Rebuild Your Marriage upset girl on couch
Rebuild Your Marriage 7 minute read

What You Need to Know About Gaslighting

Last Updated: May 17, 2018

Gaslighting

There I was, in the Food 4 Less parking lot, just sitting in my car. Bawling. I hadn’t known where else to go. I just knew I needed somewhere safe–somewhere my mind and heart could have space. I called my mom and relayed the most recent conversation with my husband. In between sobs, I managed to get out the words: “Mom, I don’t understand how this always seems to happen. I feel like I’m literally going crazy.”

There hadn’t been any shouting or name calling, no slamming of doors or threats. I had desperately needed to have a conversation with my husband about some things that were bothering me in our marriage. I felt lonely. He seemed distant and angry, and I couldn’t understand why.

By the end of the conversation, things were twisted around–as usual. Apparently, I expected too much. Apparently, I was the one with the anger problems, not him. Apparently, he was going to “give in” to me, since he was tired of arguing. I was the one who initiated the conversation hoping for my wounds to be recognized by the one who had hurt me. In the end though, I was the one who apologized.

I couldn’t put words to it, but I knew that something wasn’t right. I had difficulty holding on to facts firmly, remembering who said what when. My ability to know what was “real” (my feelings and perceptions of what was going on in our marriage versus his) was getting more and more stripped away. I was so confused and felt hopeless.

And so there I sat, in that parking lot, telling my mom I felt like I was going crazy.

What is gaslighting?

Finding my healing from the trauma caused by my husband’s secret sexual behaviors was one thing. This was something else. Through the course of my marriage, I had lost so much of myself. It wasn’t until almost three years after the discovery of my husband’s behaviors, when I first began to study gaslighting, that things started to become clear. When I discovered the word gaslighting, I received a way to describe a big reason I was so lonely in my marriage. When I discovered gaslighting, I began the most significant work in my journey of finding myself and my voice again, and maybe, truly, for the first time.

Gaslighting occurs anytime someone attempts, and succeeds, to convince you that your feelings, beliefs, thoughts, or perceptions of reality are invalid, inaccurate, or untrue. (Well, that’s my working definition, anyway.) Most people don’t know that this is what they are doing, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is, indeed, exactly what they are doing.

Gaslighting consists of a number of tactics, but what sets gaslighting apart from the tactic is the result. For example, someone can use manipulation as a tactic to cause you to change the way you feel about him viewing pornography. “You’re being old-fashioned and prudish. All men watch porn. It’s no big deal, so why are you making it such a big deal?” The tactics being used here are manipulation and intimidation. If the desired effect occurs, you begin to doubt yourself, and eventually will relinquish your insistence that he stop viewing pornography. You’ve been convinced that your feelings of him being unfaithful when he views pornography aren’t valid, but instead, old-fashioned and prudish. This is when manipulation results in gaslighting.

In working with my clients at Betrayal Trauma Recovery, it’s right about this time that silence fills the air as the revelation comes. As their mind takes in the definition of gaslighting, and the memories come flooding in of all the times they’ve lived it, they inevitably exclaim, “There’s a word for that? I had no idea there was a word that explained what I’ve been experiencing!” The validation of their experience, and the relief that it wasn’t just them, is palpable.

Am I experiencing gaslighting?

Identifying gaslighting in your relationship can be scary, but it’s crucial if you want to achieve a healthy relationship wherein each person’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions are considered, respected, and validated.

Gaslighting is a complex, nuanced thing. Ideally, you’ll have a knowledgeable, trauma-sensitive life coach or therapist and a support system with safe people to help you sort through the confusion gaslighting causes.

The ten signs below, adapted from Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect, indicate that gaslighting may be occurring in your relationship:

  • You constantly second-guess yourself or have trouble making decisions.
  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times a day.
  • You feel confused or “crazy,” even at work.
  • You’re always apologizing to your spouse.
  • You can’t understand why, with apparently so many good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
  • You frequently make excuses for your spouse’s behavior to friends and family.
  • You start to avoid your spouse so as not to experience the put-downs and reality twists.
  • You think twice before bringing up certain seemingly innocent topics of conversation.
  • Before your spouse comes home, you run through a checklist in your head to anticipate anything you may have done “wrong” that day, or to make sure everything is “just right.”
  • You have the sense that you used to be a very different person–more confident, more fun-loving, and more relaxed.

The more signs you can relate to, and the stronger you resonate with them, the likelier it is that someone is gaslighting you.

Hope After Porn ebook

Um, I think I’m experiencing gaslighting! What do I do now?

Now, you take a deep breath. You assure yourself that now that you have a word for what has been going on in your relationship, you can start to address it. You commit to give this topic your time and attention. You get support and help. You promise yourself that you will work to understand gaslighting, sort through the confusion, and find the truth and your voice again.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Pay special attention to the feeling of confusion, or “I’m going crazy!” If you notice you are beginning to feel this way, give yourself permission to take a “time out” until you regain grounding and clarity. Discuss the confusing situation with a trusted friend or helping professional–he or she will help you find clarity and identify the gaslighting.
  • Stay connected to your feelings! Your feelings are valid. You don’t need to justify why you feel what you feel. Don’t dismiss what you feel when someone else challenges your feelings or demands you pay more attention to his or her feelings than your own.
  • Avoid the “power-struggle.” Many times we get sucked into a gaslighting episode when we get caught up in the “who has the best defense for his or her thoughts/feelings/choices” game. You can most easily recognize this by the circular nature of these types of arguments. Hours can go by and no one is budging. If you see this happening–as soon as you see it happening–ask for (and take) a break from the conversation.

If you love someone addicted to pornography, you have likely been affected by gaslighting in this relationship to some degree, and you may be experiencing betrayal trauma. The effect of it runs along a scale: sometimes the effect is minimal–we hardly notice it, but other times it moves into the domain of emotional abuse and can cause us to have our internal world disrupted (trauma), losing touch with our intuition, truth, and our voice. Wherever you land, I encourage you to give gaslighting some thought. Like me, you might find that this work will change your relationships and your life forever–for the better.

When I think back to that woman in the car, I want to hold her and tell her, “I’m so sorry. I know you feel lost and confused. You’re not going crazy. Soon, you will find the answers you need; soon you will feel strong and comfortable in your own skin. It will take a lot of work, but I promise, through this work you will know yourself better, and have healthier relationships that you could even dream are possible.”

I’m so grateful I have the ability to look back at that situation, and say those words to myself with such truth, clarity, strength, and hope. And now with that voice, I’m honored to say those same words to you.

SaveSave

  1. Angie

    Luke, Scott, James…
    My heart hurt reading what you wrote because I was that woman for almost twelve years. When I was reading the indicators list for gaslighting my heart sunk. My addicted husband has expressed all those feelings and statements to me about how I’ve made him feel.
    I want to encourage you, though, that after I got into program six years ago, our marriage turned around. I stopped trying to control him out of fear, our marriage improved to the point he felt he could be honest about his struggles with lust and we’re two years in to working on it. No matter what happens to us, I’ve vowed to be the best wife I can be, and stop hurting him to try to save myself from pain.

  2. Sarah lever

    So much response to this article! I was gas lighted by my former husband, who got his friends to help him. They have spread the word that i am crazy to everyone who will listen. I am now homeless, and when I go to a shlter I am mistreated because they somehow have me on file as seriously mentally ill, If This has been going on since the ’80’s, and I have not harmed anyone, been in jail, done drugs or alcohol, simply tried to clear this up with no result, how crazy can I be?

  3. Indeed. Gaslighting or any kind of manipulation or lie can create issues in the relationship. Respecting each others opinion is very important in any relationship. You must know how to say no and mean it without harming your relationship to live better more fulfilling life.

  4. Joseph

    After reading the article I am ashamed, because I know my wife has told me many time that she feels/has most of these indicators. I have struggled with pornography for most of my life, sometimes winning, sometimes loosing. It was always a very shameful thing that I tried my best to hide. I had no idea that I was manipulating her in the process of my anger/guilt. By the grace of God, I was caught by her again. She left with the children but thankfully we are on a path (a long one) to reconcile. I read almost every article I find on how to overcome a porn addiction but I have not found one to stop “gaslighting” (seriously, who came up with that name). I believe that most of it will stop the more we have honest open conversations, but I want to make sure. Are there any steps that I can follow or signs to look for that would let me know that I am doing this to her?

  5. one_sad_puppy

    Where do I start. My husband chose his porn and internet affairs over our marriage. My only family for several years have been my Lord and Savior and my sweet dog kids. I struggle to remember who I am in Christ when my emotions say I’m an old, ugly, unlovable, burnt out and broken down wreck, too damaged to be of use to God or trust people anymore. He refused to ever admit his porn addiction even when it was obvious he was caught. Tried to blame the garbage he brought into our home on his own sons, my stepsons. All I can do now is pray that they all will accept Christ as their savior because I don’t think they have. I was a baby Christian when we were married and as he hid behind being a PK it took years for me to learn how unequally yoked we really were.

    • Kay Bruner

      Hey there. I hope you’ve gotten good support thorugh this sad time? A counselor who can help you process your emotions and heal would be great. You might also look into the online resources at Bloom for Women, where there are opportunities for community and healing. While it’s great to do the cognitive work of reminding ourselves who we are in Christ, most often we need the experience of loving human community to help us truly take those concepts and live them out in real ways. Therapy and groups are a great place to get started. Peace to you, Kay

  6. Susan

    I suggest that the old movie “Gaslight” by Alfred Hitchcock be viewed! It features Ingrid Bergman, and is not offensive at all. I watched this movie and cried, because I experienced a few of these things with ex-husband. While it won’t apply to all situations, it defines the term, “gaslight”.
    God sees it all, and you are never alone. All I can say, is look up! Thanks to everyone for input, it is so important to know we are not alone. Despite our hurt and pain, we must never forget that men and women caught up in sexual addiction are also in pain. Christ is the answer for all of us :)

  7. James

    Thank you for this article. I finally have a name for the process my “devoutly Christian” wife has used for over 30 years to accuse, manipulate, and reject me.

    Ever since we married, she has:

    * Falsely accused me of all sorts of things, including having affairs and stealing money.
    * Impugned my motives — supposedly everything I do is motivated by selfishness and insensitivity.
    * Told both me and our children that I am an untrustworthy and unloving man.
    * Distanced herself from me emotionally and relationally because I “can’t be trusted” and “don’t deserve intimacy” with her.
    * Claimed that her life was perfect before we got married and I ruined it.

    Depending on the day or her mood, after she does such things she will, variously:

    * Deny she ever said any of those things — and if she did say them, then they didn’t mean anything.
    * Accuse me of being overly sensitive — or else of being mentally ill.
    * Claim I do the exact same things to her, so I have no basis for objecting.
    * Blame me — that is by asserting I was the one who caused her to say the hateful things she said or to engage in her bad behavior.

    For years I fought to ground our marital relationship and the things that happened between us in reality. She has either sabotaged or flatly rejected every effort I have made to bring accountability to our marriage, such as by working transparently with a counselor, pastor, or other clergy member.

    Only in the past 3-4 years have I given up. I now realize she is fundamentally committed to her false reality and to the false narratives she creates and projects on me. God could of course change her, but it would take a major crisis, miracle, or both.

    Thank you for pointing me to gaslighting. It is a very accurate description of what happens between us.

    • James – I’m so sorry. I can hear your pain in your response. I am glad that connecting with gaslighting has helped you identify things in your marriage that were harming you and the relationship. I hope you have had/will try to get help from a professional that can help you work through the pain and damage done by all those things you listed. My heart is heavy for you.

  8. Stan

    Gaslighting — what a great new word. It’s more than heart breaking to read what is happening because of a spouse emotionally developing a problem that doesn’t really exist. I’m coming back to one point we can easily over look while facing this problem. Evil forces are at work here doing all they can to make a ship wreck of our marriages. Pornography in all its forms is a most powerful weapon used by Satan to destroy all who succumb to its siren call. Your article will give help, hope, and healing to many who truly believe they are going crazy.

    • Cindy Bock

      My husband used
      To say things to myself and our children. When I wld say, “when you said .,,,”whatever it was), he would say, “ I didn’t say that” or that is not what I said”. I
      Would say,”that is clearly what you said.” I would go away thinking, that IS what he said, but I guess that isn’t what he meant.
      Is this a form
      Of gaslighting??

    • Kay Bruner

      Yes, you have described gaslighting perfectly! Here’s a short animation that might help as well.

  9. John

    Seems to be that both men and women employ this tactic. Satan did it to Eve in the garden when he suggested that she didn’t really understand God’s command… “did God really say…?” Eve did the same when she turned to her husband to eat of the fruit despite the fact that God had specifically forbidden it, Adam did it to God when he said “This woman you gave me, she gave me this fruit”

    Cain tried it on God when he said “I don’t know where my brother is, am I his keeper?”

    Of course, God wasn’t fooled then and He isn’t now. He didn’t point His finger at Cain and condemn him as a liar (or a gaslighter). He simply spoke the truth to him. “Your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground” and then proceeded to unwrap the curse that Cain brought upon himself (though, God had warned him ahead of time, and even told him how to prevent it).

    Not sure I like the term gaslighting though. To be honest it is just a new definition for an old sin: Lying.

    Giving old sins new names doesn’t seem wise or profitable. How bout we all just stick with the old word? Lying.

    • Kay Bruner

      The difference with gaslighting is that the perpetrator attempts to deny reality: you didn’t see what you saw. The victim knows what happened, but the perpetrator denies it. In that way, it’s different from lying, when the victim may suspect, but not have any evidence of the perpetrator’s actions. In gaslighting, the victim saw and knows, but the perpetrator denies reality.

    • Hi John,

      So, this article is meant to be a starting point for a conversation – to bring awareness to a form of abusive behavior. Gaslighting is a very complex thing, and this article just barely scratches the surface. Lying/deception is just one tactic people use to gaslight another person. There is also coercion, manipulation, brainwashing, etc. So those of us who are trying to educate about gaslighting have not just renamed lying. It’s way more complex than that. And, it may be difficult to convey in a short response, but gaslighting is the RESULT of the tactics, not the actual tactic. For example, if someone tries to manipulate me, but I can see what they are doing, and I stay connected to my truth, I was not gaslit. However, if someone tries to manipulate me, and I do NOT recognize they are being manipulative, and my reality gets distorted, I have been gaslit. Hopefully that makes sense.

    • Pauline Hampton

      Your point on giving old sins a new name was very validating. The new term, gaslighting is confusing and complex. The term, lying, deceiving makes more sense to me and simple definitions take the stress away from the deeper concerns and behaviors of gaslighting. KISS, Keep it simple stupid I can handle more effectively

    • Kay Bruner

      Perhaps this short video will help clarify the term gaslighting. Yes, it is a form of lying and deceiving; however, gaslighting is directed at challenging the victim’s own view of reality, and in that way it is distinct from other forms of lying.

  10. sara M McLaurin

    I lived this for 20 years, and have been happily divorced for 7. It has taken a very long time to trust myself, my own feelings since the split with him. I had never heard this term during my marriage, and even in the therapy i had throughout the divorce, i don’t believe this term was used, but i had a wonderful therapist who validated my feelings. I am so thankful for her, for the Grace of God and His unchanging promises!

    • Kay Bruner

      Sara, I am so glad you were able to escape this kind of abuse. Thank you for sharing your story of hope, and I’m so glad your therapist knew what was happening and could help you take a stand for yourself. Peace to you, Kay

    • Hi Sara,

      I’m sorry you lived this for so long, but glad to hear you have found peace. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to end the marriage, even when you knew it was what you had to do to end the abuse and find safety for yourself. Hopefully having a name for what you experienced will bring even deeper validation and healing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related in Rebuild Your Marriage

Editor's Picks

A woman praying with her Bible.

Rebuild Your Marriage

How To (Biblically) Lament Your Husband’s Pornography Use

After I found out that my husband had been viewing pornography, I…

3 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

Happy couple at the beach.

Rebuild Your Marriage

Rebuilding Trust in Marriage Through Boundaries

In situations where a marriage has been affected by pornography use, it’s…

5 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

Happy family of six.

Rebuild Your Marriage

From Secret Addiction to Full Transparency

After being married for eight years, I came home unexpectedly one afternoon…

4 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

Phil Robertson discussing The Blind with Covenant Eyes.

Rebuild Your Marriage

4 Reasons You Should Watch “The Blind”

The Covenant Eyes Podcast team recently made the trip DEEP into the…

4 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

A mother with her teenage daughters.

Rebuild Your Marriage

How Porn Shattered My Life (Scholarship Winner)

I was 36, married for 15 years, serving in our Church, attending…

5 minute read

Read Post

Editor's Picks

A picture of Dave and Ashley Willis.

Rebuild Your Marriage

Porn Counterfeits Naked Marriage: With Dave and Ashley Willis

What is “naked marriage” all about? We sat down with popular podcasters…

3 minute read

Read Post

Related in Rebuild Your Marriage

A woman praying with her Bible.

Rebuild Your Marriage

How To (Biblically) Lament Your Husband’s Pornography Use

After I found out that my husband had been viewing pornography, I…

After I found out that my husband had been viewing pornography, I was devastated. As I processed my grief, one of my dearest friends posed this question to me: “What did you lose when your…

3 minute read

0 comments

Happy couple at the beach.

Rebuild Your Marriage

Rebuilding Trust in Marriage Through Boundaries

In situations where a marriage has been affected by pornography use, it’s…

In situations where a marriage has been affected by pornography use, it’s common for one person to feel responsible for the healing process, while the other doesn’t take enough responsibility. This dynamic can lead to…

5 minute read

0 comments

Happy family of six.

Rebuild Your Marriage

From Secret Addiction to Full Transparency

After being married for eight years, I came home unexpectedly one afternoon…

After being married for eight years, I came home unexpectedly one afternoon to find out that my husband had a pornography addiction. I was defeated, brokenhearted, and overwhelmed. I was a young, stay-at-home mom with…

4 minute read

0 comments

Phil Robertson discussing The Blind with Covenant Eyes.

Rebuild Your Marriage

4 Reasons You Should Watch “The Blind”

The Covenant Eyes Podcast team recently made the trip DEEP into the…

The Covenant Eyes Podcast team recently made the trip DEEP into the heart of Louisiana to meet with Phil and Kay Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame, and to talk about their new movie, The Blind.…

4 minute read

0 comments

A mother with her teenage daughters.

Rebuild Your Marriage

How Porn Shattered My Life (Scholarship Winner)

I was 36, married for 15 years, serving in our Church, attending…

I was 36, married for 15 years, serving in our Church, attending life group and sending our girls to a Christian school to help raise them in the ways of the Lord. I thought pornography…

5 minute read

4 comments

A picture of Dave and Ashley Willis.

Rebuild Your Marriage

Porn Counterfeits Naked Marriage: With Dave and Ashley Willis

What is “naked marriage” all about? We sat down with popular podcasters…

What is “naked marriage” all about? We sat down with popular podcasters Dave and Ashley Willis to find out, and we learned an important message about God’s design for sex and how porn counterfeits it.…

3 minute read

0 comments