We are offering a workshop on the ethics of grief on Friday, Dec. 4, from 9 a.m. till noon. We will be exploring proper responses to grieving clients. Most therapists accept the dictum that “There is no wrong way to grieve,” but we will look at extreme cases such as homicide and self-destruction and search for the “bright line” between good and bad grief. We will then ask whether “bad grief” is unethical or merely unhealthy. We will examine the ethical response to “bad grief” and explore whether men and women should respond to grief differently.
The workshop is open to anyone, but we offer 3 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to Licensed Professional Counselors, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, and Licensed Clinical Social Workers.
The cost is $25.00.
For more information, write firstname.lastname@example.org
In the last few years, it seems the term “gas lighting” has become nearly ubiquitous. The term was first used in the 1950s to mean some kind of emotional manipulation, but more specifically to mean making someone doubt his or her own sanity by repeatedly presenting a false narrative about events within the relationship. At least one person, (you can see Alfred MacDonald’s blog here), claims that gaslighting actually requires someone to tell an outright lie in order to convince someone their memory or perception is faulty. Others believe the manipulation can be more subtle, and still others use the term so loosely that almost everyone is guilty of gaslighting (e.g., telling someone they are over-reacting to a minor event or episode).
I don’t think anyone has provided strict diagnostic criteria for gaslighting, and I won’t try, but I think we can agree that it does involve manipulating someone to question whether their perceptions are accurate. It is a form of abuse and a means of exercising control. When one person complains of some behavior, the other partner may question it by saying, “I think you’ve been working too much—that never happened.” Or they may say, “Did you remember your meds this morning?” Or they may say, with an air of concern, “Honey, that didn’t happen. Do you think it is time to see a psychiatrist or something?”
This type of manipulation can be extremely subtle. We all over-react sometimes, and who can claim to have a perfect memory? With any given instance, we may doubt our memory or perception. When you start carrying around a voice recorder or considering keeping security cameras in your home just to verify your account of things, though, you are either a victim of gaslighting or you really are suffering from some severe psychosis. If you are psychotic, you are probably having more than relationship problems, so if you do all right around other people, you probably live with an abusive partner.
If you are lucky, your friends, family, and coworkers can help assure you that your memory and grip on reality are firm; unless, of course, your abuser has gotten to them first. In early stages, her or his campaign against you may appear to be genuine concern. He or she may tell close friends, “I’m worried about my husband. He never seems happy anymore.” Or, the abuser may become more assertive: “I can’t get him to go to a doctor. If you see him, maybe you can find out why he is so reluctant.” By making such comments, the abuser raises suspicion that you are not in your right mind, and you may also begin to doubt whether you are in your right mind.”
As things progress, the abuser may begin to portray herself or himself as the victim, saying things like, “She keeps track of everything I do,” or “She controls all the finances. I don’t even know how much money is in the bank.”
A blog on AngieMedia (attributed only to Rob) describes how far abusers sometimes go: “An abuser who is using gaslighting on you is also likely to behave similarly with others to make them dislike you. This is a common attack used during what can become tremendously damaging distortion campaigns that these abusers will use against people close to them to maintain control and a sense of superiority. Such abusers may report you to police to get you falsely arrested and perhaps prosecuted for absolutely no reason other than they want to be in control of you and how others perceive you. They are likely to make remarks to their friends, family, neighbors, and others to “prove” they are being abused, often behind your back for years until you learn what they have been doing. “
The abuser may then come back to you and say, perhaps accurately, “All my friends think you are a bully.” Or, “Your Mom thinks you need to see a psychiatrist.” Living in an intentionally distorted reality, it becomes impossible to verify or even corroborate claims about your mental state, others opinions of you, or what has been said about you. Your alleged mental breakdown may, indeed, be imminent. Under the stress of this type of relationship, you are likely to doubt yourself, question the loyalty of your friends and family, and withdraw from all social contact. Once you are isolated, you are under the control of your abuser. You will no longer have access to the solid moorings of reality, and will drift in a cloud of confusion as you become more depressed, anxious, and desperate.
If you are doubting yourself, it helps to hear of the experiences of others. If you have survived this type of abuse, please help others by sharing your story. For example, I suspect Princess Diana helped many people when she described her marriage in her famous BBC Panarama interview:
DIANA: Well, people were – when I say people I mean friends, on my husband’s side – were indicating that I was again unstable, sick, and should be put in a home of some sort in order to get better. I was almost an embarrassment.
BASHIR: Do you think he really thought that?
DIANA: Well, there’s no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it.
BASHIR: So you were isolated?
DIANA: Uh,uh, very much so.
This is how people become trapped in toxic and destructive relationships. The only way out, really, is to find others who can verify your sanity and help you see the campaign against you for what it is. This is why it is important for survivors to speak up about their experiences. When people speak about what happened to them, victims who feel trapped may recognize the techniques of the gaslighter, and may gain some strength.
Finally, when you encounter others who seem unhappy in a relationship who may feel trapped, try to remember they may be victims of a gaslighting campaign. Things may not be as they seem. Your patience and understanding may save a life.
When Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, he never bothered to make mention of the race or religion of any of the characters, except one. Throughout most of the novel, Fagin is referred to as “The Jew” with occasional variations on the theme. You may think his choice of words was simply standard at the time, but he was challenged on this choice. When criticized, he seemed surprised, and said, “It unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that the class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew”. He said he wasn’t biased against the Jews but was merely reflecting a simple truth about the nature of certain criminals. He even exclaimed, “I have no feeling towards the Jews but a friendly one. I always speak well of them, whether in public or private, and bear my testimony (as I ought to do) to their perfect good faith in such transactions as I have ever had with them…”
He really couldn’t see that any of this was his fault, but he eventually did change his ways. He did have actual Jewish friends, and as hard as it was for him to see the problem, he didn’t want to offend them. He explained, “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard and to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.” In the last chapters of the book and in subsequent readings, he deleted the offending appellation in the way you might finally discard a favored but hopelessly stained garment.
Dickens wasn’t unique by any means. We all have biases that we feel certain are nothing but statements of fact, supported by our frequent observations. In my interactions with therapists, I often hear the phrase “usually the man” sprinkling their descriptions of couples with marriage difficulties. Something like this: “When one partner has difficult expressing emotion (usually the man) . . .).” Or, “When one partner struggles with monogamy (usually the man . . .). Or, “When one person is addicted to porn (usually the man . . .). I’ve asked a few therapists about this construction, and the response is always some variation of, “What am I supposed to say when I’ve observed this time after time in my office?”
The fact is, of course, when we believe something is true, we tend only to take note of that occurrence in our observations. Even when we are aware of our own confirmation bias, it is exceedingly difficult to diagnose our own blind spots.
Dr. Gerald Stein, listing several kinds of unhealthy sexual activities, describes “selfish sex” as “a cousin to Obligatory Sex. However, in this example, it is usually the man who satisfies himself quickly, not out of duty, but simply because his needs are all that matter to him.” Note that it is usually the woman who has sex out of a sense of obligation, or so Dr. Stein believes.
In a paper by Barry McCarthy on marital sex, he says, “A realistic expectation is forty to fifty percent of sexual experiences will be satisfying for both people, twenty to twenty-five percent are very good for one partner (usually the man) and good for the other.” He begins the paragraph by saying the data is empirical, but only cites a study on sexual dysfunction that occurs before the statistics about satisfaction, which is not cited. I’m sure his experience confirms his claims to his satisfaction.
An article on domestic violence in Psychology Today by Neil S. Jacobson and John M. Gottman says, “In many unhappy marriages, when one partner (usually the woman) requests change, the other one (usually the man) resists change, and eventually the woman’s requests become demands, and the man’s avoidance becomes withdrawal.” Again, if asked, I am sure these therapists/researchers would insist that their statements are supported by many hours of clinical observation, and they probably are; however, it is likely that men who are victims of domestic violence are much less inclined to seek therapy because they know they will not be taken seriously as victims or because they also refuse to see themselves as victims.
I could go on and on with examples, but you can do it yourself. If you want to see how pervasive this phrase is, just Google “psychotherapy” and “usually the man” or “marriage counseling” and “usually the man.” I promise, you will have plenty of examples.
What I would like to point out is that these “empirical” claims about what men do in relationships always conform to negative stereotypes about men. Men are selfish lovers. Men are abusive partners. Men are kinky. Men are more easily satisfied sexually than women. This thinking eliminates the opportunity for men to be abused, neglected, unloved, and unfulfilled. It denies women the opportunity to be the partner who is more sexual, more liberated, or more powerful. I once sat through a panel discussion by three male therapists, and one of them admitted that his sympathy just naturally went to the women when he saw heterosexual couples.
A couple of things to consider:
First, it may be correct that in some cases men are more likely to exhibit certain behaviors or attributes than women, but assuming they do makes it extremely difficult for you to see the men who are atypical. Second, it may be that men and women are not as you perceive them to be at all. Rather than interpreting data as it appears, you may be constructing data from your own biases.
A final note:
If you wonder whether your statements may reflect a bias or stereotype, try the Dickens test: Substitute “usually the Jew” or other racial term for “usually the man,” and see how it sounds. If you aren’t comfortable with the racial term, consider revising both your words and your expectations of your clients.