Overcoming Gaslighting

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Reader’s Question

I am 28 and my boyfriend is also 28. My boyfriend often accuses me of cheating. He went so far as to say he recorded me having sex with someone, then demanded that I tell the truth, and said I was lying. I have never cheated on this man, and the recording, if it even exists, could only be of our ex-roommate and his girlfriend. My boyfriend has accused me of sleeping with every one of his friends, including his father, and he tells everyone I am a whore. He says that I have to give him peace, tell him the truth, and stop lying. He says I need to come clean, that I am a pathological liar, and so on.

During all the time that he was accusing me, he was cheating on me. He cheated on me with five different women. Some were as young as 20, and the roommate I spoke of was 19 years old — a kid he brought to live with us, saying they could help us out with our bills.

He turns things around on me, making me feel like I am trying to make him out to be crazy, and that in reality I am just lying and trying to cover things up. I feel so frustrated, depressed and alone. I would hardly even leave the house, and feel like I had to account for all my time when I did, just to make him see that I couldn’t possibly have cheated.

Some days were good and he would treat me wonderfully. He said he wanted to have children and a family with me. Then he changed his mind, saying that he couldn’t have a future with me if I didn’t “come clean”. But I didn’t lie, and I didn’t cheat.

So now, after all this, I am alone and left feeling like I did something wrong; like I didn’t treat him as I should have, otherwise he wouldn’t think these things about me. I just really want some answers — something to help me cope with all this. It used to affect me in college. Now that he is gone I am doing great in school and I made the dean’s list. Everything seems brighter now that he is gone, but I can’t shake the feelings he left me with.

Is that behavior gaslighting?

Psychologist’s Reply

The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 stage play called Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife that she is insane by manipulating small elements of their environment (like the lights) but insisting that she is mistaken when she points out these changes. Thus, gaslighting has come to mean a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception and sanity. Consequently, based on the information you provided, it does sound like your boyfriend was using a form of it.

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There could be lots of reasons why your boyfriend would want you to doubt yourself, and one of them could be that he wanted you to focus on yourself instead of monitoring his behavior. As such, he could continue his infidelity without having to pay the price with you. Or, it could be that he knew he was cheating, so he simply assumed the same was true for you. People often believe that others are just like them, thus they cannot conceive of different behaviors and thoughts. If that were the case, then he would think you must be doing exactly what he was doing (cheating) but he just couldn’t catch you at it.

However, regardless of your boyfriend’s reasons for making you doubt yourself, the real question here is why you allowed it. As Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission.” There are several things he did that are absolutely unacceptable, including calling you names both to your face and behind your back, and harassing you about lying when you were being honest. Romantic partners should be kind to each other (name calling is definitely not allowed) and trust is an important part of any relationship. If the other person cannot trust, then a reconsideration of the relationship is in order. Moreover, our significant others should be people who support and promote us, versus making us doubt ourselves. Thus, I hope that you take the lessons you learned in this relationship and ensure that your next romantic partner is someone who is worthy of your affection.

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