Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and emotional abuse. The gaslighter avoids responsibility for their toxic behavior by lying and denying and making you question facts, your memory, and your feelings.” Karen Salmansohn
In this article, we will discuss gaslighting and cognitive dissonance in relationships.
Gaslighting is a toxic behavior that is used by abusers to dominate and gain control. It is mental and emotional abuse, and occurs when a victim is made to question their own reality and their understanding of a situation.
Cognitive dissonance is when there is conflict between a person’s beliefs, thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. It is the psychological discomfort felt when these facets of identity are incompatible with each other. It could be a disconnect between what you know to be true, and what you are told is true. Or, it could be a disconnect between what you are told to feel and how you actually feel. It can happen when you are forced to do something or behave in a way that goes against your values or your belief system.
So, in a relationship, cognitive dissonance is when what we know and think about the relationship does not match with the way we behave – whether out of expectation or force – with our partner. In abusive relationships, the dissonance can become the default state.
Gaslighting and Adultery
When one partner cheats, it causes a tsunami of troubling feelings for the other. The partner who has been betrayed feels angry, hurt, and confused. Their self-esteem will take a hit and they will begin to question everything about their relationship and their life with their partner.
A gaslighting partner will act out all or some of the following patterns when confronted with the affair: deny it, blame it on their partner, accuse their partner of cheating, accuse their partner of making things up, tell their victim they can’t be trusted, give such convoluted responses that their partner gives up the discussion.
Now imagine that you have been cheated on, yet you have to stay in the relationship for any number of reasons. If you love your partner and don’t want to leave, there is a mismatch between your heart and your logic. You may not be able to leave because you are financially dependent, or for the sake of the children, or for health reasons, etc. There is conflict between what you feel and how you must live, which causes cognitive dissonance.
Gaslighting and Abusive Dynamics
Gaslighting can also occur around incidents of abuse. One partner may be mentally or verbally abusive towards the other. When the victim approaches their abuser to talk to them about it, the abuser has a different version of what happened. They deny, forget, or diminish the event. They may tell the victim that they are overreacting, it did not happen the way they think it did. The abuser will tell the victim that it is their fault, the victim ‘made them’ behave in that way, or that the victim brought the abuse on themselves. There is a clash between what the victim is being told about their experience and what really happened to them.
When the abuser’s words and actions do not match, it creates disorientation in the victim. Their perception of and feeling for their partner becomes conflicted. In some cases, the abuser may go through periods in which they are loving and caring towards their partner. Then an abusive incident occurs, creating cognitive dissonance in the victim. How can someone who has told you they love you and will do anything for you one day, abuse you the next? Another example is when the abusive partner tells you that you are the most important person in their life, that you are their priority. But they continue to neglect you and behave in ways that indicate otherwise. The contradiction inherent in this situation will be highly disruptive to your peace of mind.
Techniques Gaslighters Use to Manipulate
- They always manage to put you in the wrong
- Project their own bad behavior onto you, and blame you
- Tell you others around you are against you or are lying
- Twist things around, insist that their version of events is correct
- Make you think that they are the only one with a proper understanding of the situation
- Say one thing, but behave in a way that contradicts their words
There are certain phrases gaslighters use to confuse and control:
“You never understand.”
“You always twist things around.”
“I was doing what was best for you/us.”
“You need help.”
“I can’t handle the way you behave.”
“Everyone agrees with me.”
Gaslighting and Mental Health
If you are experiencing gaslighting, it can have a detrimental effect on your mental health. You will experience self-doubt, and constantly second guess what you do and say. This will impact your ability to make decisions. The confidence you once had and your belief in yourself will gradually wear away. Many people feel powerless and unable to effect change in their life. This lack of control can make you feel stuck or trapped.
Gaslighting is a continuous denial of someone’s reality and experience. This can cause anxiety for the victim. When you are always wrongfooted, you begin to question your capabilities. Life begins to seem increasingly unpredictable, and you start to operate from a place of fear. Insecurity about yourself, your intelligence, your relationships and your identity may arise. You lose faith in your judgment, your responses, and your opinions. With this loss of faith comes the loss of trust in yourself. Eventually it seems like the only person you can trust is the one who is gaslighting you.
Victims of gaslighting have a high risk for developing depression. They may lose interest in their home and in interacting with others. They give up efforts toward meaningful conversation and communication with their abuser. Everything has become so confusing and jumbled up that they stop trying to make sense of it. Once the cycle of gaslighting has been established, a person undergoing this kind of psychological coercion may even start to question their sanity.
Dealing with gaslighting and the cognitive dissonance it creates is exhausting. When you are in the midst of it, it is hard to explain to others what you are going through. How can you describe something that has enveloped you and caused a crisis of heart and mind? It is as if your words and perceptions have been taken from you and replaced with confusion and fog. You have been made to believe what the gaslighter wants you to believe. Their version of reality has been forced on you.
Gaslighting is abuse that invalidates a person’s entire being. It strips you of your uniqueness, your zest for life and the things that make you so wonderfully you. Victims of gaslighting can develop mental health issues and difficulties in daily functioning. It is traumatic and the damage it does ripples out into every area of your life. However, with help and support, you can heal and reclaim yourself. Therapy gives people the mental, emotional and physical space they need to work through their trauma. It can aid you in rebuilding the emotional and mental infrastructure that gaslighting has torn down.
If you are struggling with any of the issues highlighted in this article, you may benefit from therapeutic support. Trust Mental Health has experienced therapists from diverse backgrounds that can speak multiple languages. Reach out and let us help you find peace and clarity.