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Gaslighting — The Fine Art of Making You Believe You’re Crazy

The late comedian Richard Pryor had a joke that went… His wife walks in on him having sex with another woman. Pryor tells his freaked out wife, hey, she didn’t see anything!  “Who are you going to believe, me — or your lying eyes?”

That pretty much sums up gaslighting — the problem isn’t the bad behavior, the problem is YOU. Your lying eyes.

Gaslighting is more pernicious than just lying. It’s about denying your reality. The term is taken from a play “Gas light” (made famous in a 1944 film version with Ingrid Bergman) where the villain uses a variety of tricks to convince his wife that she is crazy, so that she won’t be believed when she reports strange things that are actually occurring, including the dimming of the gas lamps in the house.

It’s an effective tool of manipulation, especially when used against nice people (otherwise known as codependents), who are all to eager to believe that the problem might be them. Because there is control in that. If the problem is you, well then you can just try harder to fix it. This is great for the cheater, who then engages in a campaign to keep the focus on you, and how you’re falling short of the mark — and off the dimming gas lamps and their secret life.

Cheaters will tell you to doubt your senses, your cell phone bill, and their unexcused absences. They may insinuate that you have a mental illness. That you’re overly sensitive. That you should see someone for that depression. They may even accuse you of cheating. Pretty much anything to throw you off the trail is fair game. The goal is to put the blame on you and  make you doubt your own perceptions.

When affairs are exposed, betrayed people actually feel relief — I’m NOT crazy.

If you’ve been gaslighted, don’t feel bad for having doubted yourself. It’s totally normal to see the world through your own moral lens. Because you wouldn’t cheat, it’s very hard to imagine that your spouse is doing that. You aren’t the stupid one for being duped. Your cheater is an amoral POS for playing on your trust and your willingness to give the people closest to you the benefit of the doubt.

Ask Chump Lady

Got a question for the Chump Lady? Or a submission for the Universal Bullshit Translator? Write to me at [email protected]. Read more about submission guidelines.
  • Yes, the gaslighting is very abusive. I see you are on TAM, too. Have you seen how that Harken Banks fellow’s wife let him twist in the wind for months while she gaslit him. Downright sadistic.
    You know, when my private investigator turned up incontrivertible evidence and phined me with it at 3 in the morning, you would think I would have been devestated.
    Not so, I had a feeling of euphoria, as I had been so worried i was losing my mind due to all the gaslighting. Now, at least I knew I had not gone mad.

    • Arnold, I am so sorry you went through that. I think most betrayed spouses understand this completely — the relief at knowing you aren’t going crazy. That reality can’t be denied or twisted, there’s proof. I have a lot more respect for my gut and intuition after infidelity.

  • It was so strange. You know, there are a couple of funny stories that I think about once in a while’
    The night my PI called me, I went to sleep and slept well for the first time in months. The next morning, my wife, who had come in at about 7 a.m, claiming she had slept on her girlfriend’s couch, in quired if I had seen her wallet, as she could not find it.
    I said no and inquired if she had been anyplace other than her friend’s the previous night.
    She was hostile and curt and said “of coure not, I told you already where I was.”

    So, I looked at her and said,”Well, perhaps it is at 7239 3rd Avenue South, in Richfield.”(the house of her boyfriend).
    At first, she looked like a deer in the headlights. Quickly, however, she regained her composure and launched inot the typical indignation role we often see cheaters assume when busted.
    I marvel at the temerity of someone who can actually muster indignation after being busted cheating. Best defense is an offense for them and the invasion of their privacy trumps their having cheated for years on one.
    This is why I say that they are wired differently. A normal person could , quite simply, not pull this off with a straight face. But, these folks really believe their own crap.

    • Busted!!!

      I don’t think Arnold, that they believe their own crap. I think they truly believe they are smarter and superior to you. They believe that YOU will believe their crap. Because you did in the past. Their Archilles heel is that they refuse to believe that you’re wise to them. That’s why going on the offensive is so important and going NC on them, so they don’t have anything to manipulate you with is so important.

  • I think you are right. When I found Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie in my wife’s backpack after she had been out all night, allegedly at the same girlfriend’s house, I pulled it out and confronted her.
    Got the deer in the headlights looks, momentarily, but, in a flash, she had recovered enough to tell me two different stories about it.
    One wa that it was a swimsuit coverup and they had used the hot tub.
    Then, later(she must have forgotten her first lie) she characterized the flimsy camisoul(sp?) as her normal undergarments.
    In no time, I was apologizing for doubting her.
    I brought the garments to work and showed them to two women friends. They scoffed at what she said and told me “Arnold, that is the type of thing a women wears when she wants to F”.
    You know, in some bizzare way, the whole process of investigaating, piecing things together, observing thigs etc, is sort of fascinating when I look back. Truth really is stranger than fiction. I view that time as sort of surreal. My head was so clouded.
    Anyway, this is a great site. Like it a lot.
    Nice to see Lordmayhem here. I used to communicate with him as Big Liam on TAM.

  • I had actually looked up the phone number to have myself voluntarily committed before sitting down to read the emails my husband gave me permission to read if I did not believe him.

    Well, I wasn’t crazy. He couldn’t understand how apologizing to his girlfriend for sex with his wife might hurt said wife.

    He behaved as though I was the other woman and he was cheating on his girlfriend.

    The final straw for me was when he threatened to kill himself where our six year old could hear him if I didn’t take him back (for the third time), and then announced I was emotionally abusive.

    • I have a story, Could someone tell me if I’m being gas lighted? My husband and myself were separated he was living at my house and i was living at my shop. We had issues to work on and I thought a separation would make him work more on the relationship and see me as a person not a possession.One afternoon he came to my shop and asked me for help . He was working on a house job painting and was behind schedule so he asked me to help him catch up I told him yes . Well I have a antique shop plus I’m a commercial artist? paint signs for other businesses.I gave him 3 days of my help got him caught up and told him that was all I could do and run my business too. well a couple of days go by he stops in and asked me to come take a look at the house now he is working the outside and I told him not tonight but soon , So the following evening i decided to check out the house i came around the corner in my truck and see someone on the back side of the house then as I came up on the front side i see my husband with a paint roller up under the overhang of the house rolling quickly to the back when he saw me .I got out of my truck saw this women come at me with her hand out to shake mine introducing herself. I was polite,,and i said to my husband well Im here to see the house show me around! He says go on in Ill be right there, so i went into the house this women follows me in,, I was a bit startled and she proceeds to tell me all about her and my husband I mean ALL! she followed me room to room telling me my husband wakes up awful early in the am and puts his face in her face,then she follows me into another room and tells me my husband slept with her at her parents house, I looked her up and down and said “Thats Nice” and I abruptly left. I walked by my husband to my truck and he said where you going ! I asked him if that women was on drugs he said no why? I said she talks to much. then I left I came back to my shop I sat down I stood up I walked around saying what just happened to me??I got back into my truck and went back over there the two cars still there but no answer at the door. i knocked hard I yelled no answer I called over and over no answer! a couple of days go by he shows up at my shop like nothing happened. I asked him questions he said he didnt know anything he denied everything she said. I found notes at my house from her I found the very clothes she was wearing when she introduced herself he still denies everything. it looked like she wanted me to fight her to get me put in jail .. I have found out so much since then he blames me when i want to discuss it I tell him I cant go forward. what’s wrong with me……

      • He’s gaslighting you.

        Forget getting all the gory details & truth from them. The reality is the exact gritty bits don’t matter. He’s cheating with this woman, and if he’s cheating with one, he’s probably cheating with more than one.

        *You found the clothes she was wearing when she tried to provoke a confrontation*.

        Sounds like they wanted to create some talking points with teeth amongst their friends—“she’s crazy, look at the police record”, etc.

        This woman wants to get into a pissing contest over someone who cheats and lies? That’s not the calling card of a stable person.

        Get a divorce attorney & a good friend and tell them all of it.

  • Well, well. I have apparently gotten myself banned from the facebook page I posted above. Unfortunate, in that it is one I very much LIKE. And I’ve sent them many referrals from my fb page.

    And there is a reply, also from the admin, that reads, “This picture is apparently from a site called “Chump Lady”. However – I saved it from a google search never landing on the page at all.
    But the triangulating trouble starter who wants Chump Lady to come “take a peek” eerily reminds me of those bullies who targeted me last year with a smear campaign.
    Just stay away please. We have ZERO TIME AND TOLERANCE for shit starters.” WTH is that about?

    Quite frankly, I am dismayed. I was not trying to start any shit in any way, shape, or form. I thought it was pretty neat that they would use your cool artwork, CL. HOWEVER… now that I think about it… Somebody had to make an effort to blur out “CHUMPLADY 2012” in the lower right corner. Right?

  • Chump Lady THANK YOU! I’m so relieved to know I’m not the only one who literally thought I was losing my mind. Everything pointed to the truth, but he just denied and twisted everything to manipulate me into thinking I’m crazy. It WAS a relief when I finally knew the truth because I knew I WASN’T crazy.

    The worst thing though was realizing he was gas lighting our 17 year old daughter and making her feel like she couldn’t tell what was reality either. Thankfully, I had already found your site and was able to help her through initially. She was asking questions that I didn’t think it was healthy for me to answer for her due to the dynamics of the relationship. I encouraged her to talk to a therapist though and she wanted to do that. I’m sooo thankful that she will learn the lesson to trust herself over anyone else long before she is a committed relationship.

    Thank you again for letting me and all of us know that we ARE NOT CRAZY!

  • This is one of the worst things about cheating narcs! And they are so obnoxiously arrogant about it that it makes me sick. The beginning of my nightmare started when my husband was late to his fathers 76th bday party & I used my iPhone app to find him. Turns out he was at one of those Asian suck & fvck places not too far from my in-laws house. I drove over there & parked behind his car & waited for him to come out. When he saw me he came to my car & said that he hurt his back playing golf that day & wanted to get it worked on (um yeah ok-your back must be on your dick right?) I held up iPhone where he could see it & told him I knew back massages were not what this place advertised for. Then he says to me in a shitty tone-so now you are going to start a fight with me? I said nope-I’m taking our son and leaving you. He said he was angry at me for invading his privacy & breaking his trust…….WTF?,! It has been a few months of hell for me because I have nowhere else to go, no job, and he won’t leave but thanks to this website, I’m job interviewing and all the plans are in motion to get me & my son away from this narc piece of shit!,,, in the meantime I have also discovered he has a porn addiction & a secret second phone. Ugh. I thank god every day that I didn’t get any STDs from that asshat

  • your posts are SO SPOT ON! i have this painful memory of a few days before i found out what my husband was up to… and it was me pouring my heart out about how i will work to be a better person for him, will get my life together to not hold him back from what he wants, will go to therapy for my depression…. He twisted all the problems around on me, making me feel paranoid and like I was overreacting. (And then after all of it came out, he claimed that he could not be honest with me because he was afraid of how much I would OVERREACT. this post describes that memory so perfectly.) This is not love. It’s gaslighting, selfishness, manipulation. And I have no time for that, bending to someone else’s will, anymore!!
    Thank you.

  • I didn’t find the truth about my gas lighting for 12 years , and he thinks its funny how long it took . he has purposely created situations to trigger memories of it over all that time when he wanted me under his thumb . basically he took my son out to relatives saying he was there too and came back to the house with his girlfriend – underage then , and proceeded to screw her loudly outside our home . when I opened the door they ran . he tried to have me committed . his mother and family knew and wouldn’t talk to me . if you even think gas lighting is happening to you , be proactive

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