Questioning Reality: Gaslighting and Emotional Manipulation in Relationships

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It’s happening again.

Your suspicions about your spouse’s behaviors are increasing.  The late nights at the office, not answering his phone when you call, strange text messages.  You could’ve sworn you smelled perfume on him when he came home last night. 

But when you bring it up, he immediately lashes out.  “Seriously?  I’ve told you a thousand times that I’m not having an affair!  You’re seeing things that aren’t really there.  Just because your dad cheated on your mom doesn’t mean that I’m doing the same thing!  Who knows, you bring this up so often it makes me wonder if you’re having an affair and feeling guilty about it.  You’re crazy.”

Once again, you walk away from the conversation wracked with guilt and self-doubt.  Maybe I was reading into something that wasn’t there.  It’s probably nothing.  He’s right, I’m just acting crazy.

As the weeks and months go by, the evidence keeps stacking up against him.  You catch him on his phone late at night talking to another woman.  There are charges on your credit card for dinners you didn’t attend.  Several nights he doesn’t come home at all.

And yet he keeps denying that anything’s wrong and dismissing your concerns.  What at one time would’ve been convincing evidence that he’s doing something suspicious now becomes more fodder for you to doubt yourself and believe that you’re crazy.  His emotional manipulation tactics are working: he’s perfected the art of gaslighting.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation in which the individual being questioned denies the truth and leads the questioner to doubt their own perception of reality.  The term comes from the story in the 1944 film Gaslight, in which the husband gradually and systematically convinces his wife that she is insane. He does so by changing small details in the home, including the dimness of the gas lights, and denying any difference.  The more he denies, the more she believes him and buys in to his assertion that she’s going crazy.

This process is slow and gradual, almost imperceptible.  The questioner eventually believes he or she is misperceiving reality, learning that they can’t trust their instincts.  Gaslighting influences the balance of power in relationship in favor of the one who denies any wrongdoing.

Gaslighting is commonly present in addiction.  Typically the partner can intuit that there is a problem with the addict’s behavior, but when questioning him or her, receives a response of denial.  Eventually the partner believes their spouse’s lies and doubts their own self-worth.  However, when the partner discovers the addiction and begins to see the past in light of this new awareness, they realize they weren’t crazy after all.  Yet prolonged conditioning to doubt their own perceptions can lead to difficulty learning to trust their gut moving forward.

How do I know I’m experiencing gaslighting?

If you find yourself confronting an issue with your spouse consistently and getting nowhere, pay attention to how you feel in response.  If you leave those conversations feeling as though you were in the wrong for bringing it up, or questioning your perception of reality, you may be experiencing gaslighting. 

Gaslighting also has a strong effect on self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.  As your spouse or partner denies evidence that indicates deception or an issue with addiction, you might notice yourself using negative self-talk, beating yourself up, or doubting yourself more often.  Your confidence may suffer.  Pay attention to how your self-esteem has been affected since you entered the relationship with this individual: did you have self-doubt or issues with self-confidence beforehand?  Have they increased or worsened since being in this relationship?

“Crazymaking” is a synonym for gaslighting that gets at another symptom: feeling like you are crazy or losing your mind.  This is often a defensive denial strategy of the gaslighter.

Notice if your partner turns your accusations against you: for example, if you bring up concern about his alcohol use, notice if he or she flips it around and begins accusing you of having an addiction.  Often the gaslighter will project whatever issues they’re dealing with on their partner in their defensiveness.

How do I stop the gaslighting?

The first step toward change when you’re facing gaslighting is owning your own reality.  Slow down and acknowledge the information or data you’re seeing.  Be open to possible alternate explanations for the data, but realize that if enough evidence points in a concerning direction, there’s likely some validity to it.  Don’t allow your partner to twist your reality and lead you to believe you’re seeing something that isn’t really there.

Learn to recognize the signs of defensiveness in your partner.  If you bring up a concern to your partner, see if they turn back to criticize you or lash out.  Often defensiveness is a sign of insecurity or weakness, and it can indicate denial or deception.

Explore and build up your self-esteem apart from your partner.  If you accept their negative words and assumptions about you as truth, then your confidence will likely suffer.  Instead, empower yourself by owning that you have value and worth.  Learn that your perspective matters and your intuition is valid.  Pursue your own self-care and support to build up your confidence and boundaries.

Remember the old adage that actions speak louder than words.  Addicts are great at making promises, but not always skilled at follow-through.  Instead of basing your trust on your spouse’s words, look at their actions and behaviors as representative of the truth.  Gaslighters can easily persuade you with their words, but their actions often tell a different story. 

If you know you’ve experienced gaslighting before, as when you’ve recently discovered a spouse’s addiction, use your feelings of self-doubt or crazymaking as red flags to ask yourself if the gaslighting is happening again.  Go back to reviewing the data to see if there is evidence of deception or denial.  If so, detach from the gaslighter, build up your own self-esteem, and set or enforce appropriate boundaries for your own safety.

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Are you wondering if you’ve been subject to gaslighting in your own relationship?  Do you feel like you’re going crazy in your relationship?  Have you found out about your partner’s addiction and are wondering how to learn to trust your intuition again?  At Restored Hope, I offer specialized counseling for partners of sex addicts who are reeling from the discovery of their spouse’s behaviors.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or email me to schedule your first appointment and hear how I can help.