Are you in a relationship that sometimes has you question your sense of self and even your sanity? Do you occasionally think, “Something just isn’t right here…”? Do you feel chronically insecure, but you’re not sure why?
No Trust=No Relationship If you answered yes to any of the above questions, read on. Your partner or spouse may be gaslighting you – manipulating you into distrusting yourself and your sense of reality. It might only be little lies and jabs at your emotional stability (e.g., “You’re just being hormonal”), but if you don’t deal with it you jeopardize the long-term health of your relationship.
What is “Gaslighting”? “Gaslighting” comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, where a husband tries to convince his wife that she’s insane in order to institutionalize her and steal her inheritance. This is an extreme example of the behavior and today the phrase is used to describe a range of manipulative behaviors used to cover up actions that will be disapproved of. Gaslighting erodes a partner’s perception of reality. The end result? No more trust, and no more love. Worse, the loss of the partner’s ability to trust his or her intuition can extend far beyond the end of the relationship.
How Gaslighting Happens: The Blame/Shame Spiral
I can tell you from decades of experience that gaslighting happens in many relationships, to varying degrees.
It’s a classic example of the blame game/shame spiral. Instead of taking ownership of their actions, one person blames the other, shaming them over and over. This is the ‘spiral’ of distrust, blame and shame.
Affairs & Gaslighting: Gaslighting and illicit affairs go hand-in-hand. For instance:
- “The reason I’m at the office until 2:00am is I’m working hard to make a living for our family! I can’t believe you don’t trust me!”
- “Of course I was at the gym at midnight. It’s the only time I ever have to work out.”
- “You have serious jealousy issues. You need to see a shrink.”
Substance or Process Addictions & Gaslighting: When one person in the relationship/marriage has a drug and alcohol addiction, overspends, gambles, or practices sme other destructive behavior they won’t address, he or she may gaslight in order to avoid responsibility. For example:
- “You’re over-reacting. I function fine!”
- “There you go again! You’re so paranoid. Probably comes from growing up in that messed-up family of yours.”
Important Note: Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing a gaslighting spouse can sometimes be charming, seductive, and socially popular, which can really make you look like the unstable one.
Custody Battles & Gaslighting: The sad truth is that children can be victims of gaslighting too. Difficult custody battles are a breeding ground for this behavior, both when enlisting the children, and making them question their view of the other parent,“She’s nuts, kids! You know that, right?”
The parent with more resources may hire “experts” to undermine the former spouse’s stability and credibility.
The damage to the children, whose welfare the gaslighter purports to care deeply about, is enough for a blog all on its own.
Garden Variety Gaslighting: Not as immediately devastating, “garden variety” gaslighting can be a wife who tells her husband that he just forgot that he agreed to have that her mom stay for a week (when in fact she neglected to tell him), or the husband who denies having promised to pick up milk on the way home from work. These “little white lies” can, over time, erode trust between partners.
4 “Reality Check” Tips to Heal Yourself and the Relationship
Reality Check #1. Take Yourself Seriously. If you think you’re being gaslighted, now would be the time to give yourself a real and honest self-evaluation:
- See if there really is a midnight class at your husband’s gym!
- Do you have a history of being inappropriately jealous? Or is this the first time you’re hearing about this so-called issue of yours?
- Do you come from a family where you were often told, “You’re imagining things!” when you tried to speak up about some negative, persistent issue?
Believe it or not, coming from a family where you already experienced gaslighting can be a good thing because you’re better equipped to recognize the behavior. Give yourself a second chance (now!) to speak up.
Reality Check #2. Come clean with those you trust. Find a friend. Put all the stuff on the table, especially the things you’ve been afraid to confide before:
- Your boyfriend’s been emailing two old girlfriends constantly for the past six months and says it’s no big deal.
- Your wife’s suddenly taking business trips that occur over long weekends, and is never available by text or phone.
- You found a condom in your husband’s gym bag.
- You found wine bottles in the recycling bin even though your girlfriend says she’s clean and sober.
Ask your friend how he/she perceives the situation. Does he/she think you’re crazy to question your partner’s behavior?
Reality Check #3. Trust your inner compass. We all have a built-in compass to help us sense when something is off. Gaslighting shuts off this compass.
Reality Check #4. Get feedback from a professional. Suppose your partner is suggesting that you have “issues” or even a personality disorder. This is your opportunity to take it to a professional. It may be that couples’ counseling is your best bet, but if your partner isn’t interested, it’s crucial that you go on your own. In some cases—perhaps you fear your partner’s powers of persuasion will influence even the therapist, e.g.—solo therapy may be preferable. A professional is a great resource in helping you to rebuild your inner compass and restore trust in your instincts.