We are still exploring the topic of Gaslighting this week. Last week’s blog defined Gaslighting as the emotional and psychological trauma that results when a person is chronically lied to or manipulated by a loved one. Then we looked at the first two types of Gaslighting: the straight-up lie, and reality manipulation. This week we are looking at the final two types: scapegoating, and coercion.
Scapegoating is defined by dictionary.com as “the act or practice of assigning blame or failure to another, as to deflect attention or responsibility away from oneself.” Cheating individuals often use scapegoating as a form of Gaslighting, scooping blame onto their partner in order to justify their extracurricular sexual behaviors.
For example, a man picks a fight with his wife and gets indignant and self-righteous in the argument. Then he tells himself that his spouse is not empathetic, that she’s a nag, and that she’s unavailable. From there, it is a short leap to telling himself it is OK to act out and, in fact, it is his spouse’s fault that he’s acting out. In this cycle, the cheating partner emphasizes and exaggerates the betrayed partner’s character defects in order to provide a rationale for his behavior.
A more overt type of scapegoating occurs when the unfaithful individual directly blames their partner for their cheating behaviors. This can look like complaints about the partner’s personality, character flaws, spending habits, sexual preferences, physical appearance, parenting style, etc., all with an “If you didn’t do X, I wouldn’t do Y” perspective.
There is no question that we all bring deep imperfections and character flaws to our relationships. However, one person’s character flaw is not another person’s excuse to violate relationship agreements.
For betrayed partners, scapegoating can be particularly lethal. By distorting and exaggerating what is true, scapegoating takes advantage of their desire to be open to feedback and responsive to the impact of their shortcomings in the relationship. This can be very confusing, and partners can find themselves taking responsibility for things that do not belong to them.
Coercive behavior covers a continuum that ranges from what I call the ‘charm offensive’ on one end, all the way to bullying and violating behaviors on the other. In between there is pressure and manipulation.
The Charm Offensive
Betrayed partners often experience full-force charm and seduction offensives. Using wit, humor, and an Olympic level ability to manipulate, cheating partners can be very persuasive and very distracting. This can be packaged in endless shapes and forms, but the end goal is always the same: to distract the partner from discovering the sexual behaviors and betrayal.
Charm offensives can look like solicitous caretaking, sexual seduction and flirtation, fun and play, or teary-eyed attempts to glean pity. They can include gifts of jewelry, flowers, or a fun trip, all aimed at seducing the partner and convincing her that the unfaithful person’s attention is on her and all is well in the relationship, or distracting her from the trail of evidence that might lead to discovery.
Partners who have been longing for their significant other to pay attention to them, to show empathy, and to invest in the relationship can be very vulnerable to this type of manipulation. They can easily mistake this type of seduction for caring and find themselves once more a pawn in the chess game of betrayal.
Pressure and Manipulation
With this type of coercive behavior, the unfaithful partner pressures the betrayed partner through verbal manipulation, emotional manipulation, or a combination of the two.
For example, one of my clients told me about how over the years of her marriage her spouse had talked to her repeatedly about his belief that her sex drive was too low. He bought her books and he asked her to go see a doctor, which she did. He bought sex toys and lingerie, and found Internet research to convince her of her problem.
When this client and her spouse entered recovery, he was able to admit to her that he was sexually addicted, and he’d been using her as a source to act out his sexually compulsive behavior. For the partner, this was both relieving and infuriating, as she had spent years feeling that something was wrong with her and that her sexual desire was deficient in some way.
For other partners, the pressure and manipulation are not related to sex, focused instead on allowing the unfaithful individual to continue behaviors that enable the cheating. There can be pressure to accept things like:
· an inconsistent schedule
· not returning phone calls
· coming home late
· a ‘friendship’ with a woman that feels too close
· spending a lot of time drinking and in bars
· flirtatious behavior
This type of pressure and manipulation is aimed at convincing the betrayed partner that the behaviors they see are harmless, acceptable, and that their concerns are not valid.
Bullying or Violating Behaviors
This type of coercion moves into full-on boundary violations of the other person. This can include things like yelling, physically intimidating, threats of abandonment or physical harm, rigid control of finances or other family resources, forcing unwanted sexual contact, having sexual contact when the other person is not able to give consent (i.e., when the partner is sleeping), and more.
This type of coercive behavior layers interpersonal violence on top of infidelity and creates deep harm and mistrust in the relationship. Many cheating partners who have used violating or bullying behaviors were unaware of how deeply damaging this was to their spouse. Usually, they were caught up in accessing their ‘drug of choice’ and protecting their secrets. In their driven, compulsive state, they deceived themselves about how far across the line their behaviors had travelled.
TRUST VS. MISTRUST
Most betrayed partners experience at least two or three of the types of Gaslighting we have discussed. For partners who have experienced this type of emotional manipulation, it can take quite some time for them to be able to think clearly and to once again trust their own perceptions of reality and truth.
I often have betrayed partners who come to see me ask within the first session or two, “How will I ever trust my significant other again?” My answer to them is that this is not the best question to be asking. The better question to ask is, “How will I rebuild trust with myself? How will I learn to trust my gut and know what I know?” Until you are able to trust yourself again, you will never trust your partner. Trust in your partner is based on trust in yourself and your ability to correctly perceive what is happening in your life and your relationship.
Your first step in healing is to begin to believe that inner voice that resides deep in your gut and is watching out for your best interests, trying to warn you, protect you, and help you notice and see the things that are important. Learning to trust your gut is one of the key tasks of early recovery. This is not always easy. As one of my clients so eloquently put it, “First I had to find my gut, then I had to figure out how to listen to my gut, and only then could I finally start to trust my gut.”
Educating yourself about betrayal trauma and the types of Gaslighting that accompany it is an important first step in finding and trusting your gut. Understanding what has been happening to you helps you become much more aware of the dynamics that have been present in your relationship, and more able to spot Gaslighting if and when it occurs in the future.