How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life
Reviewed February 19, 2008.
Morgan Road Books, New York, 2007. 269 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008: #2, Relationships
One thing I learned from reading The Script and from talking with many women whose husbands left them: In such a situation, the relationship is going to get overcome by lies. The whole “Script” is based on asserting that it is all the wife’s fault that the husband is cheating.
Many people in broken relationships find that even worse than the betrayal itself is the knowledge that the one you love lied to you over and over and over again. If you are accustomed to believing this person (and you certainly should be), then the lies, which become more and more outrageous, are crazy-making.
When her husband finally admitted his adultery, one friend found that all she could say was, “I thought I was crazy!” Trying to believe lies coming from the one you love–lies designed to shift the blame off of him to you–is demoralizing and devastating.
The Gaslight Effect is a powerful and moving book, showing how emotional manipulation can grow from subtle beginnings–and how to break free.
The book gets its name from the classic movie starring Ingrid Bergman:
Dr. Stern shows us examples of gaslighters in many different situations: lovers, spouses, parents, and bosses can all be gaslighters.
Dr. Stern assures us that even capable, confident women and men fall into the role of gaslightee, much to their own astonishment–if they even realize why they are so demoralized.
Of course, neither of you may be aware of what’s really happening. The gaslighter may genuinely believe every word he tells you or sincerely feel that he’s only saving you from yourself. Remember: He’s being driven by his own needs. Your gaslighter might seem like a strong, powerful man, or he may appear to be an insecure, tantrum-throwing little boy; either way, he feels weak and powerless. To feel powerful and safe, he has to prove that he is right, and he has to get you to agree with him.
It does take two for the Gaslight Effect to happen.
This book is eye-opening. She shows how the gaslighting goes in stages. You begin with disbelief, thinking you’ve misunderstood, or that the gaslighter didn’t really mean it. In the second stage, you start defending yourself.
The third, exhausting, overwhelming stage is depression. “At this point, you are actively trying to prove that your gaslighter is right, because then maybe you could do things his way and finally win his approval.
The third stage is epitomized by the woman apologizing profusely, repeatedly and obsessively to her husband for what he claims is years of bad behavior as she desperately begs him to forgive her–but nothing she can possibly say or do will ever win his forgiveness. However, he honestly comes to believe–and does everything he can to convince her–that she simply did not measure up, and he could not stay married to someone like her. That’s a much more comfortable story than the idea that he betrayed her.
Dr. Stern illuminates the whole process. She lets you understand how it can happen, even between two good people.
But the real power in this book is that she teaches you how to stop the gaslighting.
I like it that Dr. Stern doesn’t simply tell you to leave such a relationship. She helps you figure out if you can end the gaslighting but keep the relationship, or not. Especially crucial is that she shows you that you have the power to stop the gaslighting even if the one doing the gaslighting doesn’t cooperate.
There are some good tips for opting out of gaslighting on small levels as well as on big levels.
I love that illustration, because once my three-year-old son threw a temper tantrum for a full hour in the middle of the night because he wanted to “stay up all night and all day”! That actually caused me much less turmoil than when he had protested against naptime. I felt very ambivalent about the naps–He seemed to be outgrowing the need for them. However, when he told his plan about staying up all night and all day, I didn’t question my grasp of the facts for a moment. Although I wanted him to stop crying so I could go to sleep, I definitely didn’t try to argue with him, and there was no self-doubt whatsoever.
If your husband tells you that you threatened to leave him when you know full well that you never intended any such thing–why debate? Though maybe he misunderstood your words, there is no reason to argue about your motives. You know what they were, and it’s time to simply tell him that you disagree and refuse to engage in debate. Perhaps that would be a good time to picture a raging toddler in your mind. It’s not a time for reasoning.
Dr. Stern gives many strategies and ideas to try to empower you to be able to opt out of arguments which only mire you in gaslighting.
If your friends tell you that you are sticking up for your gaslighter too much, you may have moved into stage 2 of gaslighting, where “instead of starting with your own perspective, you start with his.”
If you’re busy thinking how your jealousy or maybe your lack of understanding helped your husband slip into a “friendship” with someone at work, you’re not in a healthy place. “It may even feel normal to be constantly on the defensive. When your gaslighter overreacts, you no longer wonder, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ Instead, you jump either to placate him or defend yourself.”
Gaslighting isn’t always as serious as cheating. Dr. Stern tells us about many different types of gaslighters, like the “Glamour Gaslighter” who is all charm and sweetness on the surface. But if he gives a gift that you don’t like, or maybe is in the mood for romance when you’re not, suddenly you’re inadequate, you’re the bad person.
Well, I can tell you why: At least some–and maybe all–of the time, your gaslighter is completely involved in proving to himself what a romantic guy he is. That’s his version of the gaslighter’s need to be right. he looks like he’s relating to you, but he’s really only involved with himself. The actions he chooses to fulfill his needs may seem loving, attentive, and satisfying, but his lack of genuine connection with you leaves you feeling lonely.
Another surprising type is the “Good Guy Gaslighter.” “It looks like he’s being cooperative, pleasant, and helpful, but you still end up feeling confused and frustrated.” This type is going through the motions on the outside, but “when he gives in, you feel that it’s not so much because he cares about your feelings as because he wants to prove what a good guy he is. You end up thinking you must be crazy, ungrateful, or incapable of being satisfied, because, after all, he’s such a great guy.”
This category also includes spouses who “give in” and do something they clearly don’t want to do, then hold it over your head.
Again, Dr. Stern offers a solution, and helps you work out how you can do it in your own situation. “Let’s see what happens when you stop worrying about his approval, refuse to idealize your guy, and hold on to your own reality, even in the face of his need always to be right.”
Dr. Stern describes Stage 3 as “When defeat feels normal.”
To me, the worst aspect of Stage 3 is the hopelessness. Like all gaslightees, you have idealized the gaslighter and wish desperately for his approval. But by Stage 3, you’ve pretty much given up on believing that you’ll ever get it. As a result, you think the worst of yourself.
As she describes Stage 3 gaslighting, I still found the Glamour Gaslighter and the Good-Guy Gaslighter the most eye-opening. They sound so nice. Even reading the description it’s hard to see what’s wrong with that approach–yet clearly that’s what makes this behavior so crazy-making.
A Good-Guy Gaslighter is getting his own way while trying to convince his wife that she’s getting her way. Or he’s withholding a part of himself while trying to convince his wife that he’s giving his all and encouraging her to think she’s crazy for wanting more.
As a result, the gaslighted woman feels lonel, confused, and frustrated, but she can’t say why.
Why do we stay? “As long as any part of you believes you need your gaslighter to feel better about yourself, to boost your confidence, or to bolster your sense of who you are in the world, you leave yourself open for gaslighting.”
Another convicting insight:
I was convicted when I read that, because I cling to the idea that I made a vow, and that vow was for better or worse.
But when I read this book, I had to realize that no, I’m not supposed to tolerate anything. Am I trying to get to the place where unfaithfulness and abandonment don’t bother me? No, that’s not a healthy relationship.
My goal should definitely not be to get to a place where lies don’t bother me, or to get to a place where I let my husband tell me what I should be feeling.
This is not about pretending that everything’s fine when it clearly isn’t.
Here’s what we seem to be wishing for, when we stay with a man who is lying and cheating:
The good news is that if we have the courage to leave these gaslighting relationships and look honestly at what they’ve cost us, we can begin to see an end to the terrible fear that’s been haunting us our entire lives–the fear of being unloved and alone…. We can see how full of love the world is–how many loving friends and supportive colleagues and potential life partners might enter our lives to replace that single “soul mate” on whom we’ve depended so heavily.
If we can see that our true selves don’t really depend on another person’s maintenance, that we are no longer the helpless infants or young children who needed so desperately to turn our parents into heroes, then we can finally begin to enjoy the people in our lives for who they are, rather than needing them to be the good parents we never had. We can become our own parents, caring for ourselves, so that our romantic partnerships and work relationships and friendships are based on love and desire, not on need and desperation.
Of course, the important part of the book is where Dr. Stern helps us learn how to turn off the gas.
She doesn’t pretend that this process is easy or quick. However, she does encourage us:
Dr. Stern’s insights help a gaslightee understand how they contributed to the gaslighting. However, she warns us:
Wrong. The goal of this process is not berate yourself, burden yourself with guilt, or apportion blame. Your only goal is to change your situation for the better. In order to do that, you need to know how you, too, are contributing to the problem and what you might do to alter it. But that’s very different from deciding that you “deserve” what’s happening or that you are somehow “to blame” for it.
One of the final steps in shutting off the gas is one that a dear mentor has been trying to drum into me from the beginning of my problems with my husband. “Remember that you can’t control anyone’s opinion–even if you’re right!”
Dr. Stern speaks from personal experience in this section:
Twenty years later, I still think I was right and he was wrong–of course my frustration was justified! But that’s beside the point. What kept me locked into the Gaslight Tango was my inability to accept that my husband was going to see things his own way, regardless of what I did. If he wanted to think I was unreasonable, he would, no matter how hard I argued or how upset I got. As soon as I understood that he–and he alone–had power over his own thoughts, no matter how right I might be, and that he wasn’t going to change, no matter what I said or did, I took a significant step toward freedom.
I found this book inspiring, thought-provoking, eye-opening, and tremendously helpful.
It helped me understand some of the things that went wrong in my marriage.
And it gave me hope that I can break out of some of those old patterns.
Maybe best of all, it reminded me that I am a valuable, worthwhile person totally apart from my romantic relationship. That breaking up a relationship does not diminish me as a person–and may even build me up. That it’s not about me being forgiving enough or loving enough to not be bothered by a bad situation.
This book helps me face life with hope and joy.
Like The Script, it casts the light of truth on a bad situation, motivating change.
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