In the 1940s movie “Gaslight” a husband attempts to find and steal his wife’s inheritance hidden somewhere in their house. In a crucial scene, his wife notices that the gaslights are flickering. He had caused the flickering by turning them on in the attic while looking for the valuables. To avoid her becoming suspicious he insists that the gaslights are not flickering–it is just her imagination. Throughout the movie he intentionally questions his wife’s perceptions and memory causing her to believe she is losing her sanity.
As a result of the movie the word “gaslight” took on new meaning–becoming a verb as well as a noun. Gaslighting is now understood as a type of psychological manipulation in which various strategies such as denial, blaming, anger, misdirection are used to cause another person to doubt their own reality.
A sex addict who is usually adept at hiding his sexual behavior may get careless, causing his partner to become suspicious. If the addict is prone to gaslighting he will not only deny acting-out, but will turn the tables on the partner. Her suspicions are labeled as “paranoia,” her questioning him is characterized as “nagging,” her refusing to believe his lies means she has “a trust problem.”
Gaslighting serves the purpose of diverting attention away from the addict and placing it squarely on the partner. Basically the message is, “It’s not me, it’s you.” Manipulating the partner in this way is extremely damaging, so much so that many partners hold that being gaslighted is actually more painful than the addict’s acting-out.
Addiction recovery requires rigorous honesty, which means the addict needs to acknowledge his gaslighting to himself and his partner, make amends, and cease this form of manipulation completely. The partner will likely need counseling to help her overcome the devastating effects of being gaslighted.
Not all couples survive the toxic impact of gaslighting on their relationship, but many do. Repair and healing require hard, painful work spurred on by a vision of a new relationship grounded in total honesty and integrity.