Somewhere in your healing process you may have heard the term Gaslighting. This word is used to describe the emotional and psychological trauma that results when a person is chronically lied to or manipulated by a loved one.
This term originates from a movie released in 1944 called Gaslight. In this movie a woman, Paula, is seduced by and marries a charming man who deliberately and systematically tries to drive her insane as part of his scheme to find and steal hidden family jewels. His goal is to have her institutionalized so he can discover and escape with the jewels without her being in the way.
As he nears his goal and Paula becomes more and more convinced of her own mental illness, an investigator who meets the couple by chance and witnesses some of the husband’s manipulation begins to look into things. He eventually comes to the house to meet with Paula, and he helps her figure out what has been happening.
Guess how Paula is restored to sanity? The investigator validates her reality by affirming that the footsteps in the attic that she hears are real and the house’s gaslights are indeed dimming. These and many other things were being done by her spouse and then denied in order to make her doubt her reality and feel crazy. When she would see the lights dim, her husband would tell her that it wasn’t happening and that it was all in her imagination. Sound familiar?
Most betrayed partners experience four main types of Gaslighting: the straight-up lie, reality manipulation, scapegoating, and coercion. In this week’s post we are going to look at the straight-up lie and reality manipulation. Next week we will explore scapegoating and coercion. So let’s dive in.
The Straight-Up Lie
The straight-up lie is the least damaging form of Gaslighting, though still very harmful. This type of lying is basically aimed at hiding secret behaviors. The cheating partner may glibly lie about where he was, what he was doing, whom he was with, how much time he spent doing something, or where the money actually went. Betrayed partners are often stunned at the ease with which their loved one has repeatedly lied to them. This type of lying creates a deep sense of mistrust in the relationship. It also creates a double whammy of betrayal for partners because they feel betrayed by their spouse and also betrayed by themselves for believing the lies.
Reality manipulation can make betrayed partners feel like they are slowly and inexorably losing their grip on sanity. This is because their ability to perceive what is real and to trust their memory and judgement is the very thing that is being attacked and undermined.
Let me give you an example. You and your husband have gone out to eat at a lovely restaurant. Your husband, who compulsively uses seduction and sexual innuendo as acting out behaviors, flirts openly with the waitress throughout the meal. When you mention your discomfort with this, your husband denies it. Moreover, he turns it around on you. He may tell you that you are a prude and making a big deal out of something that is minor. He may tell you that you have become very paranoid and are seeing things that don’t exist. He may tell you that he is worried about you because you seem to be so insecure about yourself and maybe some therapy would be helpful.
In this type of Gaslighting, the addicted individual attacks the partner’s sense of reality and tries to create uncertainty, doubt and confusion about what their partner is observing or experiencing. Rather than lie about their own behavior, they attack their partner’s perception of reality. This type of reality manipulation is incredibly damaging because it violates the partner’s sense of self and erodes mental equilibrium, self-confidence, and self-esteem.
One of my clients told me recently that she discovered her spouse’s sexual behavior through contracting an STD. When she confronted her spouse he became incredibly angry and indignant and accused her of having an affair. He was so convincing and stuck by this story so adamantly and for so long that she began to wonder if she had multiple personalities and perhaps one of them had an affair. Basically, this client was Gaslighted by her spouse until she lost her grip on reality.
This story or variations thereof have been told to me many times by partners shocked and enraged by the suffering their loved one was willing to cause to hide their behaviors.
Next week we will explore the remaining two types of Gaslighting: scapegoating and coercion. In the meantime, be aware that facing the ways in which you have been Gaslighted can bring up a lot of anger and pain. For many betrayed partners, the dishonesty and manipulation feel more damaging than the sexual behaviors. As you look at this issue, be sure to use your tools of talking with safe friends, working through your feelings in therapy, journaling, and doing lots of calming, soothing self-care.