“It is difficult to truly defend yourself when your character is assailed.”
The theme of gaslighting has become popular in the psychological literature. It now is well known that the word “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, in which the female character is continually falsely accused of wrongdoing, which causes her considerable emotional distress. Gaslighting is present when there are false denials by the other or false accusations toward you by the other. At least 4 kinds of gaslighting are described in the current literature:
2) The other person has a character flaw, an ongoing pattern that is denied. “You keep saying that I neglect the children. Look. I am playing with them now. You do have a way of exaggerating.”
3) The other person accuses you of an act or a series of acts you did not commit. “You skimmed funds from our checking account.”4) The other person accuses you of a serious character flaw. “You are so continuously angry that I can’t stand it any more. I am out of here.”
Ghosting occurs when the other ignores you, abandons you, and shuts off all communication with you.
I have had people approach me for advice when they are the victims of the 2 G’s, both gaslighting and ghosting, a particularly difficult combination because the victims cannot defend themselves as the other accuses and then leaves. The victims are left alone to wonder and to doubt their own perceptions of themselves.
The 4th kind of gaslighting above, the assault on one’s character, is particularly difficult because there is no one concrete piece of evidence as occurs in points 1 and 3. Either the accused person did or did not steal, for example, in point 3. It is easier to verify a one-time behavior as having occurred or not than to defend an accusation of an ongoing character flaw. After all, if one is accused of being overly angry, the victim probably can remember once or twice being too upset or having a bad day. These occasional imperfections, of course, do not constitute a character flaw, but nonetheless might lead to some level of agreement with the accusation, even though it is false.
Martha sought help because her husband, Samuel, was constantly accusing her of being insensitive to his needs. “You are always wrapped up in your own issues. I try and try to make time for you and yet, when I do, you push me away,” he would say. Martha was astonished by this because she truly tried to focus on him and his needs when he came home at night. He used this accusation as an excuse to leave the home and stayed away for 8 months with no text, email, or phone contact. Martha was left to wonder with no way of working this out with him. “Was I insensitive?” she wondered. “Might I have tried harder?” Her self-doubt led to low self-esteem. She started to lose weight and have depressive symptoms.
Josh approached me because his partner Abby was constantly accusing him of being overly angry. She said that she cannot take all of the anger any more and so she is leaving, which she did. As in the above case, Abby shut off all communication with Josh. Before she left, he asked her for instances in which he had been too angry to the point of fault. She said this before leaving, “Do you remember two years ago when we were having an argument and you put your fist down on the car’s hood? That scared me and I just can’t take that sort of thing any more.” When Josh was about to rebut the accusation, Abby was gone. He was left to think this through by himself.
As Josh realized that his resentment was getting too high, he asked me for advice on forgiving Abby.
The preliminaries when forgiving involve:
1) seeing that as you forgive, you are not excusing;
2) understanding that you may never reconcile with someone who accuses and distorts deeply and consistently;
3) further understanding that you can and should seek fairness. This is especially important if the abuse is ongoing or even deepens.
A beginning part of forgiveness is to concretely explore the other person’s injustice. What, exactly, is the injustice? When did it occur, how frequently did it occur, and how serious is it? As we explored Abby’s accusations, Josh realized the following:
- Abby’s final accusation was of an incident that occurred 2 years ago, not at all recently.
- His “putting his fist down on the car’s hood” was not a pounding of the fist at all, but a gesture of emphasis over yet another accusation she was making at the time.
- Abby could not come up with even one anger-incident in the past two years other than the false accusation about the fist and the hood.
When Josh more clearly saw all of this, he realized how seriously unjust were Abby’s accusations.
Josh then began to explore more deeply Abby’s own life and the challenges she faced. For example, when growing up, her mother faced serious healthissues and so the mother had little time for Abby, who felt worthless. Next, Josh examined Abby’s earlier relationship which ended in divorce. Abby back then was accusing her first husband in a way that Josh now was experiencing.
This exploration set Josh free from his own self-doubts, from his own subtle self-accusations of “if only I had done more.” He could see Abby’s pained life which opened him to forgiving her, not because of what she did, but in spite of this. The process of forgiving uncovered Abby’s gaslighting. The process of forgiving uncovered Abby’s ghosting which was not Josh’s fault. He was able to see her confusions, her pain. Thus, he forgave her from his heart and, of course, he could not discuss this forgiveness with her because she had abandoned him. Yet, the gaslighting and ghosting did not destroy his integrity and his psychological health. Forgiving helped him to identify the problems and to find a healthy solution to the effects of those problems, the primary effect of which was unhealthy anger and a developing low self-esteem.
Martha had a similar outcome. As she freely decided to forgive and as she looked more closely into Samuel’s life, she discovered, through talking with some of his colleagues and friends, that his accusations and abandonment were hiding a serious drug habit which started a year before leaving. Her examination of his unjust behavior not only uncovered that he was gaslighting and ghosting but also that he was living a lie and was using the gaslighting and ghosting as a coverup. As his drug habit continued, he asked Martha to be his partner again, which she refused given his lack of insight into his own behaviors. Seeing his pain helped her to forgive. Forgiving, which took many months, set Martha free from anxiety and self-recrimination. Not everyone would be ready to forgive in this situation, but it was Martha’s choice to do this.
In both cases, reconciliation did not occur. A person can forgive without seeking to reconcile if such reuniting could be very harmful to the victimized person.
If you are the victim of the double injustices of gaslighting and ghosting, consider the process of forgiveness if you choose to do so. It may help you see more clearly that, in fact, you have been treated unjustly. It may help you to label the other’s behavior as unjust, to see the pain in the other that has led to the 2 G’s of gaslighting and ghosting, and allow you to escape the harmful effects of these dangerous behaviors.
Posted in Psychology Today May 08, 2018
“Past hurts can lead to a lack of trust which can block intimacy.”
Sometimes there is a pattern that one begins to see in oneself: A relationship starts and is filled with hope, only to end all too soon. If this happens to you, may I suggest 5 reasons why this might be the case and make some suggestions for breaking the pattern?
The first reason why relationships may fail is that we all bring in what we might call “excess baggage” from our family of origin. This includes both your partner and you. It may be a good idea, when the time is right, to gain insight into any hurtful patterns that either your partner or you have brought into the current relationship. For example, was it a norm to show a hot temper in the family? If so, this could be spilling over into your current relationship in that your partner (or you) never had such a norm which is offensive to the other. Solution: Try to see the norms that have formed early in your life, discuss those that are stressful to your partner or you, and make the necessary adjustments. Second, try practicing forgiveness toward family-of-origin members who have created some less-than-healthy norms for you (see Enright, 2012 for an approach to forgiving).
A second reason is that we can bring in this “excess baggage” from past relationships that have failed. The particularly hazardous issue is damaged trust. If you have had a harsh breakup, or even a divorce, there is a tendency not to trust a new partner even if this person is good to you. On a 1-to-10 scale, what is your trust level in general toward any potential partner? If the scores are below 5, you may need to work on trust. Here is what you can do:
- First, try to forgive the past partner(s) for damaging your trust.
- Second, let trust now build up inch-by-inch in you as you forgive others from your past. Try to see the goodness in the new partner.
- Third, bring out into the open your challenge with trust so that the new person can help you work this through. You may have to do all of this for your partner if there is a trust issue from the past.
A third aspect of “excess baggage” is low self-esteem or believing the lie that you are not worthy of a lasting relationship. This kind of low self-esteem can creep up on you until you are not even aware that your self-worth is low. On the 1-to-10 scale, how worthy do you think you are to have a happy, lasting relationship? Solution: Cognitively resist the big lie that you are not worthy. Second, forgive yourself if you have played a part in hurting past relationships because of either a lack of trust or low self-esteem.
A fourth point is this: Do not let yourself fall into the trap of defining yourself exclusively by the past. Solution: Be aware of who you really are as a person. As you bear the pains of the past through forgiving, then ask yourself: Who am I as I forgive? Am I stronger than I thought I was prior to forgiving? Am I more compassionate than I had realized? As you do these kinds of reflections, it is my hope that you realize this: I have a lot to offer a good partner who can benefit from my presence and support.
A fifth and final point is this: Try not to let your new partner fall into the trap of defining the self exclusively by the past. This person, too, may need the strength of forgiveness with the renewed view that “I, too, am a person of worth who has good things to offer you.”
Perhaps it is time for a new start in relationships. Some of the 5 points above may help move you in the right direction.
Posted in Psychology Today January 17, 2018
“Healing the emotional and relational wounds for couples.”
Life is hard enough without the added layer of conflict with those who are supposed to be good to us, which can lead to resentment which can lead to misery. One’s own inner conflict can spread to others and when a person is in a close relationship, it is all too easy for that inner conflict to become the other’s conflict as well.
The first ground-rule for these exercises is this: You are not doing this to change your partner. Your task is to change yourself and to do your part to improve the relationship. The second ground-rule is this: Your task is not to pressure your partner into these exercises. It is better if both of you are drawn to them, not cajoled into them.
With these ground-rules in place, let us go to the first exercise. Together, talk out what it means to forgive another person. You might be surprised to learn that you are not in agreement as to what forgiveness actually is because such a discussion of its meaning is rare. Common misconceptions are these: To forgive is just to move on from difficult situations; to forgive is to forget what happened; to forgive is to excuse what happened; to forgive is to stop asking something of the other by no longer seeking fairness. Yet, to forgive is none of these. To forgive is to offer goodness to those who have not been good to you. To forgive is to be strong enough to offer such goodness through your emotional pain for the other’s good. Take some time to discuss each other’s views and please do so with respect. Learning what forgiveness actually is takes time and effort primarily because we have not been schooled enough in this important concept.
The second exercise is to talk out the hurts that you received in your family of origin, where you grew up. Let the other know of your emotional wounds. This exercise is not meant to cast blame on anyone in your family of origin. Instead, the exercise is meant for each of you to deepen your insight into who your partner is. Knowing the other’s wounds is one more dimension of knowing your partner as a person. As you each identify the wounds from your past, try to see what you, personally, are bringing from that past into the relationship. Try to see what your partner is bringing from the past to your relationship. Who, now, is your partner as you see those wounds, perhaps for the first time?
For the third exercise, together, and only if you choose this, work on forgiving those from your family of origin who have wounded you. Support one another in the striving to grow in the process of forgiveness. The goal is to wipe the resentment-slate clean so that you are not bringing those particular wounds to the breakfast table (and lunch table and dinner table) every day. You can find direction in the forgiving process in my book, The Forgiving Life (American Psychological Association, 2012). Walking this path of forgiveness takes time and should not be rushed. Assist one another in this path. Be the support person for the other. Each one’s personal forgiveness journey is made easier when it is a team effort.
For the fourth exercise, when you are finished forgiving those family members from the past, work on forgiving your partner for those wounds brought into your relationship, and at the same time, seek forgiveness from your partner for the woundedness you bring to your relationship. Then, see if the relationship improves.
Finally, the fifth exercise: persevere in your forgiveness discussions. As an analogy, you do not become physically fit by four weeks or even four months of effort that then is abandoned. You have to keep at it. To become forgivingly fit, you need to set aside even a little time, perhaps 15 minutes a week, to discuss the injustices impinging on either or both of you, from inside the relationship, inside the family, or outside of it……..and then forgive and help the other to do so. You do not have to let the injustices of the past and the current inner miseries dominate you or your relationship. Forgiveness offers a cure for the misery and, at the same time, hope for a renewed and strengthened relationship.
Posted in Psychology Today March 11, 2017
.Betrayal can be very painful and difficult to overcome. When the resentment builds, it is important not to let it have its way. Otherwise, it could live within you for a very long time, chipping away at your happiness, making you mistrustful of those who may be worth of trust, and spilling over to your loved ones. This is why betrayal is such a challenge, particularly the effects of such betrayal that can take the form of excessive anger, anxiety, and depression.
Here are six suggestions that may be helpful to you as you consider forgiving:
First, you need not have forgiveness wrapped up in a day or a week. Forgiveness is a process that takes time. Be gentle with yourself as you begin to consider forgiving.
Second, to experience some emotional relief in forgiving, you do not have to be a perfect forgiver. Even if you have some anger left over, as long as the anger is not dominating your life, you can experience considerable emotional relief. For example, in a study of incest survivors, all of the participants started the forgiveness therapy with very low scores on forgiving. After about 14 months of working on forgiveness, as the study ended, most of the participants were only at the mid-point of the forgiveness scale. In other words, they began to forgive, accomplished it to some degree, but certainly had not completely forgiven. Yet, their depression left and their self-esteem rose. Forgiving to a degree, but not perfectly, made all the difference in their emotional health (see Freedman and Enright, 1996).
Third, as you forgive, try to see the humanity in your boyfriend. Is he more than the cheating behavior? If so, in what ways? Does he possess what we call “inherent worth,” or unconditional value as a person, not because of what he did, but in spite of this? Do you share a common humanity with him in that both of you are special, unique, and irreplaceable because you are human? This is not done to excuse his behavior. Instead, it is a thought-exercise to see both his humanity and yours.
Fourth, are you willing to bear the pain of the cheating so that you do not pass it on to your brother or sister, to your classmates or co-workers, or even to your boyfriend himself? Bearing the pain shows you that you are strong, in fact, stronger than the cheating and its effects on you.
Fifth, as you forgive, bring justice alongside the forgiving. In other words, ask something of him. What is his view of fidelity? Does he need some counseling help to deal with a weakness of commitment? Does he show remorse and a willingness to change? If so, what is your evidence for this? You need not unconditionally trust him right away. Trust can be earned a little at a time, but be sure not to use this issue of “earned trust” as a weapon or punishment against him. Allow him to redeem himself as he shows you he can be trusted.
Sixth, and finally, know that there is a difference between forgiving and reconciling. If he does not deeply value you as a person, if his actions show self-centeredness, and if this seems like a pattern that he is not willing to change, then you can forgive and not reconcile. Forgiving in this case may not give you this relationship that you had desired, but it will free you of deep resentment and allow you to be ready for a more genuine relationship in which you are open to the true affection and care of another.
Posted in Psychology Today March 18, 2018
Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
Those of you who have the absolute perfect spouse, please raise you hand……anyone?
Now, those of you who are the absolute perfect spouse, please raise your hand…..I see no hands up.
OK, so we have established that we are not perfect and neither is our partner. Yet, we can always improve. Note carefully that I am not suggesting that you read this to improve your partner. I write it to improve you, the reader.
Here is a little exercise that I recommend for any couple. Together, talk out the hurts that you received in your family of origin, where you grew up. Let the other know of your emotional wounds. This exercise is not meant to cast blame on anyone in your family of origin. Instead, the exercise is meant for each of you to deepen your insight into who your partner is. Knowing his wounds is one more dimension of knowing him as a person. As you each identify the wounds from your past, try to see what you, personally, are bringing into the relationship from that past. Try to see what your partner is bringing from the past to your relationship.
Now, together, work on forgiving those from your family of origin who have wounded you. Support one another in the striving to grow in the virtue of forgiveness. The goal is to wipe the resentment-slate clean so that you are not bringing those particular wounds to the breakfast table (and lunch table and dinner table) every day.
Then, when you are finished forgiving those family members from the past, work on forgiving your partner for those wounds brought into your relationship, and at the same time, seek forgiveness from him or her for the woundedness you bring to your relationship. Then, see if the relationship improves. All of this is covered in greater depth in my book, The Forgiving Life.