When I was a teen I was enthralled by classic movies. I especially liked the black and white films, the ones that had to rely on a compelling story about the quiet terrors that can happen in our own everyday lives because there were no spectacular explosions, high speed car chases or amazing special effects to carry the movie. Those classics taught me a lot about the human condition. One of my all-time favorites, Gaslight, was set in the turn of the century but offers a fabulous explanation of the covert emotional manipulation that many partners of sex addicts experience in their relationship with an active sex addict.
This movie is where the term gaslighting derives. Gaslighting involves either presenting false information or denying or distorting true information in a manner that causes the target to doubt his or her own perceptions. The victim’s reality, thoughts, and feelings are intentionally manipulated in order to keep that person from knowing the truth. Since the manipulation is covert it bypasses the radar of the victim. The end result is that the gaslighter gains control and power in the relationship. The scariest thing about this movie was not the complex set of maneuvers required to gaslight the heroine Ingrid Bergman and undermine her perception of reality. The scary thing was how easy it was for the gaslighter to accomplish his goal.
I would like to think that in real life only the emotionally fragile are vulnerable to this type of manipulation, but my training in psychology tells me that we are all potential victims. Gaslighting doesn’t require the victim have a weak pre-existing hold on his or her perception of reality. It doesn’t require the gaslighter to present an alternate reality so compelling it overwhelms the victim. It doesn’t require the victim abandon his or her own reality and replace it with that of the gaslighter.
All successful gaslighting requires is that the manipulator inject a small trickle of self-doubt in the victim – a small crack that slowly grows into a crater. All it requires is that the victim questions his or her own memory, behavior, thoughts, feelings, or sensations.
Gaslighting is a frequent tool of manipulation in intimate relationships. Its a favorite for those prepping for and engaging in emotional or physical infidelity and is the rule rather than the exception when that betrayal occurs in the context of sex or pornography addiction. An addict of any kind is a master at gaslighting. As a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, I know that active sex and porn addicts take gaslighting to an art form. Their spouses are the most the frequent recipient of the gaslighting.
If you are a partner of a sex addict, you have likely experienced chronic gaslighting from your sexually addicted spouse. The pattern may have begun as isolated incidents over trivial matters that you deemed not worth pursuing (e.g., your addict’s insistence that he told you he would be late but you just weren’t paying attention, or that you must have forgotten that you agreed to pick up the laundry, etc.). Perhaps he reminded you of times in the past when you really did forget; so, although you are quite sure of this situation, you acknowledge to yourself the small possibility you could be mistaken. You assume that he is in error but, since it’s such a small matter, you let it go.
In the early phases of gaslighting you may find yourself confused, mildly disoriented or frustrated. You may question yourself, or alternatively hold fast to your truth but decide to go silent about it as a means of avoiding unnecessary drama from your addict over events not worth the effort to address.
As the gaslighting slowly, insidiously increases in frequency and intensity you may feel compelled to defend yourself. Your gaslighting addict may be all too eager to engage in a debate or power struggle over what the reality really is. Be careful, because in your effort to stand up for your truth you may fall into a number of psychological traps that ultimately end up serving to separate you from your perception of reality and disconnect you from your own intuition.
You may find yourself searching for evidence to validate your perceptions or to prove your gaslighter wrong. If you are competitive by nature or value standing up for truth and justice, you are more susceptible to the proof trap. On the surface this sounds like a reasonable method of standing firm for your convictions, after all proof is the name of the game for the American legal system. However, notice who is doing all the work. Also notice that in this game you don’t win unless he concedes. You are focused on what you want from him. All he has to do is refuse to give it to you. And he is really good at not giving you the validation you need.
If you value compromise, be careful of stepping into the negotiation trap. It is very easy to develop tunnel vision in focusing on success in the negotiations rather than on your satisfaction with the relationship. Negotiation will be an exercise in frustration for you. Remember that the gaslighter isn’t interested in the negotiations ending – his goal is to keep you distracted.
If you are able to avoid the previous traps, use caution in trying to make sense of his behavior. The explanation trap is always a dangerous one because it focuses you on trying to figure the gaslighter out instead of noticing what is happening to you.
Living with the progressive impact of gaslighting is exhausting. Eventually you will be too worn out to argue. It’s easier to just give in or ignore the gaslighting as it becomes more and more blatant. Living in a fog will be the cost for keeping the peace. You’ll second guess yourself and begin to doubt your memory and perception. Live with gaslighting long enough and you’ll begin to believe the unbelievable.
If you are dealing with gaslighting from the sex addict in your life, take a look at the movie. It can be helpful in understanding how gaslighting works. Pay particular attention to how Ingrid Bergman finds her way out of the fog. She didn’t do it alone and neither will you. While it is unlikely that an inspector from Scotland Yard will offer assistance, the help of a good therapist, trusted friend, or empowering women’s group can make all the difference. Also read “The Gaslighting Pill in Infidelity & Sex Addiction: Separating Out the Kernel of Truth”.
Dr. Janice Caudill is the founder and Clinical Director of McKinney Counseling & Recovery. MCR offers individual, couples, group therapy and multi-day intensives for partners of sex addicts and wounded hearts struggling with sex addiction, infidelity, love addiction or love avoidance, intimacy anorexia, or relational trauma in the McKinney, Plano, Allen, Richardson, Frisco, Carrollton, Lewisville, Dallas and surrounding areas.
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