Surviving Gaslighting: Part 1

Last week we looked at the tie in between porn/sex addiction and domestic violence. Over the next several weeks PSA (partner of sex addict) therapist, MJ Denis, will explain more about a form of manipulation (sometimes emotional abuse) many partners of sex addicts are familiar with: gaslighting.


Surviving Gaslighting: Know Your Gaslighter

by MJ Denis, LPC, LMFT Associate, CST, CCPS

Gaslighting occurs when one person attempts to influence a second person’s thinking by causing the recipient, the gaslightee, to doubt the validity of her experience, judgments or perceptions. This behavior causes the person being gaslighted to become confused about reality, and in her confusion, the gaslightee may be more easily controlled or manipulated by the gaslighter.

The term "Gaslighting" was coined by Dr. Robin Stern in her book, The Gaslight Effect,1 and was based on the 1944 movie, Gaslight. In the movie, Ingrid Bergman plays Paula, a young, vulnerable singer who marries Gregory, a charismatic and mysterious older man. Her husband soon begins to secretly play a series of frightening tricks on her, which he follows up with accusations she is forgetting and imagining things. When Paula reports the dimming of the gaslights, Gregory adamantly refutes her. He doesn’t want her to know the gaslights dim each time he turns on the gaslights during his visits to the attic to look for hidden valuables. His attempts to drive Paula insane, to take her inheritance, results in the deterioration of her mental state as she becomes more and more confused by Gregory’s deceptions. This experience is what we call the "gaslight effect."

What is Gaslighting and Who Does It?

Dr. Stern recognizes that people who gaslight others perform certain behaviors intended to distort another’s reality. Gaslighting is the gaslighter’s attempt to control the feelings, thoughts, and behavior of the other person. This type of persuasion increases self-doubt in the recipient until eventually the gaslightee believes everything the gaslighter is saying, no matter how ridiculous it is.

Gaslighting can be done by anyone, male or female, of any age, any race or ethnicity. It may be carried out overtly or covertly. Overt gaslighting happens when the gaslighter knows he is gaslighting and he does so purposefully. Covert gaslighting happens when the Gaslighter has some awareness that by acting in a certain way, the gaslightee will become confused and more easily manipulated. Often gaslighters use gaslighting as a diversionary tactic.

Knowing what type of gaslighter we are in relationship with can help us increase our resilience to gaslighting. According to Dr. Stern, there are three types of gaslighters: the "glamour" gaslighter, the "good guy" gaslighter, and the "intimidator" gaslighter.

Glamour Gaslighter

A glamour gaslighter uses romance to create confusion in his partner. He may look like the most romantic guy in the world, but he uses romance as a diversionary tactic. A glamour gaslighter can be generous and giving, but may periodically either explode and have temper tantrums, or withdraw and punish by employing the silent treatment. Although the glamour gaslighter might not blame his partner directly, gaslightees may come away from interactions with this type of gaslighter having apologized and feeling as though something was their fault, even if they are unsure what they did wrong.

Glamour gaslighters can be the most difficult gaslighters to identify because they are able to convince everyone the problem lies with the gaslightee. Take for example the story of Charles and Anne. From the moment Charles met Anne, he showered her with compliments and flattery. He texted Anne numerous times a day and pursued her relentlessly.

On the night of their first date, Charles neglected to show up at the designated time to pick up Anne. He stopped responding to her texts and didn’t answer her calls for three days. On the fourth day Charles showed up on Anne’s doorstep with a bouquet of flowers and apologized profusely for his absence despite never telling Anne why he stood her up or disappeared. Instead he spoke of the fabulous date he had planned for them the next weekend at the expensive restaurant Anne longed to visit.

Although Anne was angry Charles had disrespected her, she became confused by his promises of fun and attention. His gaslighting caused her to stop focusing on his behavior and instead shifted the focus to romance.


Next week, MJ will tell us about two other types of gaslighters: the "good guy" gaslighter and the "intimidator" gaslighter.

  1. Stern, R. The Gaslight Effect. New York: Morgan Road Books, 2007

MJ Denis is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Sex Therapist based in Austin, Texas. MJ’s path has led her to specialize in areas involving unhealthy boundaries, domestic violence, sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, sexual addiction and infidelity. She uses her certification as a Certified Clinical Partner Specialist to help partners of sex addicts heal from the trauma of betrayal.