Gaslighting: What Does This Look Like?

Now your just somebody that I used to know.

Gotye (A song about a narcissistic partner)

Many times in my office I hear this from women “My boyfriend/husband is/was gaslighting me.” I will respond by saying “So, he was trying to make you believe something that didn’t really happen?” Often times they will say “Well, no.” Sometimes they have looked this up and are very clear what it means. The term Gaslighting originated from the 1944 film “Gaslight,” starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In this film, the husband (who would actually be diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder) is trying to make his wife believe she is going insane. For purposes of the title, he “goes out” for the day/evening, though he is actually going into the attic and he dims the light switches in his wife’s bedroom, so that only she sees this and not the housekeepers. He also moves pictures on the wall, hides a watch that he gives to his wife, many, many other things. This is Gaslighting. Making someone believe something happened that did not. It could be the statement of a pathological liar, in which case this is a reality they believe, or it could be like Charles Boyer’s character where he is purposely setting up the stage to torment his victim.

Let’s look at a modern day scenario between Alan and Paula. They met while working together, both as independent contractors. They had known each other for several years and had gone out together as friends, for a year, before entering into a relationship that Paula; (ironically) initiated. The relationship was wonderful, loving and exciting until after a year when Alan began to shift his demeanor somewhat. This is the phone call that took place the night Alan orchestrated his break-up to Paula. I will give analysis of this at the same time.

Paula: Hi Alan, how did your day go?

Alan: Not so good. I am very upset. I couldn’t even go in to work today because I am fuming.

Paula: Oh no! What happened?

Alan: (He mumbles something about his ex-wife and some other girl.)

Paula: What, I can’t hear you.

Alan: (changes his voice structure but also seems to hesitate: This is when Paula intuitively felt he was about to lie to her. She said it seemed as if his voice change was him trying to build the courage to say what he was going to say). Sally told me tonight (when he met her at his son’s tennis game) that she and Mary were talking with you and that you were putting me down.

Paula: Uh, you don’t actually believe this do you?

Alan: I know when Sally is lying and this is not one of those times.

Paula: Alan, you know I have never even met your ex-wife and I haven’t seen Mary since the two of us last worked together several years ago. You know that too because we discussed this. When have I ever lied to you? (here Paula is struck with the thought that her boyfriend is believing his ex-wife – whom he has groomed her into thinking was mentally unstable and a pathological liar).

Alan: All I know is that Sally has been working up to this moment. I could tell for the last month or so that she was building on something that she was about to tell me. I knew she was up to something. (He had been giving Paula this line for the last month, he kept saying “I know Sally is up to something,” because he told her that she was sending him texts where she was “being too nice.”)

Paula: Well, I am your girlfriend and I do not have a relationship or even know your ex-wife and I have no way of getting in touch with either of them. This makes absolutely no sense. I am glad you are not a criminal attorney because I certainly would not want to hire you. I can’t believe you are saying this to me. I did not do this. (Paula will try to point out the realities over and over again, in this dialogue but Alan has already created this storyline in his head that was true enough for him).

Alan: Yeah, they always say they didn’t do it at first and then later I find out the truth. (This struck Paula as odd. Up until now, Alan had created this scenario with all of his ex’s where they did all these bad things to him. She at first thought it was odd that he would lump her into this category, when they had had such a wonderful relationship. Nothing, at all, like he had made the other women out to be. Later, after months of thinking about the relationship, she thought about him saying this line and realized, she wasn’t the first one he gaslighted. She also realized that most of what he had told her was most likely the opposite of what he had said. He had done bad things to these women, not the other way around).

The argument went on for hours, as Paula tried desperately to defend herself from something she knew he was making up. She, at one point said “If you just want to break up with me Alan, why don’t you just do that.” Alan hesitated here but then went on with his line of “defense.” He also left her with some “hope” that he would speak to Mary as he knew she would tell him the truth about things. Paula decided to opt for her being her support system and telling Alan the truth. Even though Alan had told Paula, early into the relationship, that he had blocked Mary for unknown reasons (he refused to tell her). Now, he was using this line of defense and giving Paula hope that maybe this would clear things up.

A week later, Paula came home to find her house keys in an empty envelope with Alan’s address as the return to sender. She contacted him on the phone and they had another deeply emotional conversation with Paula sobbing uncontrollably and Alan using her comments to elaborate and create more tension. He began blaming her using emotionally toxic terms toward her behavior. Up until now, it was a story, now he had to accuse Paula outright by destroying her character. He never once empathized with Paula or her pleas to listen to reason.

Paula: What is going on? (she didn’t mention the keys)

Alan: What? (he started the conversation acting naïve, which is a typical response to waiting to hear what she says, just in case it is not something more than the keys – he won’t give in until he knows for sure).

Paula: Why are my keys in the mailbox?

Alan: (avoids this discussion and goes on to tell more stories, he doesn’t mention anything about ending the relationship and at this point has not returned any of her emails providing passwords to prove she had no conversations with Sally or Mary). I spoke to Sally and found out that you were meeting with Mary in your office and telling her things about me as a father.

Paula: First of all, that is unethical for me to do this as it is a conflict of interest, since I met and worked with Mary once. Secondly, what would I have possibly told her about our relationship? I love you and I think you are a wonderful father. I never once said anything bad about this. What would I tell her or Sally in my office? That I love you? Why would they care? Also, if I had issues with you I would certainly not be discussing them with someone I have no relationship with. I would go to my own girlfriends.

Alan: I think it is just interesting that you gave me your personal passwords but not your business email password.

Paula: What!?! That is confidential. Would you give me your company’s passwords? This is ridiculous.

Again, the conversation went on and on. At one point, Alan referred to Paula as “cavorting with the devil,” in reference to being involved with these two women she had never met. Paula responded by saying “If you really believe your ex-wife than the two of you belong together.” At this point, Alan hesitated on the phone before going on with his stories. Paula actually believed that this hit a reality button for him though, it did nothing to ease the pain. The last sentence Alan said to Paula was “You are not capable of loving someone.” She gasped trying to breathe and said “I need to go, I need help.” At this point she had collapsed emotionally and needed to talk with a friend and so she hung up and called a family member for support.

This type of dialogue is a typical type of gaslighting scenario. It doesn’t have to be hiding things, removing things from walls, but it can be. I have had women tell me that they have had their boyfriend/husband believe other people that they had never met, had bad relationships with, etc… Even believing lies from other people that the boyfriend/husband, knew for a fact was untrue. Lies about times when the woman was with the boyfriend/husband and couldn’t have possibly been in the other place.

Later, Paula would find out that Alan was on vacation with a married woman, his son and father. It was the month before he broke up with her. Valentine’s weekend when he barely said a word to her in emails. He had told her he didn’t want her to go on the vacation with his father and son, essentially due to her boundaries. She saw a photo of them online, when this married woman began to stalk her after the relationship ended. Paula realized that the gaslighting had been organized (probably between the both of them), to end the relationship but to get rid of Paula completely. Alan had always made comments about not speaking to women ever again and only spoke to Sally because of having a child together. He had wanted to get rid of her, partly because she felt the relationship with the married woman was inappropriate. Oddly, he took his time (an entire month) to create the break-up scene. He was setting the stage with Paula by making her believe Sally was “up to something.” In reality, Alan, was up to something.

Gaslighting is a very manipulative action taken by someone you are in an intimate partnership with. It can also happen with someone you are in business with, a parent, other family member, it can happen with anyone but it is more harmful from a person you love. A child can move away at 18, in most circumstances and with therapy, can learn to differentiate from the parent. A person you are in a marital relationship with or are in a serious relationship with is much more painful as you are looking at this person as a life long partner or someone you hope to have a long term relationship with. It is painful because you assumed you knew this person and had fallen in love with the image they had created for you. This is why Gotye’s song makes so much sense to a survivor of a narcissist. They dump you in a cruel way and act as if they had never known you, loved you, made love to you, and this is difficult to fathom for the victim.

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