Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where false information is presented to the victim by a spouse or another primary attachment figure, causing the victim to doubt his or her perceptions, judgments, memories, and even sanity. The term derives from the 1938 stage play, Gaslight, and a pair of film adaptions, one in 1940 and a more famous one in 1944 starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the 1944 film, Boyer’s character convinces his wife (Bergman) that she’s imagining things, such as the occasional dimming of the house’s gas lights, as part of his ongoing effort to steal her deceased Aunt’s money and jewels. (The gas lights dim whenever he is in the attic, searching for the treasure.) Over time, his insistent and persistent lies cause her and others to question her sanity.
Despite the somewhat outlandish plot of Gaslight, denying someone’s intuitive sense of reality is in fact a relatively common form of abuse and manipulation. In my practice I see this sort of behavior related to marital infidelity quite often, especially when sexual addiction is involved. In these situations, the cheated-on spouses have typically had their intuition and reality denied for years by their unfaithful partner, who continually insists that he or she is not cheating, that he or she really did need to stay at work until midnight, that he or she is not being indifferent or distant, and that the worried partner is just being paranoid, mistrustful, and unfair. In this way betrayed spouses are made to feel as if they are the problem, as if their emotional instability is the issue. Over time, these individuals lose faith in their ability to perceive reality, and they start to blame themselves for what they are thinking and feeling.
Of course, it’s not just unfaithful spouses who engage in gaslighting. Alcoholics, drug addicts, and behavioral addicts of all types (gambling, video gaming, spending, and the like) employ the same exact manipulative actions, working hard to convince their spouses, families, friends, employers, and everyone else that they (the addict) are not doing anything wrong, and if it looks like they are, then it’s because the other person (the non-addict) is misperceiving the situation.
Tom and I met when I was in my late-twenties. He was divorced, but I’d never been married or even close to getting married. At the time I felt like I was finally ready for a serious relationship, and Tom seemed like the perfect guy to pursue that with. When we started dating, he was charming and sweet. I noticed that sometimes he drank a bit more than I would have liked, but we were young and I figured that hey, nobody’s perfect, right? The only thing that really stood out back then was that once in a while he would disappear for a couple of days, not returning my phone calls and not answering the door when I went to his house. I really felt abandoned when he did that, and I even thought about breaking up with him. But then he would come back and he was always so apologetic, saying he’d gotten caught up with a big project at work and needed to give that his total focus. Then he would say something like, “I’m only so serious about work because I want to make a better life for us. I’m doing this for us. I wish you could understand that and not be so sensitive.” Then I would feel guilty and think that I was a bad person for doing things like going to his house and trying to find him. Or sometimes he would show up for dates smelling of alcohol, and when I would ask if he’d been drinking he’d say I was imagining things or that I was smelling mouthwash. It made me feel crazy when he said things like that, like I really was being unfair to him to even mention these things.
After a year of dating, we got married. By then I was grateful that he was willing to put up with someone as crazy as me. And the whole time we were married he had me convinced that it was me who had the problem, that I was just emotional and unstable. Even when he came home stumbling and reeking of alcohol, which happened more and more often, he would either deny that he was drinking or say that it was a work function and he had to drink at it to fit in, or that he was entertaining a client who was a heavy drinker and needed to keep up as a way to close the deal. Plus, his disappearing act got worse as time went on. Still, he always had an excuse, and he always made me feel like I was just imagining things or being too sensitive and too untrusting if I questioned him. Sometimes he would just flat out lie and say he’d definitely told me he was going away to a convention for a few days. The worst was when he would accuse me of being just like his horrible ex-wife. And always, I found myself believing whatever it was that he told me. I only realized how much he was lying to me after his company fired him for being drunk on the job one too many times. I felt so stupid then, knowing I’d been right along but instead of trusting myself I’d chosen to believe his lies, thinking that I was being unfair and emotionally unstable. Now I’m afraid to start dating again because I don’t think I can trust anyone, especially not myself. I just feel damaged and crazy.
– Maria, 35, recently divorced
In truth, the lies that addicts like Tom intentionally perpetrate upon their loved ones so they can continue their addictive activity without interference are absolutely relentless. And usually they are just plausible enough to possibly be true. And when these gaslighting behaviors continue over a long enough period of time, the victim may begin to doubt his or her feelings and intuition, as Maria did, eventually starting to believe the addict’s lies and manipulative defenses. When this occurs, the victim often takes on responsibility for the problems in the relationship, even though the addict is causing the vast majority of those problems. Do you remember Maria’s response when Tom asked her to marry him? “By then I was grateful that he was willing to put up with someone as crazy as me.” Already she had assumed blame for the feelings his behaviors were causing.
The truly unnerving part is that even emotionally healthy people are vulnerable to gaslighting, primarily because it occurs slowly and gradually over time. It’s a bit like placing a frog in a pot of warm water that it is then set to boil. Because the temperature rises so gradually, the frog never even realizes it’s being cooked. We see this exact scenario with Maria, a relatively healthy individual who was slowly drawn into Tom’s insanity as a way to keep her relationship intact.
Sometimes spouses and partners of addicts can become codependent with the addict, meaning they feel compelled to aid and abet the addict in his or her addiction, even when their “assistance” serves no positive purpose and in fact does damage. In essence, they become the addict’s de facto caretaker and enabler. When this sort of unhealthy codependency is coupled with gaslighting, the result may be a folie à deux – a delusion shared by two (or more) people with close emotional ties. A minor version of this would be Maria’s belief that the alcohol she sometimes smells on Tom’s breath is “all in her head,” though Tom would also need to truly believe that lie for this to qualify as a true folie à deux.
Sadly, gaslighting behaviors are often more distressing than whatever it is that the addict is attempting to cover up. With Maria, for instance, the most painful part of Tom’s behavior wasn’t that he drank too much on a regular basis and occasionally disappeared on drinking binges, it’s that he lied about it and made her feel crazy and mistaken for doubting his many semi-plausible excuses and even his outright fabrications.
Gaslighting is a Form of Betrayal Trauma*
There are many types of trauma, but usually the most painful and long-lasting is trauma that involves the betrayal of relationship trust. These traumas are intentional acts of mistreatment, neglect, abuse, and even violence perpetrated by individuals in close relationship to the victim. Making matters worse is the fact that betrayal traumas are often chronic, occurring repeatedly over a long period of time. Usually the difficulty for the victim is that mistreatment occurs in the context of a relationship that has other, more positive elements that can obscure or override the true meaning and power of the abuse. In Maria’s case, her relationship with and emotional dependency on Tom left her vulnerable to the trauma of gaslighting because, in her mind, she needed him more than she needed the truth.
Over time, chronic betrayal trauma (such as gaslighting) can create a stress pileup, leading to anxiety disorders, depression, low self-esteem, attachment deficits, and more. In one study that examined the effects of chronic sexual betrayal, a majority of the cheated-on spouses experienced acute stress symptoms characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder – a pretty serious diagnosis. After more than twenty years working with cheaters and their betrayed spouses, not to mention addicts of all types and their betrayed spouses, I can assure you that it isn’t any particular sexual act or addictive behavior that causes the most emotional pain. Instead, it’s the constant lying, deceit, and being made to feel judgmental, wrong, and just plain crazy. In other words, it’s not the cheating or the drinking/drugging that does the most damage, it’s the gaslighting – the denial of reality.
Is it any wonder that when an addict’s loved ones finally find out they’ve been right all along they sometimes respond is ways that make them look crazy? The simple truth is that, as survivors of chronic betrayal trauma, it is perfectly natural for these men and women to respond with rage, anger, fear, or any other emotion. Ingrid Bergman ably displayed all of these responses in her Oscar winning performance, just as Maria displayed them in her marriage. This is the psychological abuse that addicts intentionally inflict upon their spouses, families, and friends – all so they can continue their addiction unabated.
Unfortunately, the spouses and partners of addicts, despite the hurt, anger, confusion, and betrayal they experience, often resent the idea that they might need help to deal with their feelings. And this resistance is perfectly natural. For those who’ve experienced the betrayal of addiction (and the gaslighting that very often accompanies that betrayal), the obvious and overwhelming impulse is to assign blame to the addict. Nevertheless, many of these spouses and family members do need therapeutic assistance, especially to recognize and process the trauma of gaslighting. At the very least these individuals need validation for their feelings, education and support for moving forward, empathy for how their life has been disrupted by the addict’s repeated betrayals, and help in processing the shame they feel about falling for all of the addict’s now obvious lies and excuses.
When betrayed spouses and other loved ones choose to remain in their relationship with the addict, as they often do, it is usually quite some time before they are able to reestablish trust in anything the addict says or does. Rightfully so, too, after what they’ve been through. Happily, if the addict is committed to long-term behavioral change (sobriety), living honestly, and regaining his or her personal integrity, the redevelopment of relationship trust is indeed possible. And when they betrayed partner joins the addict is his or her efforts at growth by also engaging in a process of support, education, and self-examination, this renewal is even more likely.
Nevertheless, some loved ones do ultimately conclude that the violation they’ve experienced at the hands of an addict is greater than their desire to remain in the relationship. For these individuals, trust cannot be restored and ending the relationship may be the best they can do. Just as a betrayed loved one is not wrong to continue a relationship with an addict, he or she is also not wrong to end it. Ultimately, more important than whether a betrayed individual chooses to stay or go is how he or she goes about growing beyond the loss. This sort of recovery places a powerful emphasis on developing and trusting instincts, finding a greater willingness to express emotions, engaging in self-care and self-nurture, and developing an ongoing and trustworthy peer support network. Oftentimes this begins in therapy, including group therapy with other people who’ve experienced betrayal and gaslighting related to someone else’s addiction. It may also include 12-step support groups like Al-Anon and CODA.
* The concept of gaslighting as a part of betrayal trauma has evolved from the clinical work of Omar Minwalla, Jerry Goodman, and Sylvia Jackson MFT.