“Gaslighting” is a term that originated with the 1938 stage play, Gaslight, by British writer Patrick Hamilton. However, most people are familiar with the story through the 1944 film of the same name, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the film, Boyer convinces his wife (Bergman) that she’s imagining things, most notably the occasional dimming of the house’s gas lights, as part of his plot to steal her deceased Aunt’s money and jewels. (The lights dim whenever he’s in the attic, searching for the treasure.) Over time, Bergman comes to believe her husband’s lies and, in turn, to question her sanity.
In today’s world, the plot of Gaslight seems pretty outlandish. Nevertheless, the concept of psychological abuse perpetrated by presenting false information and insisting those lies are true, thereby causing the victim to doubt his or her judgment, perception, memory, and even sanity, is relatively well-accepted in contemporary society—probably because gaslighting* routinely occurs in conjunction with serial sexual infidelity and various forms of addiction. Consider the words of Alexandria:
Darren was, and sometimes still is, the most charming guy on the planet. We met at a party at a mutual friend’s Manhattan penthouse. I was 25, Darren 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 or sometimes for an entire weekend. He doesn’t even respond to my texts, just to let me know he’s not dead.
When he finally does show up, he tells me that his job is really demanding and I should cut him some slack. He’ll tell me that he was working late on a really big deal and he fell asleep at his desk, or that he got called away to the country on short notice to meet with some hotshot client and didn’t have time to let me know about it before he left, and then there wasn’t cell service at the estate. And then he reminds me that he’s doing all of this for us, and that I really need to trust him because he loves me and would never do anything to hurt me, and if I really want to get married and have kids with him, then I have to stop acting crazy. And heaven forbid I accuse him of doing cocaine with his friends all night or sleeping with another woman. Then he calls me insecure and paranoid and all sorts of other things. The worst part is that after a year or two of this I decided he must be right, that I really am crazy.
Two weeks ago he was gone for four days, and when he got back, he insisted that he’d told me over breakfast he was going out of town on business. He said I was really groggy when he told me, so maybe it just slipped my mind. And I believed him! Then yesterday I went shopping a little bit after noon and I walked past a café that Darren and I both like. There he was, sitting at a table for two with another woman, kissing passionately. Last night after he fell asleep I went through his iPhone and found out he’s having affairs with at least three women! Now, instead of being mad, I feel nuttier than ever. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think straight, and I have absolutely no idea what to do next.
Alexandria presents a classic case of modern-day gaslighting. Essentially, Darren wanted to continue with his illicit sexual behavior so he crafted a web of lies to justify, deny, and cover up his activity. And when Alexandria had the audacity to question those lies, he flipped the script, insisting his falsehoods were true and Alexandria was delusional or just making things up for some absurd reason. In this way, Alexandria was made to feel as if she was the problem, as if her emotional and psychological instability was the real issue.
That Could Never Happen To Me, Right?
To me, a therapist who’s worked with hundreds of lying spouses and addicts (and also their loved ones), the most disturbing thing about gaslighting is that even emotionally healthy people are vulnerable. In part, this is because we naturally tend to defend, excuse, and overlook concerns about the behavior of people to whom we are deeply attached. In larger part, it’s because gaslighting starts slowly and builds gradually over time. In the beginning, the lies are plausible, like, "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 at least semi-reasonable to most people, and for a person who both loves and trusts the liar, it’s easily accepted. Over time, however, as the cheating or the addiction (or whatever else it is that the liar is trying to cover up) escalates, the fabrications also escalate. "I swear, I told you over breakfast that I was going away for four days. You must have forgotten." Most people would toss a lie like that one out with the garbage, but because the gaslighted partner has become inured to these deceits over time, even the most outlandish mendacities can be accepted. So instead of questioning the liar, victims question themselves. In this respect gaslighting is like placing a frog in a pot of warm water that is then set to boil. Because the temperature increases only gradually, the innocent frog never even realizes it’s being cooked.
The Damage Done
Interestingly (and sadly), gaslighting behaviors are often more upsetting to the victim than whatever it is the perpetrator is attempting to conceal. This is true even with sexual infidelity, where betrayed spouses almost universally report that it’s not the extramarital sex that hurts the most; instead, it’s the destruction of relationship trust caused by the constant lying, deflecting, secret-keeping, and misplaced blame. And this pain is exacerbated if/when the innocent partner is made to feel as if he or she is misperceiving reality and therefore crazy, weak, damaged, etc. In other words, it’s not the cheating that wreaks the most emotional havoc, it’s the gaslighting—the ongoing denial of reality.
In this and numerous other respects gaslighting is consistent with other forms of betrayal trauma (typically defined as intentional acts of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse perpetrated by individuals in close relationship to the victim). Most of the time betrayal trauma is chronic in nature, occurring repeatedly and usually increasing in intensity over a long period of time, and gaslighting is no exception. Furthermore, betrayal trauma occurs in the context of a relationship that has other, much more positive elements, meaning the victim wants and sometimes even needs to overlook the mistreatment. In the example presented above, for instance, Alexandria’s intimate attachment to Darren left her vulnerable to gaslighting, because, in her mind, she wanted/needed his love (i.e., marriage and kids) more than she wanted/needed the truth.
Over time, gaslighting (and other forms of chronic betrayal trauma) can result in what is known as a “stress pileup,” leading to anxiety disorders, depression, shame, toxic self-image, and more. In one study examining the effects of serial infidelity occurring in the course of sexual addiction—behavior that is characteristically accompanied by gaslighting—researchers found that nearly all of the betrayed spouses studied experienced acute stress symptoms associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which is a very serious anxiety-related illness, sometimes with life-threatening consequences. Such is the abuse that cheaters, addicts, and other liars perpetrate on their spouses, families, and friends—all so they can continue their illicit behavior unabated.
What To Do When You’ve Been Lied To
If you’re in a similar situation to Alexandria—coldly and repeatedly lied to over a lengthy period by a loved one, to the point where you’ve begun to question your own motives and sanity—you are not alone. Knowing that you’re not the only one who’s ever experienced this probably won’t lessen your pain, but it may help to ease the deep sense of shame you are likely feeling. The simple truth is that succumbing to gaslighting does not mean that you are crazy, or weak-willed, or paranoid, or so desperate for love and affection that you’ll overlook a partner’s abusive behavior no matter how bad that abuse becomes. It merely means you are human, you risked vulnerability in the hope of healthy intimate connection, and you got burned. Unfortunately, getting burned in this way can cause quite a lot of damage, and you’ll probably need outside help and support to overcome it.
After reading the previous sentence, it’s possible you’re thinking, “It wasn’t me who misbehaved, so why am I the one that’s supposed to get help?” For people who’ve experienced gaslighting and other forms of chronic betrayal trauma, this is a perfectly understandable reaction. Nevertheless, you need to recognize the injury that’s been done, to process your feelings about that harm, and to learn (or re-learn) life and relationship skills that can help you avoid a repeat performance with your next intimate partner. And the entirety of this recovery process requires interaction with empathetic others, preferably people who understand the nature of gaslighting and how to best deal with its debilitating effects.
This sort of healing is usually best undertaken with a skilled therapist—sometimes you’ll need both individual treatment and trauma-focused group sessions—coupled with external support in self-help groups like Al-Anon and CoDA. The good news is that if you are committed to living honestly and rebuilding your personal integrity and sense of self, you can emerge from a gaslighting experience wiser, stronger, and willing to once again risk vulnerability in the name of love and intimate connection.
*The concept of gaslighting as a modern diagnosis has evolved from the clinical work of Omar Minwalla, Jerry Goodman, and Sylvia Jackson.