In psych terms, “gaslighting” (a term that refers to a popular 1937 play called “Gaslight”) is the word we use to describe it when somebody else purposely tries to make us doubt reality. They do so by feeding us false information, or denying information that is objectively true to you, the observer.
Some real-world examples of this phenomenon:
Your wife’s angry outbursts are getting worse and worse since the baby was born. Emotional stability is out the window. You are concerned about postpartum depression. You approach her and try to be as loving and non-confrontational as possible. You explain your concerns. She seems perplexed. “What are you talking about?” You explain the details of her major fit the other night in the kitchen and how it was way over the line. “What? That was nothing. I barely raised my voice to you. Honestly… if you thought that was bad enough to approach me, you may have issues you need to work on. People argue all the time… it’s just part of being married. It’s no big eal. You need to toughen up and stop being so dramatic. Seriously.”
You notice that your wife and her male coworker are texting a lot. You saw them at the company Christmas party together and you thought they were acting a little too touchy feely. You caught her sending a photo of herself to the guy. You decide to tell her that you thought her actions were crossing the line and wondered if there was more going on. Your wife says, “What are you talking about?” You explain all the details of what you observed. She laughs at you. “Oh my God. Wow. No, John is like a girlfriend. We barely talk at all, and when we do it’s about kids and work.” You explain that her actions at the Christmas party were over the line and your friends that were there said the same thing. “Oh, well there’s your problem. You listen to your friends too much. You’re acting kinda scary right now, to be honest. This is controlling and jealous behavior. You really need to think about where your head is, because it’s kind of scary what you’re becoming.”
In both of these scenarios, the woman is doing the quintessential gaslight trick of, “You know… maybe YOU are the one with the problem here.” Then the man is forced to take a step back from the situation and put on his “try to have more empathy” hat… something that has been hammered into his head as since he was a young boy. Be nicer. Kinder. Put your needs last. Try not to be so judgmental. “You know”, the man thinks, “Maybe she has a point. Maybe it’s NOT that bad. Maybe I do need to get some help.” Meanwhile, the real abuser, the woman making the man doubt his reality, continues escalating his behavior.
Quite a few times I have spoken to readers who tell me that they are a “sex addict”. They will just casually throw that nugget of information in the middle of telling me their story. “Wait a minute”, I say. “Tell me more about how you are a sex addict. Is that something you’ve been diagnosed with?” As the man goes deeper into the story, the truth becomes clearer. He wanted sex from his wife for X months/years… she wanted nothing to do with him… and she tried everything in her arsenal to keep him away. The last arrow in her quiver: You have a problem. You are a sex addict. For many men who are desperate and lost within their marriage, this accusation from the wife sends the man spiraling downward. “That’s it”, he says. “It all makes sense. I have a real problem.” Then I tell that guy that no, masturbating twice a week and fantasizing about women AND wanting to have sexual relations with your wife is perfectly normal and healthy behavior. The word “addiction” doesn’t enter the picture unless it becomes compulsive and interferes with your normal everyday life. I’ve also heard of men being called “narcissistic” for wanting to be physical with their wives. It’s all sad and pretty scary stuff. These women yield a large amount of emotional power within the relationship… and they know it.. Their disdain for their husbands is so strong, that they’re willing to pull out the biggest trump card of all: “YOU have a real problem, not me. YOU need help.”
So, who exactly does this “gaslighting” type of behavior? Well, it’s not uncommon for those with personality disorders. Borderline Personality and Narcissistic Personality Disorder being the two we most often hear about. Not all gaslighters are borderline or narcissistic, but all borderlines and narcissists are gaslighters. It’s just part of their typical arsenal manipulative and unhealthy behavior.
It’s tough to leave a gaslighter. They are usually so adept at their craft, after all they have had years of practice with many different people, that they make their victims genuinely question their sanity. “Maybe she’s right… maybe I did imagine all that. Maybe she didn’t say those things. Am I confusing her with somebody else?” Imagine that on a routine basis over a period of years. Gaslighters tend to leave A LOT of broken people in their wake. The victims tends to not only lose trust in others (making relationships very hard), but they lose trust in themselves… making relationships damn near impossible.
If any of this sounds familiar to you. Get some help. Start at the beginning. What brought you to this point with the woman like this? If you’re like most, this is probably a dynamic that you saw as a child. You most likely didn’t pick this partner randomly… you were attracted to them. As many of us learn, you may have been attracted to your partner because of their familiarity of their personality… even if that personality is unhealthy and extremely damaging to your health.