The theme of gaslighting has become popular in the psychological literature. It now is well known that the word "gaslighting" comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, in which a female character is continuously falsely accused of wrongdoing, causing her to doubt her own sanity. Gaslighting is present when there are false denials by the other or false accusations toward you by the other. At least 4 kinds of gaslighting are described in the current literature:
- The other person does a nefarious act and denies it. "I did not steal your money. You must be mistaken."
- The other person has a character flaw, an ongoing pattern that is denied: "You keep saying that I neglect the children. Look I am playing with them now. You do have a way of exaggerating."
- The other person accuses you of an act or a series of acts you did not commit: "You skimmed funds from our checking account."
- The other person accuses you of a serious character flaw: "You are so continuously angry that I can't stand it any more. I am out of here."
Ghosting occurs when the other ignores you, abandons you, and shuts off all communication with you.
I have had people approach me for advice when they are the victims of both gaslighting and ghosting, a particularly difficult combination because the victims cannot defend themselves as the other accuses and then leaves. The victims are left alone to wonder and to doubt their own perceptions of themselves.
The fourth type of gaslighting above, the assault on one's character, is particularly difficult because there is no one concrete piece of evidence as occurs in points 1 and 3. Either the accused person did or did not steal, for example, in point 3. It is easier to verify a one-time behavior as having occurred or not than to defend an accusation of an ongoing character flaw. After all, if one is accused of being overly angry, the victim probably can remember once or twice being too upset or having a bad day. These occasional imperfections, of course, do not constitute a character flaw, but nonetheless might lead to some level of agreement with the accusation, even though it is false.
Martha sought help because her husband, Samuel, was constantly accusing her of being insensitive to his needs. "You are always wrapped up in your own issues. I try and try to make time for you and yet, when I do, you push me away," he would say. Martha was astonished by this because she truly tried to focus on him and his needs when he came home at night. He used this accusation as an excuse to leave the home and stayed away for 8 months with no text, email, or phone contact. Martha was left to wonder with no way of working this out with him. "Was I insensitive?" she wondered. "Might I have tried harder?" Her self-doubt led to low self-esteem. She started to lose weight and have depressive symptoms.
Josh approached me because his partner Abby was constantly accusing him of being overly angry. She said that she cannot take all of the anger any more and so she is leaving, which she did. As in the above case, Abby shut off all communication with Josh. Before she left, he asked her for instances in which he had been too angry to the point of fault. She said this before leaving, "Do you remember two years ago when we were having an argument and you put your fist down on the car's hood? That scared me and I just can't take that sort of thing any more." When Josh was about to rebut the accusation, Abby was gone. He was left to think this through by himself.
As Josh realized that his resentment was getting too high, he asked me for advice on forgiving Abby.
The preliminaries when forgiving involve:
- Seeing that as you forgive, you are not excusing;
- Understanding that you may never reconcile with someone who accuses and distorts deeply and consistently;
- Further understanding that you can and should seek fairness. This is especially important if the abuse is ongoing or even deepens.
A beginning part of forgiveness is to concretely explore the other person's injustice. What, exactly, is the injustice? When did it occur, how frequently did it occur, and how serious is it? As we explored Abby's accusations, Josh realized the following:
- Abby's final accusation was of an incident that occurred 2 years ago, not at all recently.
- His "putting his fist down on the car's hood" was not a pounding of the fist at all, but a gesture of emphasis over yet another accusation she was making at the time.
- Abby could not come up with even one anger-incident in the past two years other than the false accusation about the fist and the hood.
When Josh more clearly saw all of this, he realized how seriously unjust were Abby's accusations.
Josh then began to explore more deeply Abby's own life and the challenges she faced. For example, when growing up, her mother faced serious health issues and so the mother had little time for Abby, who felt worthless. Next, Josh examined Abby's earlier relationship which ended in divorce. Abby back then was accusing her first husband in a way that Josh now was experiencing.
This exploration set Josh free from his own self-doubts, from his own subtle self-accusations of "if only I had done more." He could see Abby's pained life which opened him to forgiving her, not because of what she did, but in spite of this. The process of forgiving uncovered Abby's gaslighting. The process of forgiving uncovered Abby's ghosting which was not Josh's fault. He was able to see her confusions, her pain. Thus, he forgave her from his heart and, of course, he could not discuss this forgiveness with her because she had abandoned him. Yet, the gaslighting and ghosting did not destroy his integrity and his psychological health. Forgiving helped him to identify the problems and to find a healthy solution to the effects of those problems, the primary effect of which was unhealthy anger and a developing low self-esteem.
Martha had a similar outcome. As she freely decided to forgive and as she looked more closely into Samuel's life, she discovered, through talking with some of his colleagues and friends, that his accusations and abandonment were hiding a serious drug habit which started a year before leaving. Her examination of his unjust behavior not only uncovered that he was gaslighting and ghosting but also that he was living a lie and was using the gaslighting and ghosting as a coverup. As his drug habit continued, he asked Martha to be his partner again, which she refused given his lack of insight into his own behaviors. Seeing his pain helped her to forgive. Forgiving, which took many months, set Martha free from anxiety and self-recrimination. Not everyone would be ready to forgive in this situation, but it was Martha's choice to do this.
In both cases, reconciliation did not occur. A person can forgive without seeking to reconcile if such reuniting could be very harmful to the victimized person.
If you are the victim of the double injustices of gaslighting and ghosting, consider the process of forgiveness if you choose to do so. It may help you see more clearly that, in fact, you have been treated unjustly. It may help you to label the other's behavior as unjust, to see the pain in the other that has led to the 2 G's of gaslighting and ghosting, and allow you to escape the harmful effects of these dangerous behaviors.