The Impact of Gaslighting

For the past two weeks we’ve been looking at gaslighting, which is the systematic and chronic manipulation and lying that betrayed partners often experience. We’ve explored the four types of gaslighting behaviors: the straight-up lie, reality-manipulation, scapegoating and coercion. This week we are going to look at what happens to betrayed partners when they are lied to and manipulated chronically over time in order to keep secret behavior hidden.

In her book, The Gaslight Effect, Dr. Robin Stern lays out a four-stage process that individuals who are being gaslighted (she refers to these folks as gaslightees) often go through. We are going to take a look at each of these below:

1. Disbelief

When being gaslighted the first response is often one of shock and disbelief. The gaslightee will wonder if she possibly heard what was said correctly or if she misunderstood. She will wonder if the gaslighter really meant what they said.

For example, let’s say you find two condoms tucked into the side pocket of the briefcase of your significant other, who has just returned from a trip. He first tells you that he has no idea how they got there. He is upset with you that you are upset and accusing him. How can you not trust him he asks? For your part, you are looking at the condoms and listening to what he is saying and you know that it does not add up. However, the idea that he would betray you (as the condoms seem to indicate) and then lie to you on top of it is too painful to believe. You are filled with shock and disbelief as you try to wrap your mind around what is happening.  

2. Defense

The second stage is defense. During this part of the process you begin to marshal facts, evidence and arguments to try to prove the truth and to counter the gaslighting.  

If we continue our example from above, in this stage you begin to ask questions. Lots of questions. How could two condoms end up in your briefcase without you knowing about them? Why are you lying? Do you actually think I believe what you are saying? Can’t you just come clean and tell the truth? During the defense stage the gaslighter will usually double down, so now your partner tells you that the condoms were probably put there by his prankster co-worker who was trying to mess with him. It’s all just a joke and that is the only explanation he can think of because he certainly didn’t put them there himself. Round and round the two of you go with you drilling for the truth and him evading and lying.

3. Depression

After trying to find the truth, after defending against the lying but getting nowhere, depression sets in. You actually want to believe that the condoms are a prank from the co-worker because the alternative is too painful. Trying to get the truth isn’t working and now you are exhausted, overwhelmed, fearful and worn-out. You feel powerless to change what is happening and afraid to assume the worst without some kind of confirmation.

4. Discard own reality

So, you move to stage four of the process and you abandon your efforts to try to figure out why the condoms are there. You give up and you accept the story that they were put there by a co-worker. You move on with your relationship because it seems the only other alternative is to keep fighting in an exhausting damaging loop where you feel more and more crazy or to just give up, sweep it under the rug and move on.

Does this process sound familiar? Most betrayed partners will resonate with at least some of the stages if not all of them. And of course, the question that immediately arises is, “What do I do instead?”

This is the question we will answer next week.

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