This is Part 1 of Anne’s interview with Dr. Stern.
Part 1: “I Think My Husband is Gaslighting Me” (this episode)
Part 2: Everything You Need to Know About Gaslighting
“I think my husband is gaslighting me; am I crazy?”
If you’ve asked yourself this question, you’re in the right place.
Dr. Robin Stern, co-founder and director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is on The BTR.ORG Podcast. An expert on gaslighting, Dr. Stern is detailing the three types of gaslighters and the tactics they use to make YOU feel crazy.
Are you ready for the information and validation you need and deserve?
The Glamorous Gaslighter
“He brings glamour into your life, buys you gifts, showers you with love and affection, tells you you’re amazing, makes you feel like the most special person in the world and that the two of you are soulmates. You have something that is so special. Then after he has been missing for a couple of days, or after he won’t answer your questions or has lied to you, and you’re feeling confused and crazy and complaining about that, he will come in and shower you with everything I just said. You’re so amazing. Don’t you know how much I love you?”
– Dr. Robin Stern
Anne shares that the glamorous gaslighter grooms victims by using manipulative kindness – a tactic that lures victims into believing they’re loved and safe.
The Good Guy Gaslighter
“He’s someone who people really like. He’s very accommodating – even in the way he approaches you and talks through things. It’s hard to spot the good guy gaslighter because often you end up getting what you want on the surface.”
– Dr. Robin Stern
The good guy gaslighter uses covert abuse to condition everyone, including the victim, into believing that the victim is the problem, rather than his deceit and manipulation.
The Intimidator Gaslighter
“Somebody who’s a bully, somebody who uses verbal abuse, somebody who might be on the threshold of using physical violence.”
– Dr. Robin Stern
The intimidator gaslighter may seem easier to identify – however, Dr. Stern shares an example of an intimidator gaslighter turning tables on a victim so covertly that Dr. Stern’s team had difficulty identifying the gaslighting in a scenario where the abuser had used physical violence against the victim.
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
Gaslighting is notoriously difficult to identify and seek safety from. BTR.ORG is here for you. Consider attending a BTR.ORG Group Session today as you begin your journey to safety.
Welcome to BTR.org. This is Anne. I am delighted to have Dr. Robin Stern on today’s episode. She is the co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a senior consultant at the Yale New Haven Hospital.
She is a licensed psychoanalyst with 30 years of experience treating individuals, couples and families. She’s the author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life and The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide: Your Personal Journey Toward Healing from Emotional Abuse. Dr. Stern has been a guest on many local and national radio shows and has traveled widely to lecture on emotional intelligence, women in leadership, and relational bullying. Welcome, Dr. Stern.
Dr. Robin Stern (02:12):
Thank you so much, Anne. Thank you so much for having me on this show and for doing this work to help women. I’m delighted.
What is Gaslighting?
Let’s start with the definition of gaslighting since you’re the gaslighting expert.
Dr. Robin Stern (02:25):
So gaslighting is a form of manipulation in a power dynamic where the person more powerful seeks to sow seeds of doubt in the person less powerful in order to lead them to question their memory, their sanity, their character.
What is their intent in doing this?
Dr. Robin Stern (02:46):
Gaslighter’s intent is to, most of the time, destabilize their gaslighting, to cause them to wonder if they’re going crazy, to stay connected to them so that they, the gaslighter, become the source of stability and reality, and undermine the ground they’re standing on.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
Are you familiar with the Allegory of the Cave by Plato?
Dr. Robin Stern (03:13):
Yes, of course.
We use that Allegory of the Cave quite often. And instead of having the fire and then people walking in between the fire with the shadows, we just make the man the fire itself, and he’s holding up these objects. So basically, he wants to be the person who is defining reality. Oh, one other thing, Dr. Stern. I talk in a gender-segregated way because this particular podcast is specifically for women who have been emotionally and psychologically abused by men.
“The pairing that I’ve seen most often is women and men – where the man is the gaslighter”
Dr. Robin Stern (03:45):
And that works for me because even though gaslighting happens in every relationship and any relationship, the pairing that I’ve seen most often is women and men, where the man is the gaslighter and the woman is the gaslightee.
Okay, yeah. So we’ll use those pronouns today. So we give that example quite often of that allegory where he is setting himself up as the person who’s defining reality and keeping her oppressed and keeping her stuck. And that’s interesting that you also say that, that they want to be able to define reality for this person.
Why do Gaslighters Gaslight?
Dr. Robin Stern (04:22):
More than that, I would say that they need to be able to do that in a moment of feeling particularly anxious or triggered or out of control, a gaslighter will go to gaslighting to feel more cohesive, to feel more grounded, to feel more in control. And so it’s not just I want to do this. It’s I need to do this in order for me to feel less fragmented, in order for me to feel whole and in control of the moment and in control of the relationship.
Control. It always comes back to that. I have heard some people say well, everyone gaslights, but just some people are more dangerous than others. Sort of this example that maybe a mom might gaslight a child into like eating a salad. What would be the main difference between telling a child like, of course you like vegetables, when they’re like, I don’t like vegetables. What would be the difference between that and someone who is intentionally deceitful?
“The Core Dynamic of the Relationship”
Dr. Robin Stern (05:25):
Just what you said. There is an intent to deceive in order to maintain control in that power dynamic. And most importantly, it becomes the core dynamic of the relationship. So in a moment, a mom might gaslight a child either to eat a salad or not eat a salad or eat their vegetables. Or my favorite is when you go into a grocery store and you see a mom grab the child’s hand and say you are not hungry. You’re tired. And in that moment, sometimes you’ll see a kid saying, I don’t know. I’m not, I’m not, I’m not, I’m really hungry. And then the mom says it again. I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m tired. So the message is not just vegetables are good for you or you’re not hungry.
“You don’t know what you feel – I know what you feel.”
You’re tired. It’s you don’t know what you feel. I know what you feel. And in that way, it’s similar to more diabolical gaslighting, if you will. But there isn’t an intent to cause harm. There isn’t an intent in the example that you gave. For the most part, I would say there is not an intent when parents are gaslighting. I’m guilty of it myself, I’m sure. My kids who are grown up now will once in a while say, Uh-huh, I think you try to gaslight me. But in the gaslighter or gaslighting dynamic that causes people pain, that causes people to feel like their souls are being destroyed and their identity is being destroyed, there is that intent to harm and to destabilize someone and to lead someone to deny their own reality, even something they actually saw or heard in favor of the lie or the made-up reality of the gaslighter so the gaslighter can control the reality.
What does gaslighting look like?
And what we were talking about before you started to record, just about people who are, for example, having an affair or seeking out porn to gratify themselves, those are things that most men don’t want their partners to know about. So they will lie. And then they will gaslight so that the wife or the partner or girlfriend can be kept off track of what’s really going on. And it’s very common. So, honey, you know, I haven’t been able to reach you when you say you’re working late at the office. Like I’m nervous. What’s going on? Are you seeing someone? Are you doing something? Like what? In our sex life, it’s just not been so… Honey, what’s wrong with you? Why are you so paranoid? And that happens once. And maybe the woman even thinks, you know, I am feeling a little paranoid.
“Maybe he’s right….”
It still doesn’t answer the question of where he was. So, of course, it already threw her off track. But by the second time or the third time or the nth time that he says you’re paranoid when she asks him a question he does not want to answer, the gaslighting is thinking to herself, Maybe he’s right. Maybe that is a problem for me. And maybe that is our problem.
But I’ve been so paranoid that I don’t trust him. If maybe I trusted him more, we would have a better relationship.
Dr. Robin Stern (08:45):
And we wouldn’t have these arguments.
Exactly. When reality is, you wouldn’t get any arguments if he was not having an affair.
Dr. Robin Stern (08:54):
But you don’t know that. Yeah.
“A closed loop”
Dr. Robin Stern (08:57):
And one case in particular that I’m thinking about, one man reported to me by a woman who told his wife that it was her fault when she finally found out that he was having the affair. He said, Well, of course, I’m having an affair because you won’t travel with me on my business trips. And my patient, who was devastated, could not believe, she couldn’t convince me that he was right. Because, of course, it becomes a closed loop. Like if she traveled with him, he wouldn’t be having the affair. So isn’t it her fault? Because she didn’t travel with him.
It’s a closed loop. And it’s also a very dangerous loop. Because let’s say she does start traveling with him. And then he might say, Well, when you travel with me, you need to be at the hotel right at eight when I get back. And we need to have sex that night. Right? And she’s like, Well, wait a minute. We got in a fight. I don’t really want to have sex with you. He might be like, Well, even though you travel with me, now that you’re not having sex with me on this trip, no, they’re always going to move the flag poles.
Dr. Robin Stern (10:03): Right.
The Three Types of Gaslighters
So tell me about the three types of gaslighters.
Dr. Robin Stern (10:06):
Three types of gaslighters that I identified in my book or in my 30 years and then wrote about in my book the glamour gaslighter who is like it sounds but brings glamour into your life, buys you gifts, showers you with love and affection, tells you you’re amazing, makes you feel like the most special person in the world. And that the two of you are soulmates. You have something that is so special. And after he has gaslighted you, after he has been missing for a couple of days, or after he won’t answer your questions or has lied to you, and you’re feeling confused and crazy and complaining about that, he will come in and shower you with everything I just said. How amazing you are. Don’t you know how much I love you?
Oh my goodness. Don’t focus on that. Tonight we’re going to the theater. We’re going out for dinner. I love you. This is candlelight. This is magic for us. Any way that he can use love with a capital L and romance and his big personality to distract you from what’s just happened. So what you’re focusing on then when you look at the picture of your lover, your husband, your boyfriend, you’re focusing on like yeah, he did that. And that totally sucks. But he told me the most special person he’s ever met. And he adores me. And I can feel our connection. That connection’s amazing. So I’m just going to move on from this.
The Glamorous Gaslighters Grooms Victims
We call that grooming too. That’s the grooming part of the abuse.
Dr. Robin Stern (11:45):
Of course. Like getting into a cult, right?
Right, yeah. Because I say the word grooming quite a bit. But I never really thought of it as gaslighting. It’s really interesting because gaslighting is such the perfect word for when you feel like you’re losing touch with reality. But it also covers grooming and then it covers emotional and psychological abuse and all different kinds of things. So it’s an interesting term because it overlaps all kinds of other things that are the same thing but have different names.
Gaslighting keeps victims dependent on abusers
Dr. Robin Stern (12:15):
You know, people are not born gaslighters. But it works. And so some people who are not necessarily coming to gaslighting for diabolical reasons or because they were they want to harm somebody else find out when they happen into it that it works. It’s very effective in keeping somebody connected to you and keeping someone dependent on you and looking to you for a standard setting for a reality setting because when you are feeling anxious and you don’t know what reality is if you’re with somebody who’s telling you that they are certain of what reality is over time that’s where you’re going. The second category or type of gaslighter is the good guy gaslighter. So if that good guy gaslighter were right here with us now he would be affable and pleasant.
The Good Guy Gaslighter
And he’s someone who people really like. He’s very accommodating and very even in the way he approaches you and talks through things. And hard to spot the good guy gaslighter because often you end up getting what you want on the surface like for example if the woman decides, give her a name call her Janine, Janine decides she wants to visit her family for the weekend and her husband Doug doesn’t want to go and says you know I really don’t want to go and I don’t know why you want to go – we never really have a good time and they start like that. But he’s very pleasant and they continue on the conversation so that each one of them has some room to talk about what they think and what they feel about going to visit.
And the conversation is going on for hours and she’s exhausted from it. She said you know I just don’t care I just want to go. And so finally he says, alright, you know we’re just going to go. They go and while they’re there he’s basically pouting and not engaging in conversation. And then in the car ride home he’s basically punishing her and telling her they didn’t really want us to be there and it wasn’t fun anyway and it was basically miserable but at night when she gets into bed and she’s exhausted and doesn’t want to be intimate he says you know I’m just not feeling great about this week and he said I don’t understand what’s your problem you got exactly what you wanted.
This is how the “Good Guy” makes you feel crazy
So he’s manipulating her into feeling like what is wrong with me. He’s right. I got to go. Never mind that the conversation about whether they should go or whether she’s wanted or whether it will be good lasted so long that she was depleted and exhausted never mind that he punished her when they were there he was there and on the way home. But there’s something wrong with her for complaining.
So frustrating, right? Yes.
Dr. Robin Stern (15:19):
And then you say to your friends I don’t know what’s wrong with me because he does everything I want. You know I get my way. But I’m just not happy.
The Intimidator Gaslighter
And then of course there’s the intimidator gaslighter. And the intimidator gaslighter is just as it says. Somebody who’s a bully, somebody who uses verbal abuse. Somebody who might be on the threshold of using physical violence. And like in the example I was sharing earlier somebody came to my office and said, I don’t know if I’m being abused Dr. Stern, because I came home late from work and my husband doesn’t like it when I come home late. And so he feels abused and he tells me I’m abusing him. And so then when he puts his hand around my throat or he is physically violent with me and he says that he’s not abusing me during that time. He’s just reacting to my abuse.
It doesn’t matter if he “feels abused” – get yourself to safety ASAP
Even without the physical assault just like yelling at you or trapping you somewhere or like berating you or something like that.
Dr. Robin Stern (16:21):
Berating you, telling you you’re a moron, more abusing and being critical and screaming and again cornering you perhaps. And I was studying at that time and we were studying subjectivity and reality. And several of the people in my class were talking about how you can’t tell someone that they’re not being abusive. Like I couldn’t tell someone they said that they’re not being abusive because the reality was that the guy felt abused. And so she maybe was abusing him because he felt abused. So we got caught up in this very like high level conversation about it. And I ended up saying in class and along with several of my colleagues supporting me. Well, whatever you want to call it, this woman has to move out of that house because she’s in danger.
“Psychological abusers feel oppressed when they can’t do what they want with impunity”
And you can figure out what it means to have abuse that you’re not feeling like you’re abusing somebody, somebody feels abused and you can have that conversation. But if you’re saying that she ought to stay till they figure it out, which is what I was hearing from them, I just don’t agree. Maybe this is a confusing example but I think that there’s something important about that people will try to convince you of realities that may be very different than the way you see the world.
Well, that are frankly false. They’ll say well, I’m not having sex with you because you’re emotionally abusive, for example. The man might say that to the wife. She might be like, why aren’t we having sex? Are you having an affair? Right? Or why aren’t we having sex? Is it because you’re looking at porn and masturbating to porn? And he’ll be like no, it’s because you’re emotionally abusive to me. He might say something like that, which is just actually not true. Like she isn’t. She’s asking questions, she’s curious. And she’s wondering what’s going on. She genuinely cares. She’s trying to figure it out. We have found that these types of psychological abusers, they feel oppressed when they can’t do what they want with impunity.
In He Said/She Said Situations
It actually does feel oppressive to them because they’re like she’s stopping me from soliciting prostitutes or she’s stopping me from doing this. And it feels like she’s oppressing me, not realizing that he is actually oppressing her and that the reversal of victim and perpetrator roles that I would say are one of the favorite things of perpetrators to go to when they’re trying to defend themselves is gaslighting in and of itself. It’s also abuse in and of itself. So when people listen to these to people and they’re like we don’t know who the abuser is because she says he’s abusive and he says she’s abusive and we can’t figure it out. I want to say well she’s telling the truth she is being abused and his accusations that she is abusive are abuse.
They are gaslighting and he’s doing it to destabilize the situation like you talked about before.
“There’s no question who the abuser is and who the target is”
Dr. Robin Stern (19:40):
Absolutely. It is very interesting to get into a conversation about reality. But it has nothing to do with what’s going on in the room very often. It reminds me of when I was in high school and people would sit around at the end of the party and people would say, what do you think reality is? And they would have these conversations that could wind in and out and then go on for hours. But in a situation where you can’t confront the person you’re living with because it will result in abuse or you can’t move out of the lane that he has set up for you because he will decide it’s abuse and begin to abuse you about it. There’s no question who the abuser is and who the target is.
When abusive men accuse their wives of being abusive
Yeah. To go back to your example which I think is interesting it’s also what they’re trying to achieve. So for example a lot of times on this podcast I will get men who will write bad reviews or angry emails and they’ll say two contradictory things. They’ll say number one, I am not the abuser. My wife is and you convinced her that I’m abusive when I’m not. And she’s terrible and awful and she lies. And they’ll say all these terrible things about her. Then they’ll say and it’s your fault that our marriage is over. Like you were the one that caused this to happen. And I wanna say wait a minute, and same thing to the people that you were having that discussion with at the school. It’s like hold on a minute. If he genuinely does think that she is abusing him rather than physically intimidate her or abuse her back wouldn’t he want to get to safety?
Wouldn’t he want to move away? But then they lose control. So they don’t want to move away. They want to stay close. And that’s also an indicator that like no. The end result that you want is to be able to maintain control whereas the end result that she wants is safety. Those are two totally different things.
What do you DO with your feelings?
Dr. Robin Stern (21:42):
I think that’s a very important point. And in the work that I do at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and in all of our work we encourage people to give themselves and others permission to feel. It’s also the name of my colleague’s book. But in permission to feel it’s very important that you allow all of your feelings and that you don’t judge the feelings you’re having. So maybe it is true that in that moment maybe we would say to the abuser, what are your feelings? But then importantly what you do with your feelings is another story. So we want people to have their feelings. We want people to own when they feel unpleasant things as well as when they feel pleasant things and be able to explore all of it. But it’s what you do about your feelings and with your feelings and in a relationship how you bring your feelings in and those moments of co-regulating that really is what we’re talking about.
Dr. Stern and I are going to pause the conversation here and she is going to join me again next week. So stay tuned.