Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that involves the presentation of false information followed by a dogged insistence that the information is true. Most people are familiar with this term thanks to Gaslight, the 1944 Oscar-winning film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In the story, a husband tries to convince his new wife that she’s imagining things, in particular the occasional dimming of their home’s gaslights. This is part of the husband’s plan to rob his wife of some valuable jewelry. Over time, the wife, who trusts that her husband loves her and would never hurt her, starts to believe his lies and, in turn, questions her perception of reality and even her sanity.
In the light of day and the 21st century, the plot of Gaslight seems a bit silly. Nevertheless, the psychological concept of gaslighting—presenting false information and insisting that it’s true, thereby causing the victim to question his or her perception of reality—is well accepted, particularly in connection with sexual infidelity.
If you’ve been cheated on, it’s highly likely your partner gaslighted you to some degree. If you think that didn’t happen, you might want to think again. Consider the following lies and shifts of blame:
- “I never said I’d be home by eight. I don’t know why you would think that.”
- “She’s just a co-worker. When she calls here, it’s because we have a project to finish. Why are you always so jealous?”
- “Why do you keep asking me if something is going on? You’re completely paranoid. It’s really annoying.”
- “I told you I had to work late tonight. Obviously, you weren’t listening.”
- “I wasn’t looking at her; I was looking over her shoulder to signal the waiter.”
- “I told you at least three times that I might have to go out of town. When you don’t listen like this, it feels like I don’t matter to you. Why do you do this to me?”
- “I was working late at the office, closed my eyes for a minute, and fell asleep. I can’t believe you’re angry with me just because I forgot to call. How could I call when I was asleep?”
- “Who are you going to believe? Your jealous sister or your loving husband?”
- “I only work these late hours for us. So we can have a better life. It’s ridiculous that you think I’m cheating.”
- “I would never do that. I don’t even look at other women. You’re just being crazy, and it really upsets me that you don’t trust me.”
Do any of these statements sound familiar? I’m guessing that at least a few of them do. Even if you didn’t hear these exact lies, you probably heard similar whoppers.
And when you worked up the courage to question your partner’s dishonesty, your partner flipped the script, insisting that his or her lies were true, that he or she wasn’t keeping secrets, and that you are either forgetful, delusional, or just making things up. In short, your partner tried to convince you that you are the issue, that your emotional reactions are the cause of, rather than the result of, the problems in your relationship. In short, your partner made you question your perception of reality.
At this point, you might be thinking that you’re way too smart to fall for that. But maybe that’s not the case. One of the most disturbing facts about gaslighting is that even incredibly smart, emotionally well-adjusted people can fall for it.
In part, this is because our natural tendency as human beings is to believe what the people we love tell us. We will defend, excuse, and overlook our concerns about their behavior, especially when they seem sincere. In larger part, your vulnerability to gaslighting, no matter how smart or sane you usually are, is linked to the fact that gaslighting starts slowly and builds gradually over time. It’s 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.
In the beginning, your partner’s lies probably seemed plausible to you. “I’m sorry I got home at midnight. I’m working on an exciting project, and I lost track of time.” An excuse like that one sounds perfectly reasonable when you both love and trust your partner, so it’s easily accepted. You might even be excited about how interested your partner is in this new project at work.
Of course, over time, as cheating continues, your partner’s deceptions will escalate. “I swear, I told you over breakfast that I was going away for the weekend. You were a little groggy, so maybe it didn’t register. Or maybe you just forgot.” Most people would toss that little doozy out with the garbage, but gaslighting victims become habituated over time to increasing levels of deceit, so eventually, even the most outrageous lies seem plausible. Then, instead of questioning your partner, you start to question yourself.
Certainly, your partner did not mean to drive you crazy in this way. In fact, on some level, it’s likely that your partner was trying to protect you from the pain of learning about his or her cheating. Yet a lot of the problems wrought by infidelity are inadvertent, occurring only because the cheater doesn’t think about the potential consequences when he or she is tempted in the moment. Nevertheless, those consequences still do occur.
If you find that you have been victimized by your partner’s gaslighting, that path to healing this inner wound begins with trusting your gut instincts. If your gut tells you that your partner is lying, it’s highly likely that your partner is lying. It is also wise to run anything you question past your support network to get their input. In time, as you get a better handle on what happened and the dynamics involved with your partner’s infidelity, you will be more able to spot and divert any future attempts at gaslighting.