A couple of months ago, Rob Weiss invited me to come on his podcast for a chat with him. One of the things we talked about was gaslighting and I mentioned that there were four types of gaslighting. Rob and I got off on other topics and I never made it back to describing the four types. Many of you have contacted me to ask, “What were the four types of gaslighting?” So, to answer your question, I’ve decided to write a series of posts where I will define gaslighting and unpack the four types.
To start with, let’s talk about what gaslighting is. Betrayal always includes dishonesty. In fact, most betrayed partners have been lied to, and lied to and then lied to some more. The lies are impossible to count, and most partners experience profound distress when they discover the systematic lying perpetrated by their significant other.
Another name for this type of psychological abuse is ‘Gaslighting’. This term originates from a movie filmed in 1944 called Gaslight. In this movie a woman, Paula, is seduced by and marries a charming man who deliberately and systematically drives her insane in order to carry out a 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 probe into things. He eventually comes to the house to meet with Paula and 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 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 spouse would tell her that it wasn’t happening and that it was all in her imagination. Sound familiar?
We are going to refer to the systematic and chronic manipulation and lying that partners experience as gaslighting. Most partners will experience four primary types of gaslighting: the straight up lie, reality manipulation, scapegoating and coercion. This week we will examine the straight up lie and reality manipulation and will focus on scapegoating and coercion next week.
The Straight Up Lie
The straight-up lie is the least damaging 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. This type of lying creates a deep sense of mistrust in the relationship, as partners are often stunned at the ‘ease’ with which the cheater has repeatedly lied to them. It also creates a double whammy of betrayal for partners because they feel betrayed by their significant other but also betrayed by themselves for believing the lies.
Reality manipulation can make you feel like you are slowly and inexorably losing your grip on your sanity. This is because your ability to perceive what is real and to trust your memory and judgement is the very thing that the cheating partner is attacking and trying to undermine.
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. But in addition, he also 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 that you are upset about some harmless flirting with a waitress and maybe some therapy would be helpful.
In this type of lying the cheater attacks the partner’s sense of reality and tries to create doubt about what she is observing or experiencing in order to cover his tracks. Rather than lie about his own behavior, he attacks his partner’s sense 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 began accusing 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 had had an affair and didn’t know it. 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 at the lengths their loved one was willing to go to hide their behaviors and the suffering they were willing to allow the partner to undergo.
Reality manipulation is experienced by betrayed partners on a regular basis and is a serious and debilitating form of emotional and psychological abuse. One of the most damaging things that you can do to a human being is to make them doubt their ability to perceive their reality accurately. Part of recovery for the cheating partner is to stop the lying and manipulation and take responsibility for the emotional abuse that they have perpetrated against their loved one.
Look out for next week’s blog when we discuss scapegoating and coercion.