreement that they want to end the relationships. In healthy relationships, there is an “us versus the misunderstanding” attitude.
Gaslighting usually consists of someone refusing to change their mind or to be open to acknowledging their misinterpretation or mistake. Usually, their stance is that they were right and the other person was wrong. There is a lack of discussion in general, both about how the misinterpretation could have happened and what should be done about it to prevent it again. A gaslighter will often make jokes or seek to move onto another topic or activity to avoid a discussion or acknowledgment of the situation. This creates an emotional mismatch or gap between the partners and a lack of acknowledgment of the pain of the person hurt by the situation.
This emotional gap is then used as a reason to tell the other person that not only are they factually wrong about the situation (which may be accompanied by the invalidation of their intelligence, or emotional intelligence), but also emotionally volatile, inept or dramatic.
A misunderstanding can be a one-off incident and short conversation, which is happens more freqently at the start, or during changes in relationships - during which boundaries are more subject to change and therefore misinterpretation. Whereas gaslighting is a repeated pattern of “I’ve done nothing wrong, you have and you are also over-reacting emotionally” over days, weeks, and months.
An example from this story is when Ben uses the narrative that he is only taking part in their reciprocal agreement about checking each other's phones and that what is happening is not a big deal as a result. When the reality is their agreement has changed at best or been nullified and violated at worst, due to the changes in actions and contexts Ben himself has created. We see a pattern of him washing his hands of any responsibility for his actions by doing this and setting Nikki up to fail, by putting her repeatedly in the role of the “confronter or aggressor” when he has the narrative it’s all business as usual in accordance with their agreement.
We also see Ben gaslighting Nikki is when he rewords or re-interprets their agreement about checking each other’s phones. Ben has used this agreement to take liberties with Nikki’s privacy. Whilst he uses words to change the interpretation of the agreement to justify his behaviour; this also causes cognitive dissonance in Nikki. It causes her to question the wording of what she agreed to and how the agreement could be rationally misinterpreted or not by Ben, leading to his current behaviour.
Unfortunately, Ben’s behaviour around access to Nikki’s phone escalated even further. He began to use the information garnered from Nikki’s text conversations with others to cause arguments. Nikki explains:
“There would be something very tiny and minute I didn’t bring up [to him] or there’d be a context in the wording wasn't the same way as I made it sound and it would cause a massive argument because I wasn’t defending him enough or doing what he wanted.”
This is Nikki describing the beginning of the isolation stage of an abusive relationship. Ben is using their agreement to check each other's phones to monitor what she is saying about him. As a result, Nikki is unable to discuss her concerns about the relationship with her friends over text anymore, knowing Ben will read it and use it as ammunition against her.
This lack of mental and physical space for Nikki to clarify her thoughts on what is happening by talking to friends and receiving advice from others is a key example of a technique that makes it so hard for victims to notice the spiral of abuse they are falling into and the escalation from their partner.
It creates a situation where they are reliant on their partner for the barometer for “normalcy.” So when their partner minimises their feelings e.g. “this isn’t a big deal/don’t worry, it’s an equal agreement” they end up with no time, space, or external support to reflect on or think about this, never mind have the courage to challenge it. At this point, Ben is showing three of the ten signs of Coercive Control identified by Women’s Aid.
Sadly, we will see in the next chapter, Ben will only increase his pattern of isolating Nikki from others, in a way that is very unique to Polyamory