When Cindy met Tim, she fell for him almost immediately. “He just came in and swept me off my feet,” she says. “He was so confident, handsome and successful that I couldn’t resist.” Within a year, they were married and living in an upscale condo situated in the heart of their city’s urban social scene. Despite Tim’s repeated assertion that he did eventually want kids, he insisted that Cindy use birth control, saying he didn’t think they were ready “just yet.” His usual excuse was that he was still focusing on his career, which (according to him) required long hours, lots of work-related socialization and quite a bit of travel.
Cindy says that during their five years of marriage, she almost never got to interact with Tim, as he supposedly worked very late every night (either at the office or wining and dining high-level clients), usually returning home and crawling into bed long after Cindy fell asleep. She says that whenever she questioned him about his whereabouts, he turned the tables on her, saying, “I’m only working these horrible hours for us, so we can have a great life. Pretty soon we’ll be in a position where I can cut back and we can move to the suburbs and have a family together.” Then he would say that her questions were very stressful for him, and that the stress was holding him back at work, and that he’d really appreciate it if she just trusted him or if she would at least keep her unfounded accusations to herself. Over time, Cindy says that started to feel as if she was the one who was causing all the problems in her relationship.
Then one evening Cindy went for a walk and spotted Tim at a romantic sidewalk café, passionately kissing another woman. Rather than confronting him, she made up an excuse for his behavior, telling herself that it didn’t mean what she thought it did. But the next morning she decided to check out his smartphone before he woke up, and she found an absolute mountain of evidence showing that his infidelity was part of an ongoing pattern, and that he was having sex with multiple women per day. When she confronted Tim, he denied it, despite the evidence. Soon afterward, they divorced.
Cindy says, “In retrospect, the worst part of the whole thing was his ridiculous lying and the fact that I believed all of those lies. I just can’t understand how he bamboozled me the way he did. I almost got violent with him when I found out that he never really wanted kids, and that he’d actually gotten a vasectomy shortly after we were married. Whether he was worried that I’d stop taking my birth control pills or he just didn’t want to wear condoms with the other women, I have no idea. Nor do I care anymore. I just want to make sure that I never get abused like that again.”
Sadly, Cindy’s story is not uncommon when dealing with sexual infidelity and/or addictions (of all types). In short, philanderers and addicts are adept at spinning lies and earnestly insisting they are true, eventually causing their loved ones to question what they (accurately) view as reality. The pop psychology term for this behavior is gaslighting. Essentially, gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse whereby false information is presented to the victim by a loved one (usually a spouse), who insists that the information is true and if the victim thinks otherwise then there is something wrong with the victim. As occurred with Cindy, gaslighting victims typically begin, over time, to doubt their perceptions, memories, judgments and even their sanity.
This behavior is especially common with sexual addiction. Essentially, the betrayed partner has his or her intuition and sense of reality denied, often for years, by the cheating spouse, who insists that he or she really did need to stay out until 3 a.m. for the fifth straight night, and that the spur of the moment trip to the Hamptons really was business-related, and that he or she is not being uncaring, distant or indifferent, and that the worried partner is just being mistrustful and paranoid. In this way, the cheated-on spouse is made to feel, over time, as if his or her emotional instability is the root of the relationship’s problems – even when there is clear evidence to the contrary.
To me, the most unnerving part about gaslighting is that everyone is vulnerable, even emotionally healthy people. This is because gaslighting starts slowly, with plausible lies, and builds gradually over the months and years, until eventually the unknowingly betrayed partner turns the blame inward, thinking that he or she must be the problem. In some ways, this is a bit like placing a live frog in a pot of warm water and setting it to boil. Because the temperature rises slowly, almost imperceptibly, the frog doesn’t realize it’s being cooked. With infidelity (especially when it rises to the level of sexual addiction), cheaters typically start out with lies that are believable, doubly-so because their loved ones want to believe them (to avoid relationship strife and to keep the sense of trust and intimacy intact). But the lies gradually escalate, as does the transfer of blame onto the betrayed partner. In this way, otherwise healthy people (like Cindy) can be unwittingly drawn into an extensive and sometimes outlandish web of deceit.
The Truth Would Be Preferable!
Most of the time for betrayed partners, it’s not the extramarital sex (or the drinking, drugging, gambling, etc.) that causes the most pain; it’s the lying. In other words, the cheater’s gaslighting behaviors are usually far more distressing than the behaviors he or she is attempting to conceal. With Cindy, for instance, the most hateful and hurtful part of her husband’s infidelity wasn’t that he was cheating with dozens (maybe hundreds) of other women, it’s that he said he was working to get ahead so they could start a family together, when in fact he wanted nothing of the sort – along with the facts that she was blamed and shamed for asking what he was doing with all of his time, and that she believed so many of his lies.
To put things another way, gaslighting is a form of betrayal trauma (a concept initially posited by Omar Minwalla, Jerry Goodman, and Sylvia Jackson). Essentially, betrayal traumas are intentional acts of mistreatment, abuse and neglect perpetrated by people in close relation to the victim (spouses, parents, siblings, children, teachers, coaches, etc.) Most of the time, betrayal trauma is chronic in nature, repeated over time. Exacerbating matters is that fact that it usually occurs within a relationship that has positive (perhaps even life-affirming and necessary) elements that may obscure/override the need to escape and/or end the abuse. In Cindy’s case, her healthy desire to be in a loving relationship and to start a family left her vulnerable Tim’s gaslighting. The relationship, for her, had enough positive elements (or potentially positive elements) to keep her hooked, even in the face of mounting evidence.
Eventually, the chronic betrayal trauma of serial sexual infidelity and/or sexual addiction (or any other addiction) and the gaslighting that often accompanies this can lead to stress, self-doubt, lowered self-esteem, depression, anxiety, attachment deficits and other forms of psychological distress. One study looking at the wives of sexually addicted men found that, after learning about their husband’s serial sexual betrayals and the lying that accompanied those acts, a majority of the betrayed spouses experienced symptoms characteristic of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. (This doesn’t mean that they actually had PTSD, just that they displayed one or more of the chronic stress symptoms associated with this disorder.) And why wouldn’t they? After all, as victims of chronic betrayal trauma, it is only natural for them to respond with fear, anger, rage and/or any other strong emotion.
Such is the abuse and the damage that serial cheaters intentionally inflict upon their loved ones.
Sometimes betrayed spouses are resistant to the idea that they might benefit from psychotherapeutic treatment. Generally they feel that it is their partner who caused the damage, their partner who is the addict, and their partner who needs the therapy. That said, betrayed spouses, especially those who’ve experienced gaslighting, often need assistance with managing their (perfectly understandable) emotional liability, along with empathy for how their life has been disrupted and support for moving forward in the healthiest possible way.
Many betrayed spouses choose to remain in their relationship, and there is nothing wrong with this. As stated above, the relationship almost certainly has positive elements, and if those elements outweigh the pain of betrayal then this decision should be supported. That said, betrayed partners need to understand that rebuilding trust will likely take a year or longer – and that’s if the cheater is actively engaged in a course of recovery and healing, and is practicing rigorous honesty as part of that process.
Other betrayed spouses decide, as Cindy did, to move on from the relationship, feeling that the hurt and the loss of trust are simply too much to overcome. This decision should also be supported. In such cases, therapy should focus not on rebuilding the relationship, but on rebuilding trust with self (to reduce the odds of this happening again in a future relationship) and moving forward with a better life. This type of healing places a strong emphasis on learning to recognize and trust one’s instincts, on expressing emotions, on developing a trusted peer support system, and other aspects of self-care. Sometimes it best occurs in a group setting, where the cheated-on spouse can learn that he or she is not the only one who’s ever experienced this type of betrayal and abuse.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and coauthor with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.