How to Spot Gaslighting
And how to escape.
Posted Dec 27, 2020
Linda: In a movie made in 1944, Ingrid Bergman plays the part of Paula, a young vulnerable singer who marries Gregory, an attractive, charismatic, mysterious older man who is played by Charles Boyer. Gregory is trying to drive his wife insane in order to take over her inheritance. He continually tells her that she is ill and rearranges their home while accusing her of moving things and then forgetting that she has done so. His most devious method for driving her mad is manipulating the gas so that the lights in the house go dim.
Paula believes that she is losing her mind. She is falling under his spell, becoming confused and frightened to the point that she is hysterical. She starts to believe that she is the fragile, unreliable person he says she is. The more she listens to Gregory’s view of reality, the more she doubts herself. Paula is so desperate for her husband to love and approve of her, that she gives up her own sense of what is true and gives her power to him. The deadlock breaks when Paula has someone else to reality test with, a policeman who assures her that indeed, the gas lights are dimming.
It easy to hate Gregory for being such a wicked monster that he is willing to drive his wife out of her mind to selfishly take what he wants. But Paula has some responsibility in allowing this awful predicament to happen. She had wanted so badly to believe that handsome Gregory is the strong and generous man who would only protect her. It was the attachment to the image of his being the perfect husband, who would never intentionally harm her, that almost did her in.
Gaslighting is a set of manipulative tactics composed of deceit, intimidation, criticizing, judging, guilt-tripping, bullying, and withholding. When we consider the present-day story of Karl and Eden, we can see that Karl used them all. His response to Eden’s requests for family time and more emotional intimacy was that her needs were excessive. For the longest time, Eden doubted herself and believed Karl. Neither of them knew how threatened Karl felt when Eden asked for a deeper connection. He only knew that he had to assert himself to feel powerful and in control in the face of her requests.
He criticized Eden for lacking strength and confidence, saying, “You are so insecure and needy. Why do you need me around so much? Can’t you stand on your own two feet and handle things on your own?" Karl knew Eden’s most vulnerable areas. She prided herself knowing that commitment was her signature strength. When he accused her of being uncommitted to their marriage, it would shut her up every time.
The gaslightee elevates the gaslighter and puts them up on a pedestal, idealizes them. They so desperately want their partner’s approval that they abdicate their own reality. The gaslightee violates their own self-trust by giving up their sense of what’s true in an attempt to please their partner. In an attempt to make the relationship work, she bought into Karl’s view of her being insecure and needy.
“What I now know is that when Karl was gaslighting me, he was insisting that I go along with his point of view. He wanted to keep his image intact of being a good man. He would say, “I’m just working this hard to provide for you and the kids.” When I would say that there were plenty of other jobs that didn’t demand as much of his time and energy that would allow him to be home with his family, Karl accused me of being uncommitted to his well-being. He would come right out and say that I was being selfish.
"I now can see that he was the one who was being selfish by insisting on getting his way. He continued working at that consuming job, and I left each discussion feeling horrible. I could tell that he did not hold my needs in very high regard. He put his own desires first; the disrespect I felt was causing me great emotional suffering.
“Each time my distress was dismissed, I would give up another piece of my reality in an attempt to close the widening gap between us. Some part of me knew his accusations weren’t true. But I tried to convince myself that they were true because I didn’t want our belief systems to be so discrepant. I gave up my own reality in an attempt to be aligned with him. I made my intuitive sense of what was truly wrong in an attempt to be seen positively in Karl’s eyes. Repeated incidences of this nature were demoralizing and depressing. It was a gradual process over many months that eroded my sense of self.”
During their worst fights, Eden would say, “I’m so unhappy; we fight so much; I’m afraid our marriage isn’t going to make it.” When Karl would say, “Our marriage might not make it,” Eden felt that she had to be the one to back down. She wanted the marriage to survive and Karl did not have the level of commitment that she had.
How did Eden disengage from her former pattern of making her desire for closeness wrong?
Like Paula in the movie Gaslight, Eden has another person to reality test with. Her best friend Kaitlin was the sister she has always wanted and with whom she shares everything. These two had been close for many years before Karl took the demanding job.
Eden trusted Kaitlin’s judgment and during their conversations, was validated that her requests for Karl’s participation in the family was reasonable. Kaitlin affirmed that Karl was lucky that Eden was so strong in commitment in the face of his dismissive behavior. In fact, if she wasn’t so loyal, she would have left him months ago. Kaitlin mirrored back to Eden that she was a powerful, capable woman bringing up their children almost singlehandedly. She was not the weak, needy, dependent person that Karl was describing.
It was a life-changing moment when Eden realized that Karl’s fear of getting vulnerable was so great that it distorted his judgment. He had been willing to allow her to distrust her own perception in an effort to be right. Eden knew that their relationship needed more emotional intimacy if it was going to be a lasting partnership. With the meaningful support of her dear friend, Eden began to hold fast to her truth, and no longer caved in during their conversations. It took her a while to grow the confidence to believe that if she left Karl, even though their daughters were only three and five, that she could make it on her own. Once she was willing to leave, she no longer felt trapped. She no longer fought him, nor did she join him in his views. Over the months, as she was able to do this more and more, Eden’s depression lifted. She was still exhausted from running the household alone, and she still missed Karl, but her sense of self was returning.
In Eden’s words:
“With Kaitlin’s support, I began to stand in my power. I no longer fought back trying to convince him that I was right. Nor did I take on his negative characterization of me as being uncommitted, weak, needy, and insecure. In our conversations, I simply stated, 'We see it quite differently, and I look forward to the time when you are complete with your all-consuming job.' When I no longer needed his approval, I got my self-trust back. Rather than speaking from anger or guilt, I spoke from a place of quiet certainty.”
Karl finally did resign from that job that was keeping him away from his family. Their relationship healed over time, and they went on to enjoy a partnership that was characterized by equality, honesty, integrity, generosity, and loving-kindness. Once Karl got away from his demanding job, they both agreed that it had been a close call. Karl apologized for treating her so shabbily. To show that he had learned an important life lesson, Karl spent a great deal of his time and energy to make amends in ways that assured her that his manipulative behavior had become a part of their past.
Many partnerships can’t survive the assaults that gaslighting does to their trust. When I spoke to them last, both Eden and Karl expressed how grateful they are that they had made it through that difficult time, and for all the important life lessons they have learned.
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