NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Understanding Unintentional Gaslighting in a Relationship

The focus of this article is unintentional gaslighting in a relationship, which is different from intentional gaslighting.

If you haven't read my prior articles about intentional gaslighting, I suggest you read those articles first to understand the basic concepts of gaslighting (see my articles: Are You Being Gaslighted? and What Are the 7 Stages of Gaslighting in a Relationship?).

Unintentional Gaslight in a Relationship

Intentional gaslighting is a form of malicious manipulation which is emotionally and psychologically abusive.  The goal of the gaslighter is to undermine the gaslightee's self confidence and make them feel insecure and anxious so they're easier to manipulate.

Understanding Unintentional Gaslight
Before delving into unintentional gaslighting, I want to emphasize that even when gaslighting is unintentional, it's still gaslighting and the gaslighter is still attempting to manipulate and gain control in the relationship--even if it's unconscious and they're unaware of it.  

The destructive consequences of gaslighting, whether intentional or not, are usually the same for the person being gaslighted.  

If the gaslighter is successful in gaslighting, the gaslightee's thoughts, feelings, beliefs and perceptions are invalidated by the gaslighter (see my article: How to Develop and Use Emotional Validation in a Relationship).

Examples of Unintentional Gaslighting
The following list are just a few examples of unintentional and often unconscious gaslighting:
  • Telling the gaslightee the problems are all in their mind when it's clearly not
  • Responding to the gaslightee who says they are hurt by the gaslighting by saying the gaslightee really doesn't feel that way
  • Telling the gaslightee their situation isn't so bad or other people have it worse
  • Telling the gaslightee they're too sensitive
  • Telling the gaslightee they overthink things
  • Telling the gaslightee they're wrong to think or feel a certain way
  • Making excuses for their behavior. For instance, if gaslighter is caught in a lie, they tell the gaslightee that they lied to spare their feelings (see my article: Lies of Omission)
  • Telling the gaslightee they're being too negative
Why Do People Unintentionally Gaslight?
Many unintentional gaslighters learned this behavior without even realizing it when they were growing up in dysfunctional families where they were criticized, abused or neglected and gaslighted as young children.  In those cases, unintentional gaslighting is an unconscious learned behavior.

The unconscious intention of gaslighting might be to feel in control, especially for people who grew up feeling they weren't in control.  

In addition, it's often a way to avoid being held accountable for their behavior, especially if they were traumatized for their behavior as young children in their family of origin.  

Gaslighters will often go to great lengths to avoid feeling bad the way they felt as children, and since they learned that being in control and dominating is one way to avoid those feelings, they want to dominate and control others and they fear being dominated and controlled by others.

Unintentional gaslighting often occurs with people who have an avoidant attachment style, especially when they're in a relationship where their partner wants to be more emotionally intimate with them and this makes them feel uncomfortable and too emotionally vulnerable.  

This situation is exacerbated if the partner has an anxious attachment style and worries about being abandoned by the other partner (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

Part of unintentional gaslighter's maladaptive coping strategy can include dismissing their partner's need for emotional intimacy by calling the partner "needy" or criticizing them in some other way to ward off their own emotional discomfort and fear of emotional intimacy.

A Clinical Vignette About Unintentional Gaslighting in a Relationship
Since it's often hard to believe that gaslighting can be unintentional and based on unconscious learned behavior, the following clinical vignette, which is a fictionalized scenario based on many different cases, can help to demonstrate these dynamics and show how therapy can help:

Mike and Deb met when they were in their early 30s.  

After the initial stage of infatuation between Mike and Deb, Mike became increasingly uncomfortable with the emotional intimacy in their relationship as time went on.

Six months into their relationship, Mike felt Deb was encroaching too much on his personal time.  He was comfortable seeing her once a week, but she wanted to see him at least twice a week (see my article: Learning to Negotiate Time Apart and Time Together in a Relationship).

Every time Deb asked to see him a second day during the week, she was confronted with a barrage of criticism from Mike.  He told her she was "too needy" and she was "wrong" for wanting more time than he felt comfortable spending with her.

When Deb told Mike that hearing him call her too needy and wrong was hurtful, she was even more hurt to hear him say that she was being too sensitive and she just needed to "just get over it."

After one of their arguments about how much time they spent together, Mike told Deb that he couldn't see her because he wasn't feeling well.  Then he went out with his friends to a baseball game and didn't tell her.

During the game, Deb's friend, Tia, spotted Mike without his realizing it.  After Tia told Deb she saw Mike at the game, Deb realized that Mike lied to her and she was deeply hurt.  

When she confronted Mike about the lie, he didn't deny it, but he said he lied to her because he didn't want to hurt her feelings by telling her he wanted to go the game instead of seeing her.  No matter what Deb said about it, Mike still felt justified in lying to Deb and he wouldn't take responsibility for it.

Due to Mike's gaslighting, Deb was beginning to feel she was either exaggerating or imagining things, so she spoke with a close friend, who explained gaslighting to Deb and told her that it's a real dynamic and Mike was using gaslighting with Deb.

A year into the relationship, Deb continued to feel gaslighted by Mike and she told him that unless he got help in therapy, she would leave him.  

Unintentional Gaslighting in a Relationship

At first, Mike was shocked.  No one had ever given him an ultimatum like this before.  His first inclination was to dismiss Deb's feelings, but he kept this to himself.  He really loved Deb and he wanted their relationship to work out, so he sought help in therapy.

During the initial stage of therapy, Mike told his therapist he didn't think he had a problem, but he was willing to give therapy a try to save his relationship.

His therapist learned from Mike that he was considered the "black sheep" in the family.  He was the youngest of five children in a family of high achievers.  

Both of his parents were successful in their careers and his siblings excelled in school and in their respective careers. Since he didn't do well in school, he became the family scapegoat (see my article: Children's Roles in Dysfunctional Families).

Mike got poor grades. He had problems with reading, reading comprehension and following basic instructions from the teacher.

When the guidance counselor contacted Mike's parents and asked if they would consent to having the school psychologist evaluate Mike, they responded with anger, defensiveness and indignity.  They felt the guidance counselor was blaming them for Mike's poor academic performance.  Mike's mother told the guidance counselor that Mike just needed to  "stop being lazy" and"try harder."  She refused to give permission for an evaluation and the school dropped the matter.

After Mike's parents got the call from school, they were even harsher than usual with Mike. They criticized him more and blamed him for not doing well in school.

When Mike got to high school, he was barely keeping up with the work.  He felt deeply ashamed of his academic performance and his shame also interfered with making friends at school.  

He felt like a complete failure and told his parents he was depressed.  Both parents brushed this off and told him that he had nothing to be depressed about.  They said all of his needs were being taken of, he should be grateful for this, and other children had it much worse than he did.

By the time he was 16, Mike told his parents that he felt so despondent and ashamed that he felt the only way out for him was to commit suicide.  His mother and father were so shaken up by this that they asked the school to evaluate him.  

The school evaluation revealed that Mike had significant learning disabilities which were never addressed and this was why he was having problems in school.  They developed an Individual Education Program (IEP) for him where he would get the academic help he needed.  They also diagnosed depression and assigned him to the school psychologist.

With the IEP, Mike's grades improved. He also began to feel more confident making friends and dating.  However, he didn't feel comfortable talking about his situation at home with the school psychologist so, even though he no longer felt suicidal, he continued to be the family scapegoat and he continued to feel depressed.

In his current therapy, Mike's therapist assessed that he was engaging in unintentional gaslighting in his relationship with Deb because he learned this behavior as a child.  In other words, this was how his parents treated him as a child, so the unintentional gaslighting was learned behavior and unconscious on his part. 

She also explained to Mike how he was traumatized by what happened to him as a child at home and at school.

Over time, Mike became more aware of his propensity to gaslight Deb. With practice, he was able to catch himself more often whenever he felt like dismissing or invalidating her feelings or her perspective.  At first, he didn't catch himself all the time, but he got better at it.

He and his therapist also did trauma therapy to help him overcome the underlying issues involved with his early childhood problems.  The work was neither quick nor easy, but Mike remained open to working on his childhood trauma and understanding how it affected his relationship with Deb (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

With Mike's consent, he and Deb had a couple of sessions together with his therapist so Deb could understand the issues involved and the trauma work Mike was doing in therapy.

Unintentional Gaslighting Can Get Worked Through

Two years later, Mike was able to overcome his childhood trauma and he no longer engaged in gaslighting Deb.  He was able to be more emotionally vulnerable with Deb and they eventually moved in together.  

There are two types of gaslighting: intentional and unintentional gaslighting.  

This article focused on unintentional gaslighting, the unconscious underlying issues, how it can manifest in relationships and how trauma therapy can help.

Without help in therapy, unintentional gaslighting often doesn't change.  But the good news is that if someone is willing to get help and do the work in therapy, they can free themselves of their traumatic history so they can have a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out 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.