Friday, January 18, 2008

Gaslighting and Reality

Imagine that you got up one morning and everything was different. Suppose that your life partner asked you why you were wearing a blue shirt when you knew you were wearing a white shirt and seemed puzzled when you insisted that you saw it as white. Suppose you got to work and your telephone extension had been changed from 4432 to 4435 but everyone insisted that it had always been 4435. Imagine what you would begin to think if you pointed out a new piece of art in your favorite restaurant only to be told by your lunch partner that it had always hung just where it was. Imagine that you began to notice that you experienced a reality slightly but significantly different from the reality other people experienced. What if these sorts of oddities began happening everyday - day in and day out? Other people perceived, understood, and remembered a world that was different from the world you understood. And now suppose that this condition persisted, not just for days or but for years.

What do you think would begin to happen inside of you? You might get angry with everyone in the world because they saw the world differently from you - you might continue to insist that you are right. But after a while your anger would probably fade. If you have a shred of rationality, you would begin to think, "How likely is it that I alone think my shirt is white, my phone number is 4432, and the painting is new? If everyone I trust thinks the world is different from the way I think the world is, there must be something wrong with me" If you have a shred of rationality, you would begin to think that it was you. Your anger and frustration would begin to shift and include anxiety or even fear, depression, confusion, and self-doubt. If you have a shred of rationality, you would wonder if you might be going crazy.

Watch a baby test the world and learn about her reality detection devices. The baby reaches out her hand, picks up the pretty bobble, raises it over her head, and lets it fall back to the surface. She giggles with glee. She is delighted by her reliable and consistent understanding of the way gravity works in the universe. She couldn't tell you that. But inside, she knows what she is learning. She is learning that reality is consistent and that her senses are reliable devices for detecting reality. Her self-esteem is building. She is thinking (in baby think), "I can, I can, I can..."

Surprise changes in reality are amusing in small, brief doses. This is why we like jokes and are excited by thunder. When reality briefly defies our expectations, we get a rush from the novelty and then quickly restore ourselves to reality. But the story is different if reality is altered in permanent ways. It is a different story if those we trust to help us remain in touch with reality tell us that we are not in touch with reality . We begin to feel odd. "I see dead people".

We check out reality with other people all the time. It is part of how we keep our reality detection devices properly tuned. "Do you see what I see? Is it me or is that ladies hair on fire?" Our self-esteem suffers and our trust in ourselves erodes if our reality detection devices seem unreliable. In the end, we may think we are crazy. This is an essential component of bone fide Brainwashing. If you have complete control over another person and you make reality unpredictable, they have to rely on you for reality. "Today is Tuesday. So is Tomorrow. "The organizing fabric of reality as derived from sensory and perception begins to deteriorate if that reality is not validated by those around us. This is a technique for making other people crazy.

This sort of reality distortion is a principal plot device in the play and movie, Gaslight. A man marries a naive young woman and sets out to drive her crazy so that he can steal her very valuable jewels. Each time he leaves the house the gas lights dim and she hears footsteps on the floor above (he sneaks back in by a secret stairway, dims the light, and walks the floor.) No one else notices and he insists that he was away. She begins to think she is crazy. The more the victim of Gaslighting trusts the person who is bending reality, the more the victim suffers.

Some people claim that the partner of someone who is having an affair always knows. I doubt that. But I do think that partners often know that something is amiss - if they pay attention to their intuition. And that holds for more than affairs. I think most people detect subtle shifts in the conduct and emotion and mood - the aspect if you will - of their partners. When we detect shifts, we check it out by asking questions. Usually, if our intuition is working and our friends are truthful, they validate our intuition.

Sex addicts lie to keep their secret lives secret. They lie by omission and commission. They lie to lots of people. Most especially, they lie to their partners. They lie to cover up. They lie when their partners ask questions and express suspicion and doubt. Addicts gaslight their partners. This is one of the wounds that partners suffer. It is one of the wounds that partners must heal.

When addicts get into recovery they are often surprised by the intensity of their partners reactions. But reflect on the little thought experiment that began this essay. When you deceived your partner, you caused her or him to call reality into question. You damaged their relationship with reality. Because your partner trusted you - trusted that you would not distort reality - your partner may have felt quite crazy. There is relief for partners when they know the truth - they begin to know that they are not crazy and so can begin to restore their own relationship with reality. But trust does not restore quickly.

Return to your imagination and think what you would think and feel if your partner and coworkers and friends admitted that they had been deliberately distorting reality to keep secrets and make you crazy. Imagine that they had been doing that for years. Even if those people disclosed their acts, expressed their remorse, and promised never to do that again, how long would it take you to again trust them to validate your reality?


Anonymous said...

You nailed it. The partner in this situation questions her sanity. She questions her intelligence. She questions her decision-making ability. It's insidious, but her self-esteem slowly gets whittled down to nothing. That is the biggest betrayal of all.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with your post and the comment. Sometimes I feel despondent, sometimes I am manic; but almost always I feel unnerved the way you do when you feel something is stalking you and you can't get away from it. Nothing seems quite "real" or right to me most of the time since discovering my partner's betrayals.

Anonymous said...

again, you nailed it. i have spent years being told that i was imagining things, hyper-sensitive, insecure and crazy. i actually began to think i was! i was humiliated and embarrassed and my self-esteem plumeted. i completely lost myself, my friends, my interests and spent all my energy trying to figure out what was wrong with me that my partner couldn't be satisfied with me. somehow, then the truth is exposed and confronted there is a peace (along with a lot of problems) that i haven't experienced in years because i realize i'm ok. now it's a learning process to navigate between the lies and the truth.

Anonymous said...

Gas lighted is what I told my therapist and she did't understand what I was referring to - WOW! My recent realization of my spouse's problem makes everything make sense now - your metaphors are spot on. I had him read them, too, and he recogized his behavior. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

I am the wife of someone like this. I actually thought I had paranoid personalitydisorder. And of course he let me go on thinking that. I guess that was easier than giving up the porn.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I just ended yesterday, what I believe was a suicidal relationship! I understand the numbing feeling of my struggle. I see hope for recovery. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

I cry when I read this. Finally It makes sense and my spouse had the nerve to call me crazy. I now know he was the crazy one. It is good to know someone understands.
Thank You!

Anonymous said...

I think i feel the same as eeryone else, always thinking something was wrong with me, why is he not happy with me, along it was his addiction. I think there is hope as long as he dont give up, i wont give up... thanks

jeff said...

I recently watched the movie Gaslight, after my wife, a counselor specializing in treatment of wives of a sex addicts came home talking about it after a seminar she attended. As I watched I saw myself and all the horrible lies I had told in an effort to keep my addiction hidden. "How stupid do you think I am? I'd never get involved with anyone at work!" Turns out I was very stupid to believe I could keep up the charade and continue to make her think she was over reacting. My wife and I now work with couples and something I hear every time after a disclosure is "I knew I wasn't crazy!" For a recovery aspect this is probably one of the bigger hurdles for a spouse. A lot of resentment comes with it and with good reason.

Anonymous said...

An addiction takes over who a person really is supposed to be. Morals and values become compromised and eventually only a shell of who once existed is left. Shame and embarrassment keep an individual with a sexual addiction from reaching out for help. When loved ones finally find out what is really going on, the betrayal has amounted to an almost unbearable amount. A close friend of my has experienced this exact ordeal with her husband of 17 years. I recently interviewed her about what it is like to be the unknowing wife of a man who is addicted to sex. Cindy thought she and Doug had an open loving marriage, and a wonderful sex life until one of Doug’s on-line lovers showed up at her home looking for Doug. Cindy states that “Doug has never really had an overactive sexual appetite, he is in a way almost prude.” Well that day she realized that she didn’t even know the man she had been living with for 17 years. Doug had 100’s of on-line mistress and had even physically cheated on his wife with people that she knew, and made no efforts to protect himself or Cindy from sexually transmitted dieses. He spent most of his work day surfing the internet and in sex chat rooms with these women and sexting certain female coworkers, planning the actual meeting of when they could have sex. His work very quickly began to suffer and his boss had quite a few talks with him about his performance as an employee. Doug hid money from his wife and family in order to pay for hotel rooms to meet his women. Three days before Doug was caught by his wife he was fired because his boss found out he was having sex with other married female employees. Doug’s employer suggested that he tell his wife what was going on before someone else informed her. Doug pushed it aside and his inappropriateness escalated. He didn’t tell his wife that he lost his job, instead he spent his work days in his garage engaged in phone sex and masturbation while his wife was at work and his children at school. The day Cindy found out about Doug’s sex addiction was the day Doug lost everything important to him. His wife, her trust, her respect, his home, his job and seeing his children every day. A very broken and sad man entered himself into a crisis rehab program that night.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I am a new to town and also trained in sex and relationship addiction. I am starting a group for those recovering from abusive relationships with a sex addict/ narcissist/psychopath. I agree that denying another's perception is the most painful part of the betrayal.
Thanks again!

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Nicolas Roquefort-Villeneuve said...

Thank you for a great article.
When you know the average age an American kid first sees pornography online is 11, it's beyond frightening.
I produced and finished early this year a documentary film about sexual addiction that also shows the immense struggle spouses of sex addicts experience: