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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Relationships: Gaslighting and Infidelity

In previous articles, I've discussed various aspects of infidelity.

See my articles: 

I'm focusing on a particular aspect that often occurs when there is infidelity, which is gaslighting, in this article.

Relationships: Gaslighting and Infidelity

In her book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel, discusses, among other things, the psychological concept of gaslighting and how people who are cheating on their partners use this form of psychological abuse to hide affairs (see my article: Are You Being Gaslighted in Your Relationship?).

What Is Gaslighting?
Before going any further, let's start with a definition of gaslighting.

As I mentioned in my prior article, the term stems from a 1944 film called Gaslight with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.  In the movie, Boyer's character tries to manipulate his wife (Bergman) into thinking that she is losing her mind by secretly making the gaslights in their home flicker on and off. Since the wife trusts him and she doesn't know that her husband is manipulating her, she begins to doubt her perception of things, which is what he wants.

A contemporary situation involving gaslighting and infidelity involves a partner manipulating the other partner by lying about an affair.  The partner, who is having the affair, might be so convincing that the partner being cheated on doubts his or her own perception--even when there's clear evidence of the infidelity.

It might seem incredible that someone would doubt his or her own perception, especially when there's evidence of cheating.  But it's important to understand that the person cheating is often very convincing and the person being cheated on is often in denial about what's going on.

Being in denial is understandable when you consider that to acknowledge an affair could not only ruin the relationship and life as the two people in it have known it.  It also raises many questions:  Who is this person you're in a relationship with that you thought you knew?  What's real?  Is the whole relationship false?  Can the relationship survive?  Do you want to try to salvage the relationship? (see my article: Betrayal: Coping With the Sudden Realization That You Don't Know Your Spouse).

A Fictional Clinical Vignette:  Gaslighting and Infidelity:
Ann began therapy shortly after she found out that her romantic partner of 10 years, Rob, had been cheating on her for their entire relationship.

Relationships: Gaslighting and Infidelity

She had her suspicions during the last year, especially after she received a call from Rob's former secretary, Jane, who told Ann that Rob and she had been having an affair for a year and he broke it off because Jane was demanding that he leave Ann to be with her.  Jane told Ann that, when she was his secretary, Jane was aware that Rob had many affairs, and she thought Ann should know.

Ann could hear that Jane was angry and hurt.   Ann realized that, even if there was any truth to Jane's story, Jane was getting back at Rob by calling Ann.

When Ann confronted Rob about the call from Jane, he got angry and indignant with Ann.  He told her that he just couldn't believe that Ann would even think that he would do such a thing.  He said Jane was making up this story because he rejected her when she came on to him.  Then, he told Ann he thought she was incredibly gullible for even entertaining such an idea.

Ann felt terrible and apologized to Rob.  She told him that she was sorry that she ever doubted him.  But after he left her apartment, he ignored her calls and texts for a few days until he was ready to accept her apology.

A few weeks later, Ann received an email from Jane.  At first, Ann was going to delete the email without even opening it.  But she was curious, so she opened it.

Ann was shocked that Jane's email contained pictures of her and Rob together having sex.  Jane gave dates, times and names of hotels when she was with Rob.  Ann realized that Rob told her he was away on business trips on those dates.  But according to the information that Jane sent, Rob was in town with Jane.

When Rob came over that night, Ann showed him the email from Jane and Rob blew up.  He told her that Jane was obviously a very disturbed woman, he wasn't the man in the picture, and Jane obviously Photoshopped the pictures to make it seem like it was him, but it wasn't him.

Before he stormed out of Ann's apartment, Rob told her that he needed time to think.  He said he was very hurt and he wasn't sure if he wanted to remain in a relationship with a woman who insinuated that he was a cheater and a liar.

Afterwards, Ann was confused.  Even though she loved Rob and she wanted to be with him, she wanted to know the truth, so she contacted Jane and met her for lunch the next day.

After their lunch together, Ann's head was reeling.  Jane showed Ann more texts with sexual messages from Rob.  She also told Ann that she heard from other women, who were also having affairs with Rob, and she showed Ann those emails as well.

Ann felt so betrayed.  She wondered if Rob ever loved her and if anything about their relationship was real.  She also felt like a fool for ignoring the obvious signs that he was cheating.

Feeling lonely and confused, Ann called her best friend, Liz and told her what happened.  Liz came over and comforted Ann as best as she could.  When Liz asked Ann what she was going to do, Ann said she wasn't sure.  She didn't know if she wanted to break up with Rob or tell him that she wanted to go to couples counseling to try to salvage their relationship.

Ann could tell that Liz thought she should break up with Rob, but Liz was hesitant about giving advice.  At that point, Ann was so shocked, she couldn't think straight.

When Rob called Ann a few days later, she asked him to come over so they could talk.  Before Rob arrived, Ann hoped that when she confronted him with what she knew from Jane that Rob would admit that he cheated with Jane and other women and they could agree to go to couples counseling.

But when she confronted him with the new information that she now had, Rob blew up again and went into a rant--calling her names and berating her for believing "such nonsense."

At that point, since Rob couldn't acknowledge the affair--much less express his remorse--Ann was devastated.  She knew that their relationship was over.  When she told Rob that she couldn't trust him, so their relationship was over, he continued to act angry and indignant.  Ann was amazed at how he was still trying to manipulate her and how he had manipulated her all along.

Now, sitting in front of her new psychotherapist, aside from feeling angry, Ann felt ashamed that she allowed Rob to fool her.  Her psychotherapist explained gaslighting to Ann and told her that she was having a common response.

Over time, Ann worked in therapy to overcome the traumatic experience of feeling betrayed by Rob.  Her current trauma was exacerbated by her family history, which included her father cheating on her mother.

Aside from working on the current trauma and the history of family trauma, Ann and her psychotherapist also worked on Ann overcoming her shame and building back her self esteem.

Gaslighting is often part of infidelity.  The person who is cheating manipulates in order to keep the affair a secret.

Many relationships cannot withstand the combination of infidelity and gaslighting, especially if the person who is cheating doesn't ultimately admit cheating and doesn't feel genuine remorse for the pain that s/he caused the other partner.

However, many relationships survive infidelity and gaslighting when the person who was cheating stops having the affair(s) and the couple work towards strengthening their relationship and rebuilding trust, if possible, in couples counseling.

One of the common misconceptions about infidelity is that it only occurs in relationships where the person who is cheating is unhappy.  Contrary to this common misconception, many people go outside their relationship even when they still love their partner and are basically happy in the relationship.

The reasons for the infidelity are numerous and vary with each relationship.  While no reason can justify infidelity, an understanding of why it occurred can be helpful to each person whether they decide to stay together or not.

Often, it has more to do with how the person who is cheating feels about him or herself or how s/he wants to feel (see my article: The Connection Between Infidelity and the Need to Feel Desirable).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are struggling in your relationship, you owe it to yourself to get help (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to work through the complicated emotions that are usually experienced after infidelity and gaslighting have been discovered (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.