Several months ago I had to go out of town to take care of a responsibility that was both logistically complicated and emotionally painful. An acquaintance who was deepening into a friend offered to go with me to provide support and take care of some of the planning. My gratitude knew no bounds. However as the departure date rapidly approached I realized that he had done nothing and at the last minute I had to make all of the arrangements and go alone. When I returned from my trip I confronted him on his lack of follow through. His reply came in the form of an email that was filled with distortions and denials. Reading his letter became a call and response of replying line by line with a thought-rebuttal. “I never said that.” “We never discussed that.” “That isn’t how it happened.” By the end my jaw dropped in shock. I looked out the window at the winter scene and said to the barren trees, “Oh my gosh, he is doing that thing. He is doing that thing.” “That thing” goes by several names: gaslighting, defining reality, and rewriting history.
Gaslighting comes from the 1944 movie “Gaslight” that starred Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The storyline is a husband tries to make his wealthy wife believe that she is losing her mind so that he can commit her to an asylum and inherit her money. He makes subtle changes to her surroundings: moving the pictures, putting her jewelry in a different location, turning down the gaslights. When she comments on these things he tells her that she is imagining all of it. It is the slow drip-drip of losing one’s hold on reality.
Do gaslighters know that they are lying? There are two schools of thought on this. The first says they are not consciously aware of their behavior. They use something called magical thinking: “Because I believe something is true, it is true. Now it is for you to believe it is true along with me.” Of course this is agreeing with craziness.
The other school says they know exactly what they are doing. Why would someone lie so obviously and outrageously? There are several motivations. One is they are so shame-based that they cannot take on the discomfort of added shame that they have done wrong or been found wanting. Instead they blame you or tell you it didn't happen that way. Another reason is they just get a kick out of making you nuts, frustrated, angry, sad, or depressed. For them it is the equivalent of bear baiting. They don’t care that they are hurting you or destroying the relationship. For them it is entertainment and a source of great fun. The last reason is if they can convince you of their position then they can control you, and insecure people need to control others to feel safe.
Healthy relationships are built on honesty, communication, trust, and respect. It is impossible to share those things with a gaslighter. Conflict resolution can’t occur with someone who says an event or situation didn’t go that way or didn’t happen at all. I enjoyed my intelligent, witty, charming acquaintance, but I had to let him go. It was a necessary loss. Codependents are the easiest targets for gaslighters. Here is a site for codependency support groups within traveling distance from Dayton: http://www.coda.org/ajax_control.php?action=load_translation&language=1