In last week’s post we defined gaslighting as the systematic and chronic manipulation and lying that betrayed partners experience at the hands of the cheating partner. This term originated from a movie made in 1944 called Gaslight where the heroine’s husband attempts to drive her insane by manipulating her reality.
There are four primary types of gaslighting behaviors: the straight-up lie, reality manipulation, scapegoating and coercion. Last week we looked at the straight-up lie and reality manipulation. This week we are going to focus on scapegoating and coercion.
The word 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.” The most frequent way that I see cheating clients use scapegoating is to covertly scoop blame onto their partner so that they can justify their sexual acting out to themselves.
For example, someone might pick a fight with their wife and get indignant and self-righteous in the argument. They then tell themselves that their spouse is not empathetic or a nag or unavailable. From there it is a short leap to tell themselves that it is ok to go act out and in fact it is their spouse’s fault that they are acting out. In this type of cycle, cheaters emphasize and exaggerate their partner’s character defects in their own minds in order to provide a rationale for their cheating behavior.
Another way scapegoating takes place is that the unfaithful individual will overtly blame their partner. This can look like complaints about the partner not being sexual enough or sexual in the way that the cheater prefers. It can look like criticism about how the partner looks, how they dress, their personality traits, or how they interact relationally. It can look like accusations about unmet relational and emotional needs.
For betrayed partners, scapegoating can be particularly lethal as they try to sort out what is their responsibility in the relationship and what is not. There is no question that we all bring deep imperfection and character flaws to our relationships. However, one person’s character flaw is not another person’s excuse to violate the relationship agreements. Scapegoating can take advantage of a partner’s desire to be open to receiving feedback from their spouse and willingness to be responsive by distorting and exaggerating what is true. This can be very confusing, and partners can find themselves taking responsibility for things that are not actually problems or that at the very least are not problems that validate the cheating behaviors.
Coercive behavior covers a scale that ranges from what I call the charm offensive on one end, all the way to bullying or violent behavior on the other. In between is pressure and manipulation.
- The Charm Offensive
Men and women who are hiding cheating behaviors can be notoriously charming. Using wit, humor, and an Olympic level ability to manipulate, they know how to package seduction in endless shapes and forms. It can look like solicitous care taking, or sexual seduction and flirtation, or fun and play, or teary attempts to glean pity.
Betrayed partners often experience full force charm and seduction offensives all aimed at hiding the cheating behaviors and keeping the unsuspecting partner off the scent of betrayal. Charm offensives call look like gifts of jewelry, flowers, or a trip. Charm offensives can be motivated by guilt about the cheating behavior and are a way of ‘making-up’ for being unfaithful while maintaining the secret double life. Or charm offensives can be about distracting the betrayed partner from the sense that something is wrong in the relationship so that do not see or pursue the trail of clues leading to discovery.
- Pressure and Manipulation
In this type of coercive behavior, the cheating partner pressures their significant other through verbal manipulation or 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. 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 sex addiction recovery, he was able to admit to her that he was using her as a source to act out with and was trying to get her to make sex more available to him whenever he wanted it. 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 but to allowing the cheating partner to continue behaviors that enable his sexual acting out. There can be pressure to accept 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 etc. This type of manipulation is aimed at convincing the betrayed partner that the behaviors she sees are harmless and that nothing more is going on.
- Bullying or Violent Behaviors
This type of coercion moves into full on boundary violations of the other person. This can look like yelling or physically intimidating behavior, being threatened with abandonment or physical harm, control of finances or other family resources, forcing unwanted sexual contact or having sexual contact when the other person is not able to give consent (i.e., when the partner is sleeping).
This type of coercive behavior layers interpersonal violence on top of cheating and creates deep harm and mistrust in the relationship. Many cheaters who have used bullying or violent behavior have been unaware of how deeply damaging that has been to their spouse as they have simply been too focused on getting and protecting their sexual drug to acknowledge how far across the line their behaviors have travelled.
As you can see, these four types of gaslighting behaviors are a very serious form of emotion and psychological abuse. I realize that abuse is a big word and often a word that it is very hard for the cheating partner to hear let alone own. However, whenever someone’s ability to perceive their reality accurately is deliberately attacked, undermined and manipulated, that is indeed a form of emotional abuse and must be acknowledged and responsibility for the impact must be taken in order for healing to begin.
Next week we are going to continue the conversation on gaslighting by looking at the way that gaslighting impacts betrayed partners.