Thursday, April 5, 2018

What Is Gaslighting?

Today New York Magazine advice columnist Ask Polly presents a letter describing an incredibly bad relationship. The letter writer she does not know whether she should stay or go. You will see, the answer is blindingly obvious. Equally clear is Polly's description of a relationship involving gaslighting.

As usual, we know nothing about these two people beyond their relationship. We do not know what they do for a living, whether they are living together or what their families and friends think of this. The inattention to detail is a symptom of a therapy-addled mind.

The woman in question, a modern liberated woman, is being emotionally abused. Nothing can be clearer. Polly sees the issue correctly and advises the woman to leave the relationships.

It is so self-evident that you have to wonder why this woman needed to ask an advice columnist. Does she not have friends and family who can support her in her hour of need? Or has her abusive boyfriend succeeded in taking such complete control of her that he has forced her to cut ties with her entourage? We would also want to know the financial circumstances of the two of them—is he rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful? And, what are her circumstances?

Again, we do not know.

Considering that the letter writer is being beaten down, diminished and demeaned-- as a means of mind control-- we suspect that she feels threatened by her beau. And that she fears his reaction if she walks out of the relationship. She might be wise to discuss a plan of departure with others and not to try to do it alone.

We do know that the woman is in therapy. Polly does not make much of the fact, but we ought to ask whether therapy, with its penchant for teaching the art of self-criticism, has taught her that a relationship based on constant fault-finding is normal or beneficial. She says that she is highly self-critical and introspects and ruminates a lot. Did she learn these bad habits from therapy?

You will notice the highlighted text below-- where she says that she believes that she has contributed consciously and unconsciously-- and that she is in therapy. This tells me that she is doing a psychoanalytic therapy, one that attempts to help her to discover her repressed unconscious motives… which, pace Freud, never turn out to be good. If you want the worst for everyone, don’t you deserve to be punished?

Polly also suggests that the woman is trying to heal her troubled boyfriend. I do not see it in the letter, but I suspect that Polly is correct. Many women imagine that their love is some therapeutic that it can cure anything... and that if their boyfriends are not getting better the problem is that they are not loving them well enough.

Apparently,the letter writer has also read too many advice columns, and is trying to let her feelings guide her. She should know better. Sometimes her feelings tell her to stay. Sometimes they tell her to go. This tells us that feelings give mixed messages and are generally not reliable. It also tells us that, between her therapist and her beau, she is lost and afraid, alone with her feelings.

We do not know whether her therapist has an opinion about whether she should stay or go. If the therapist has no opinion and acts as though it is all normal, or is what she deserves the letter writer should fire her therapist. We suspect that the boyfriend has not experienced therapy, but we would like to know more about his relationship with it.

You will have difficulty figuring out what is good and positive about this relationship. I offer the text of the letter, for your edification.

I never know when to stay or go. But for the first time in my life I feel a deep connection in a real relationship, and I hope you can shed some light on some healthy parameters for me.

I am 30 and in the second relationship of my life, the first and only following a “starter marriage” that ended a few years ago. I love this man deeply and dearly, but damn if he doesn’t hurt me all the time.

Not physically — but certainly emotionally. My life feels bogged down by criticism, by discontent from him. I never feel good enough, I can’t even seem to breathe or speak correctly. And, of course, it’s all my fault. I’m just hypersensitive at best, and manipulative/damaged/a bitch/a drama queen/immature/blame-shifting at worst.

I am more critical of myself than anyone, and spend a ton of time in my own head, so I know unequivocally that I can be a consummate fuck-up, and that I definitely contribute to our issues quite a bit in ways both conscious and unconscious (and yes, I have a therapist who is helping me work on this). I see so much of myself in every one of your readers. But, still, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the bulk of our fights, our Groundhog Day replays of issues, and the hostility in this comes from him. We have moments of profound connection and joy, where I think we’ve made a breakthrough, only for him to switch right back to a short fuse and impatience and old habits the very next day — heartbreakingly, often after a fantastic day or outing.

He can’t see any of this. I don’t know what trauma could have caused this for him, but his brain is so, so deeply wired to avoid fault that he is incapable of even seeing the things I am talking about — he is literally blind to them. So naturally, in his mind, any problems or complaints or issues that arise are truly all me, and he means no conscious damage by it.

I sometimes feel like the only way to make this work is to live in a world where the sky is red — where I let him believe that I am the only one with issues, and that everything truly is my fault. Honestly, I kind of don’t mind that — at least it means maybe I can fix it. But things always spiral out of control again no matter what I do. For God’s sake, he tells me I am a drama queen for limping when I have a broken toe. I tell him I left my coffee on the train in a self-deprecating, annoyed-but-laughing-it-off kind of way, and he comes unglued at me for “just trying to make him feel bad” and for always having a problem or making things a big deal. He often lashes out severely even when blame wasn’t on anyone’s mind — apparently, even blinking or having a headache or feeling giddy about the sunshine is emotional terrorism to him.

I don’t need to be told that this relationship is unhealthy, if not emotionally abusive — I know it because I’ve experienced it. I thought I was beyond it, but I guess I was wrong. And I feel frustrated that I even need to ask this, but I just don’t have any truly healthy relationships in my life to model the answer — but how do you know whether to stay or go, when you know he is not vindictive or pathological, just profoundly messed up in similar ways you are?

I was trained when I was young to think of everything as black and white — people are good or bad, they love you or they hate you (and often at the flip of a dime). So I feel like the answer should be simple: You leave if you don’t feel accepted, if you feel like you are being made to feel guilty and crazy and unlovable, and that you do not love yourself and deserve whatever misery you feel if you stay. But it doesn’t feel simple or obvious at all to me. Ending it seems right, but it just doesn’t feel right. And since we are both fucked up and at fault, it seems even less cut and dry.

He has agreed to couple’s therapy, but nothing ever materializes. I know he loves me — I believe him in that completely. But he does not accept me, and I feel like his emotional punching bag. Are deep love and high highs ever enough to make a stressful relationship worth staying in and fixing, even at the risk of never having acceptance or flexibility from the other person?

Where Is the Goddamn Line Here

As Polly will point out, if she thinks that she is describing a man who loves her, she has some very serious problems. As I said, she has done too much therapy.

We might suggest that the boyfriend is paranoid, that he is suffering from a delusion to interpret everything as a function of her effort to manipulate him.

This tells me that his emotional problems are worse than we all think. A lot worse than we think.

In any event Polly describes it accurately:

But your boyfriend experiences your emotions — and your experiences, and all of your words and your insights and your challenges — as a manipulation. Breaking your toe is just a way of sucking up his attention. Making a joke about leaving your coffee on the train is just a way of making him feel guilty. Every time you interrupt his carefully calibrated world, it’s like you’re setting his house on fire for no reason.

When someone tries to destroy your sense of reality, to substitute an alternative sense of reality—as in forcing you to believe that a boy who thinks he’s a girl is really a girl—he is, as Polly says, gaslighting you. It’s a new modern term. It resembles brainwashing, but it also feels an awful lot like therapy.

Allow Polly her definition:

This is pretty much the definition of gaslighting, but I understand why you’re confused. Gaslighting sounds so INTENTIONAL. Even though, yes, your relationship is unhealthy and also qualifies as emotionally abusive, the abuse almost feels like a puzzle to solve. Because there he is, a nice-enough guy with good intentions who is roughly as dysfunctional as you are. You match. Won’t you run into the same or worse conflicts with anyone who has the same volume of troubles and issues that you have? If his intentions are good, shouldn’t you stick it out and figure out a way forward together? If he’s basically a good human being, why can’t you make it work? Can’t you fix this?

To answer the question, he is not a good human being. He is profoundly troubled and cannot engage a relationship without constant drama. He finds fault with everything she does or says, he interprets everything she does or says within the context of her relationship with him. If he isn't beating her up he is certainly beating her down.

For my part he is performing what some psychoanalysts would call transference analysis. In it analysts interpret everything the patient says or does as a function of his relationship with his analyst.


Ares Olympus said...

I don't think the term gaslighting applies, which would seem to require intentional manipulation. Scapegoating seems more accurate - making someone else responsible for your negative feelings. Scapegoating doesn't require an intent to disorient another, but simply to transfer responsibility away from self. Jesus's speck in someone else's eye and plank in one's own applies (Matthew 7:5).

Fair advice probably in all such cases are separation, and if that's an option (if both people are financially independent or can lean on someone else), that can helps both sort out their own participation. The advantage of the modern era is most people have the choice to walk away, while a disadvantage might be the person in the greatest denial may be most likely to do so, especially if they're good looking or have learned superficial charms.

I've liked the imaginary ideal that relationships should require a resume with references, and you can call a person's previous partners for perspective and advice, a terrifying idea to some, but more so if you have a bad conscience (or have bad skills in picking partners). Or in the other direction you can imagine what benevolent advice you'd give if asked, something besides "Flee for your life now!"

Shaun F said...

A couple observations - I don't what a "starter marriages" is - but it sounds doomed to failure. When the author says "I know he loves me - I believe in that completely” I agree with Stuart. Her thinking doesn't seem to align with his actions. And when prior to this she says "I just don’t have any truly healthy relationships in my life to model the answer." I think it confirms the impression she is a bit - lost (broken family?).

This whole episode reminded me of a story. Guy in therapy "My boss is a bitch, she's constantly micromanaging me, and looking over my back, and documenting everything I do. She's a control freak." Therapist "Sure - she's a bitch - but what is your part?" He paused "I don't like my job, I go there and there is no work to do. And I drink too much. I show up late, I call in sick some times, and take long lunches." Therapist "Those are the issues - now go drink less, and start looking for another job." Therapy always seemed pretty straightforward when you look at the personal responsibility component.

whitney said...

Here's my take on it. He believes he's always right and since that's impossible he needs to lie to maintain it. That's where the gaslighting comes in. The truth is solid earth but lies are a bog, you can never get your footing and are always slightly off-kilter. I believe at the start of the worst depravity you can possibly imagine is a lie. So these people that live in a lie maybe aren't the worst monsters you can imagine but they're on the monster Spectrum. If you know someone's a liar you should run. People that are always right and know it alls. Get rid of them

Ares Olympus said...

whitney said... Here's my take on it. He believes he's always right and since that's impossible he needs to lie to maintain it.

It sounds like you've known some people like that. I've wondered about dishonesty, and in some cases it seems more of denial, a certain form of lying to yourself about things you don't want to see, which brings negative self-thoughts and shame. So aggression comes out if they can identify something someone else is doing wrong, and then redirect negative attention away. It might look like they're "know it alls", but its like a magician, they're trying to redirect attention away from their own weakness. That's why I'd call it scapegoating, trying to purge your own bad conscience by punishing someone else.

I think we all lie in ways, even if "white lies" designed to protect others we still feel shame when our lies are challenged or exposed, and its easy to want to double-down if we think we can get away with it. So if you can see times you do this yourself, you can learn how to step back towards truth gracefully, and help others do the same. Well, I wish I knew how to do that better. Scott Peck wrote a book "People of the lie" and convinced me there are people who are in so much psychological pain, they literally can't face themselves, meet their conscience on solid earth, and you do just need to raise your boundaries in how you let them hurt you.