Lesson #1: Stepping Out of the Cheater’s Gaslighting Game, Part 1

Gaslighting is a systematic and chronic pattern of manipulation and lying that betrayed partners experience when cheaters work to hide their secret behaviors or manipulate their partners into accepting behaviors that they’d rather not accept. Most betrayed partners experience four primary types of gaslighting: the straight-up lie, reality manipulationscapegoating, and coercion.

One of the hardest processes I had to go through as a betrayed partner in recovery was learning how to quit giving in to the gaslighting. Until I was able to do that, I remained a participant in the gaslighting dance – not a willing participant, but a participant, nonetheless. 

When I hit my bottom (which I talked about in last week’s post), I asked for and received a referral to a therapist who, at that time, was a bit of a unicorn – she actually knew how to help betrayed partners! When I went in for my first session with her, I sat down on her couch and said:  

I need help. There is a whole bunch of stuff going on in my marriage and it has been going on for years. I think it may be me. I think I may be making a big deal out of things that aren’t really a big deal. I think I may be causing the problems. And if I am, I am OK with that. I just need someone who will be really honest with me and help me deal with what is going on because I can’t stay in the level of pain that I’m in. 

Now, you may read that and think, “You must be joking.” But I am not. I said this to my new therapist with absolute sincerity and conviction. I was utterly confused about reality because I had been expertly gaslighted for a very long time. I really believed that quite possibly the whole problem was me. And even in moments when I didn’t totally believe that, I was in so much pain that I was willing to take responsibility if it would get me out of the pain. Even if that meant owning all of the problems in my relationship.

I can only imagine what went through the mind of my new therapist, but she had a great poker-face and did not even blink. She was quiet for a moment and then she said, “I will make a commitment to you. I will tell you when I see something that belongs to you and is your part to own. I will be honest with you about the things you need to change that are problematic and unhealthy.” We looked at each other as I evaluated what she had said, and then I nodded.  I did not fully trust her yet, but we had made a beginning. 

Thus started the lengthy and arduous process of my therapist working to help me unwind from the years of lying and manipulation that I had been subjected to in my relationship. This was painstaking work on her part, and she deserves a house on a beautiful beach with unending umbrella drinks and sunshine for the heavy lifting she did to help me.   

Here is how it would go. 

Me: I think I may be exaggerating, and it really wasn’t such a big deal. I mean, he might not have really meant to say that and I’m just making it into something that it isn’t…

Therapist: Did he say X, Y, and Z? Did those words come out of his mouth?

Me: Yes, he did say that, but…

Therapist: If he said those words, then it is a problem. So please, come out of the racing thoughts in your mind so you can sit with the fact that he said X, Y, and Z to you. What happens when you just sit with that for a minute and don’t rush to dismiss it or minimize it? What happens when you just sit with the words that were actually said? 

(Long pause.)

Me: I feel shocked and I feel scared.

Therapist: Hmmm. I think the words he said are shocking and scary. So, tell me what it’s like to let yourself know this instead of pushing it away?

Me: Very scary. I don’t like it.

Therapist: I don’t like it for you, either. That said, I want you to pay attention to your body right now. Notice what it feels like now compared to when you came in and first started telling me what happened. What do you notice? 

(Another long pause.) 

Me: I feel like I’m in my body and grounded. I felt like I was out of my body and swirling around in the air when I came in.

Therapist: Right. So even when the truth is scary and hard to face, if you bring yourself into what is true, it grounds you and you land in your body, connected to your feelings. 

Me (laughing): Great, I feel better and worse at the same time. 

My therapist and I had dozens of versions of this conversation and just as many rounds of her helping me ground myself in reality. Eventually, I learned to stop participating in the gaslighting through minimization, rationalization, dismissing information, ignoring things, and allowing myself to move into self-doubt and confusion repeatedly. 

My therapist taught me to come back to the facts: what was said, what was done, what happened. Then she taught me to sit with myself so I could find out what I felt about what was said or done. She taught me to tolerate feelings of fear, uncertainty, loss, and grief – all feelings that I had been using self-doubt and confusion to avoid. In my next post, I will discuss how betrayed partners often become unwitting participants in gaslighting, as I did in my own relationship. This is when we may actively fail to see the truth, and we actively take on responsibility for problems we did not cause. 

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