Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where one partner persistently denies the reality of the other partner (via consistent lying, bullying, and obfuscating the facts), causing that person, over time, to doubt her (or his) perception of truth, facts, and reality. Some people may be familiar with this term thanks to Gaslight, the 1944 Oscar winning film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the story, a husband (Boyer) tries to convince his new wife (Bergman) that she’s imagining things, in particular the occasional dimming of their home’s gas lights. (This is part of his plan to rob her of some very valuable jewelry.) Over time, the wife, who trusts that her husband loves her and would never hurt her, starts to believe his lies and to question her perception of reality.
In the 21st century, the rather antiquated and convoluted plot of Gaslight seems a bit silly. Still, the psychological concept of gaslighting – insisting that another person’s perception of reality is wrong and/or false to the point where that person begins to question that perception – is well accepted, particularly in connection with sexual and romantic infidelity.
Gaslighting is similar in many respects to one of my favorite (if I’m allowed to have one) psychiatric syndromes, folie à deux, which literally translates to “madness in two.” Basically, folie à deux is a delusional disorder in which delusional beliefs and/or hallucinations are transmitted from one individual to another due to their close proximity, emotional connection, and shared reality. In short, crazy for two. If you are in a close relationship with an actively psychotic person – for instance, a person who hears voices and is afraid of being watched – you might also start to hear voices and fear being watched. Such is the power of emotional connections and our desire to hold onto them. We can actually distort our own sense of reality.
The primary difference between folie à deux and gaslighting is that with gaslighting, the person denying reality is perfectly aware of the fact that he or she is lying, usually as a way to manipulate the other person. But the effects are no less profound. Consider the following story, told to me by Alexandra, a female client who came to see me after learning about her long-term boyfriend’s infidelity.
Jack and I met at a party. I was 25, he was 30. We’ve been dating for six years now, living together for five, and he keeps promising me we’ll get married and start a family, but that never quite happens. The last three or four years, even though we’re sharing an apartment, I almost never see him. He works in finance, and I know the hours are long, but sometimes I feel lonely and I try to call him but he doesn’t answer his phone, even when he’s gone all night. He doesn’t even respond to my texts, just to let me know he’s not dead. If I dare to ask him about using cocaine with his friends or sleeping with another woman, he calls me insecure and paranoid and all sorts of other things. Then he reminds me that his job is really demanding and I should cut him some slack. He tells me that if I truly want to get married and have kids with him then I need to stop acting crazy. Well, a couple of days ago I saw him at a café with another woman, kissing her across the table. That night, after he was asleep, I went through his phone and found out he’s been having affairs with at least three other women. In the morning, when I confronted him, he told me that he wasn’t at the café where I saw him, and that I was misinterpreting all the texts I found. And I actually started to believe him! Now, instead of being mad, I feel crazy. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think straight, and I have absolutely no idea what is real and what isn’t.
Sadly, Alexandra’s story is not unusual. In cases of romantic and sexual infidelity, almost every betrayed partner experiences gaslighting to some degree. They sense that something is wrong in the relationship, they confront their significant other, and then the cheater “flips the script,” adamantly denying infidelity and asserting that the betrayed partner’s discomfort is based not in fact, but in paranoia and unfounded fear. Basically, cheaters insist that they’re not keeping any secrets, that the lies they’ve been telling are actually true, and that their partner is either delusional or making things up for some absurd reason.
The (typically unconscious) goal of gaslighting is to get away with bad behavior. Cheaters gaslight because they don’t want their spouse to know what they are doing, or to try and stop it. So they lie and keep secrets, and if/when their partner catches on and confronts them, they deny, make excuses, tell more lies, and do whatever else they can do to convince their partner that she (or he) is the issue, that her (or his) emotional and psychological reactions are the cause of rather than the result of problems in the relationship. Basically, the cheater wants the betrayed partner question her (or his) perception of reality and to accept blame for any problems.
At this point, you might be thinking that you could never be a victim of gaslighting because you’re too smart and too emotionally stable. If so, you need to think again. Alexandra, in the example above, has a PhD in Economics from a world-class university, currently teaches at that same school, has wonderfully supportive parents and friends, and has zero history of emotional and psychological instability (beyond her partner’s cheating). Yet her boyfriend manipulated her perception of reality for the better part of six years, eventually causing her to question both her instincts and her sanity, before she finally caught him red-handed. And then, instead of being angry with him, she was angry with herself and unsure of the truth.
The ability to fall for a cheating partner’s gaslighting is NOT a sign of low self-esteem or a form of weakness. In fact, it is based in a human strength – the perfectly natural tendency of loving people to trust the people that we care about, and upon whom we are healthfully emotionally dependent. In short, we want (and even need) to believe the things that our loved ones tell us.
In large part, betrayed partners’ willingness to believe even the most outrageous lies (and to internalize blame for things that are clearly not their fault) stems from the fact that gaslighting starts slowly and builds gradually over time. It’s like placing a frog in a pot of warm water that is then set to boil. Because the temperature increases only slowly and incrementally, the innocent frog never even realizes it’s being cooked. Put another way, a cheater’s lies are usually plausible in the beginning. “I’m sorry I got home at midnight. I’m working on a very exciting project and I lost track of time.” An excuse like that sounds perfectly reasonable to a woman (or man) who both loves and trusts her (or his) partner, so it’s easily accepted. Then, as the cheating increases, so do the lies. Over time, as betrayed partners become habituated to increasing levels of deceit, even utterly ridiculous fabrications start to seem realistic. So instead of questioning the cheater, a betrayed and psychologically abused partner will simply question herself (or himself).
Sadly, gaslighting can result in what is known as a “stress pileup,” leading to anxiety disorders, depression, shame, toxic self-image, addictive behaviors, and more. As such, gaslighting behaviors are often more distressing over time than whatever it is that the betrayer is attempting to keep under wraps. With Alexandria, for instance, the most painful part of her boyfriend’s behavior wasn’t that he was having sex with other women, it’s that he was never trustworthy and made her feel crazy for doubting his endless excuses.
For more information about gaslighting and its role in infidelity, plus useful advice on how to overcome this deep and horribly painful betrayal of trust, check out my recently published book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-By-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating.