For over seventeen years, I’ve written about relationships and seen a hell of a lot of stuff online. It’s always fascinated me how men can talk about their painful breakups and receive empathy, sympathy and new romantic prospects. Their DMs fill up, fast. Empathy for women’s breakup experiences, on the other hand, has a limited shelf life. People deride them for talking about it or the “bunny boiler” and “Betty Broderick” references start. They quickly tire of her “airing her dirty laundry”. Other women wonder what she was doing wrong to ‘make’ her partner or spouse cheat or leave. They figure she wasn’t meeting his needs.
Last week, Alice Evans, actress and wife of actor Ioan Gruffudd expressed her hurt and understandable outrage on Twitter after discovering his new relationship via social media. I won’t go into the details—it’s all over t’internet—but allegedly, it’s that age-old tale. You know, the one where man is potentially seeing someone else or paving their exit, but doesn’t want to be honest about it. Instead, they act up because they want the women to take the hint and end it. Or they aren’t around a lot, pick faults with their partner or spouse, or deny anything’s wrong. Yep, these are all gaslighting.
Intended or not, and really, impact matters more than intentions, he distorts her reality to preserve his self-image.
It might be to avoid conflict; it might be to hedge his bets, to build what he regards as a strong case for why he’s leaving, but it’s still gaslighting.
Then the relationship ends unceremoniously, and they often refuse to talk about it or make up a load of BS. There might be an emphasis on the woman “playing nice” and “not making a fuss” or presenting a united front. And, sometimes, she still holds out hope of a reconciliation or wants to look like The Right Kind of Woman. So she goes along with it.
Then the guy moves on with someone else, possibly claiming its new when it’s likely they’re an overlapper. They expect to put this up on social media and keep up the facade that they’re a stand-up guy. Meanwhile, society expects the woman to crawl under a dignified rock without complaint.
In the past when this happened, society told us not to, you know, “air our dirty laundry”. This is code for ‘Put on a brave face and cover up other people’s shady misdoings’.
It’s also code for ‘Don’t talk about it because it will only make people realise that you obviously screwed up’. It’s as if talking about mistreatment is an invitation for people to ask the equivalent of, Well, What were you wearing?
Society expects women to maintain dignity while picking up the pieces. This might, incidentally, mean single-parenting or having to restart a career they abandoned in support of the relationship or child-rearing. He, on the other hand, might live with little of the responsibilities or the consequences of his actions.
Keeping our silence compounds the societal pattern of shame and patriarchy, but also facilitates the gaslighting. So they experience gaslighting and mistreatment, and then everyone from randos on the internet to family and friends expect them to “buck up” and perform at being The Dignified Woman That’s Been Left. In the meantime, the man expects to come up smelling of roses regardless of the truth.
Society, quite simply, has a history of avoiding vulnerability and not sharing information.
Talking about painful experiences of abuse and neglect is often regarded as more problematic than the abuse itself. That’s so frightening, and it’s no wonder we have the problems that we do as a society. It’s no wonder we’re just barely scratching the surface of the abuse so many of us have experienced.
Had we been allowed to talk more openly about unhealthy behaviour and patterns, more women would have been able to leave abusive relationships. Or stop letting their future killer back into their lives. We’d have a higher standard for our relationships instead of letting ourselves be charmed and bamboozled into believing that someone else’s gaslighter is our prince.
It’s not that we have to go into the ins and outs of our breakup on social media or whatever, but we are allowed to talk about it. Women are allowed to talk about their pain. It’s in allowing ourselves to be seen and giving voice to painful experiences that others get to be seen too. Why should men have freedom to do whatever the frick they want while women continue to pander to it?
We’re also, however, allowed to feel uncomfortable with the sharing. We are. That doesn’t mean that we should silence the person in question though. Still, it won’t harm us to check in with ourselves about the source of that discomfort. It may reflect where we’ve silenced ourselves and told us to ‘buck up’ when we didn’t have to.