Gaslighting Across the Spectrum: Primary vs. Secondary Features
Gaslighting can occur across a spectrum, with various levels of intensity, impact, and characteristic features. This series examines gaslighting from 3 different dimensions: Part 1 – Gaslighting on the Continuum, Part 2 – Gaslighting x Level of Intensity, and Part 3 – Gaslighting x Primary vs. Secondary Feature.
This is Part 3 of the Gaslighting Across the Spectrum series. Please see Part 1 for a greater context.
As a psychologist and Certified Sex Addiction Therapist I am trained to assess the symptoms and associated features of sex or porn addiction. For example, entitlement, and the types of thinking and behaviors that evolve from it is always a player in sex addiction and its treatment. Think of entitlement as the mental fuel that drives the engine. The entitlement can be primary, there before the emergence of addiction, and will be there once addictive behavior ceases. In this case, we might be dealing with a deeper underlying issue, such as Narcissistic or Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Although there a fewer tests and resources that help me to distinguish between primary and secondary features of gaslighting, I assess gaslighting in much the same way.
Secondary gaslighting is just that, a behavior pattern that escalated secondarily in service of protecting the secret life. The behavior pattern itself can range from being predominantly unconscious or unintentional to premeditated and intentionally destructive (see Part 1) and may range from mild to severe (see Part 2).
The roots may have predated the moment the problematic sexual behavior crossed the threshold from problematic to addictive sexual behavior and the deception tactic may have been highly reinforced by its success. However, the mushrooming pattern is primarily a function of the distorted thinking of the addiction.
Most importantly, once the sex or porn addiction has been addressed and deep recovery obtained, gaslighting can fade significantly. Due to the damage heaped on the partner of the sex addict, he or she may require significant time to heal and may live with lingering effects.
However, if the secondary gaslighting is essentially halted and the recovering addict makes the commitment to help his or her partner heal, followed up by action – effort, patience, empathy development, and consistent empathy delivered across sustained time – relationship repair is very possible.
Primary gaslighting is a different story. Although a primary gaslighter may decrease the gas attacks if sobriety is obtained, deep recovery is harder to achieve when the distorted thought patterns and actions that accompany gaslighting, including the desire for control and power, do not change.
For example, gaslighting, like addiction is fed by entitlement. This is why they go together so often. If entitlement remains intact, then it acts like glue and gaslighting binds to it.
If you are a partner, this is not a good prognosis for you or your relationship. If the primary gaslighting was severe and served as a primary intent to control, the intent to control will still be there even if the addiction is not. It will still be all about him (or her).
Psychologically, this is a dangerous situation. You are likely worn down by the recovery phase, while the s/he is boosted by a sense of power and control. The possibility of emotional domestic violence is high. See Gaslighting: Dealing and Healing Using the Canary in a Cage Principle and Partners of Sex Addicts & Infidelity Survivors: Have You Been Gaslighted? for additional information on dealing with active gaslighting. In addition, I often use resources developed for those in domestic violence situations for partners dealing with a primary gaslighter.
In my experience, primary gaslighters are the exception rather than the rule. However, if you are in a relationship with one, get help from a professional skilled and knowledgeable about the dynamics of this population.