It Looks Like “Gaslighting,” but It’s NOT: Introducing Reflection Aggression.

If you are someone who finds value in educating yourself on mental health and relational issues, then you have likely heard of the phenomenon commonly referred to as “gaslighting.”

Cleverly named after the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film, Gaslight, “gaslighting” is a form of psychological control where one spouse manipulates the other into not trusting their own perceptions of reality. Partners that gaslight often do so in an effort to protect a secret by keeping their suspicious spouse or partner off their trail. After all, what better way to keep your spouse off your scent than to convince her that she* is the crazy one?!

[*Note: Although I do recognize that people of all genders can experience both addiction and betrayal, for reasons of convenience and flow, I will be referring to certain parties in gender specific terms. The “injured spouse/partner” will be recognized as female and the “addict/unfaithful partner” will be recognized as male.]

This disturbing form of manipulation does not limit itself to the sociopaths and psychopaths of the world. It may or may not surprise you that gaslighting is a common experience in relationships where addiction is present. Therefore, as you can imagine, gaslighting is an extremely common phenomenon experienced by partners of sex addicts. Thus, in sex addiction recovery, it is imperative for couples to address the injuries as a result of gaslighting behavior and other damaging forms of manipulation.

“Is it possible that my partner is gaslighting me?”

Every sex addict

In my work as a clinician and facilitator of sex addiction treatment and betrayal trauma recovery, this is one of the most common questions asked by sex addicts – not right away though. Usually, in the beginning stages of recovery, the sex addict finds that he is highly motivated to work a recovery program due to the experience of intense guilt and shame from seeing the pain and suffering his behavior has caused his partner [and sometimes family]. As a result, with the guidance of a recovery professional, the sex addict is willing to jump through all kinds of hoops to ease the suffering of the injured partner in effort to move toward healing. Thus, one of the main requests, or should I say “demands,” made by the injured partner is, Go get help! Abracadabra! And just like that, the addict begins his recovery journey. Okay, okay…’s not necessarily that clean, but you get the picture.

After several weeks, and sometimes months, of hard work in recovery, the addict starts to experience a strange phenomenon wherein his partner seems to resist his recovery efforts and even may become downright hostile toward him. We explain to the addict that this is normal human behavior. It’s human nature to mistrust new experiences and behaviors especially when they are coming from someone who has historically and chronically lied to us. You can imagine how amplified this form of skepticism can be for the injured partner when experiencing new behavior and energy from the person who wounded them.  Although this skepticism is at times expressed in anger by the injured partner, reflection aggression has not yet entered the picture.

At this stage of recovery, the injured partner is likely experiencing a different phenomenon that my colleague and I have termed,  Transitional Distrust. Transitional distrust is something that recovering couples experience when learning to trust new processes in the new relationship they are building.  This phenomenon is discussed with more detail in a blog I co-authored called, “What Is Transitional Distrust in Betrayal Trauma Recovery?” However, the statement below captures the conundrum of transitional distrust in partners of sex addicts.

“I don’t know what to think. Maybe he is ‘doing recovery’ and becoming the person I deserve to be with. Or….maybe he has mastered the art of deception and figured out a way to fool me without leaving behind any breadcrumbs!”

This fear might seem a bit embellished to you, but let me assure you, it is not! One difficult reality check for partners of addicts is that when it comes to facing what people are truly capable of – all bets are off! The injured partner abruptly realizes that the expression, “My partner would NEVER do that,” is no longer a truth in their new reality. They intuitively know that adopting such philosophies in their new reality would be back-sliding into denial and thereby setting themselves up for more pain and heartache.  Therefore, it makes sense that partners impacted by betrayal trauma can’t allow themselves to blindly trust the recovery efforts of their unfaithful partners, which is why addicts experience the initial pushback as they advance in recovery.  As the new relationship, and the trust therein, transitions, partners will often test its legitimacy through skepticism, anger, and many other unpleasant behaviors and feelings.  But, again, this is not reflection aggression; that comes later.

“Remember, you’re the one that did this to us! You’re the one that did this to me!”

These words typically are not unfamiliar to the sex addict as he advances in his own recovery. His wounded partner has said these words (or something similar) many times over in the days and weeks following the traumatic discovery of his infidelity and secrecy. As a result of intense shame and guilt, the addict often has this same message playing on a continuous loop inside his own head. More often than not, by the time the couples reaches my office, the addict knows he is guilty. Every time he looks at his partner he witnesses an overwhelming amount of evidence of the pain he has caused her.

What is typically puzzling to the addict is that after weeks, and sometimes months, into working his recovery plan, his partner continues to remind him of the pain and suffering he has caused by his infidelities. In turn, he begins to question his recovery efforts – “Am I truly getting better? I feel better. I’m doing what is being asked of me by her. I am following the recommendations made by the experts. Heck, I can even feel myself doing this for me and not just for her. But, maybe these are just more lies that I am telling myself. Maybe my addict is still steering the ship. I feel like I’m going crazy!”

This is a common process for many recovering sex addicts who are in a committed relationship. As addicts ponder on these thoughts and feelings, they often discover a strange familiarity in what they are currently experiencing from their partner in comparison to what their partners have experienced from them when they were active in their addiction. By this time, they are well aware of the clinical term for such behavior – gaslighting. Upon making this connection, they are eager to bring it to my attention – Is it possible that my partner is gaslighting me?

“You are not going crazy, but what you are experiencing is NOT gaslighting.”

What addicts are experiencing from their partners only mimics gaslighting because it produces the same outcome – the questioning of one’s own reality. The difference has to do with “intent.” Gaslighting is a form of crazy-making with the intent to keep others away from the truth. I believe the discovery of gaslighting to be one of the main reasons the wound of infidelity and the impact of sex addiction runs so deep. It’s bad enough to discover your partner has not been faithful; but it feels even more sinister to find out they were willing to make you question your own sanity in order to keep the secret. You don’t have to examine the depths of the injury very long to understand that it takes a lot of courage for the injured partner to even entertain the idea of couple recovery and forgiveness.

This gaslighting-like phenomenon experienced by the addict from their partner may have resulted in the addict questioning his own reality, but partners are not doing it in effort to keep a secret or hide the truth.  Remember, in the early stages or recovery, unfaithful partners experience hostility or aggression from their injured partners primarily because (1) they don’t trust new experiences or behaviors from their partners; and (2) they are tired of hurting.  But, “reflection aggression” isn’t really seen until after the crises have settled down and the addicts are gaining momentum in recovery.  The primary purpose for this type of hostility is because the injured partners don’t want their wounds to be revealed. Allow me to explain.

“If he is going to hurt me again, I at least want to see it coming.”

Damaged trust. One reason the injured partner doesn’t want the spotlight is because it would require her to focus on herself, which means taking her eyes off the addict. This is especially true in the beginning stages of recovery. When someone hurts you in such a devastating way, that person instantly become dangerous. Our brain has one very important job – to keep us alive. Thus, the presence of danger is something that we naturally become hypervigilant to.

“Why do I have to be the one in recovery? All I was doing was being a good driver.”

Insult to injury. I often correlate the beginning stages of sex addiction recovery for partners of sex addicts to being hit by a drunk driver. As in many cases that commonly make the headlines, it is not uncommon for the drunk driver to walk away with mere bumps and bruises, but the person they slammed into is hauled away in an ambulance with months of recovery awaiting them. When we hear about these stories, we can feel injustice making its way through our entire body. Anger and disgust temporarily consume us as we empathize with the unfairness of this situation. We think to ourselves, “All she was doing was being a good driver and trusting that others on the road were also being good drivers. Ugh!”

This is one reason why I believe it is difficult to get partners of sex addicts into recovery – it just feels so damn unfair! Most people in civilized society would adamantly agree with that assessment. Unfortunately, feeling strongly about the injustice of the situation does not change the reality that partners of addicts, like good drivers hit by drunk drivers, have to take responsibility for their own recovery. It sucks! It’s unfair! But, it is necessary for healthy living.

“I look into the mirror and I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

Revealing the Injury. The two aforementioned reasons for avoiding the spotlight are very common reasons that keep injured partners from entering recovery; but, reflection aggression is a phenomenon that happens well after they have entered recovery; and it has the potential to keep partners from advancing.

I came up with the term “reflection aggression” because gaslighting didn’t seem to fit. In thinking about the dance couples do at this stage of recovery, it appeared that partners of addicts were needing the addict to remember that they are the sick one. This made me think of the condition historically known as Munchausen by Proxy wherein a caregiver creates the appearance of health problems in another, usually a parent inducing illness in a child. If you are of my generation, you may be thinking of the movie, The Sixth Sense, that portrays a storyline of a mother with this condition who caused the untimely death of her young daughter by poisoning her food.

Although there are some similarities, ultimately, the Munchausen by Proxy hypothesis did not make sense to me either. Yes, in some ways the injured partner needs the addict to remain “the sick one” but not for the same reasons as someone suffering from Munchausen by proxy. For instance, the primary motive for a mother with this condition is to gain attention. Remember, partners of sex addicts don’t want that level of attention. Why? Because if the true nature of their injuries are revealed, and they have to look at the condition they are in, they are faced with a strong emotional dilemma, which I will explain in the next section.

The origins of the term “Reflection Aggression”

When addicts start bringing this gaslighting-like phenomenon to my attention, I use the metaphor of “holding up a mirror” to help them understand what their partners are experiencing. My goals are threefold:

  1. To understand that progress looks like destruction in the beginning. I want the addict to learn that progress in recovery (and in other facets of life) is not solely measured by warm-fuzzy feelings. In most cases in life, you have to tear down the old so you can rebuild the new. This deconstruction phase is often unpleasant, but progress nonetheless.
  2. To learn self-care. No one is typically harder on the addict than the addict himself making this time an opportunity to help him learn to be kind to himself. Being kind to yourself only when things are going well is easy to do. Learning to be kind to yourself when things are hard is a much better measuring stick for self-worth and presents a challenge to practice self-compassion.
  3. To have compassion for their partner. Remember, one thing that makes reflection aggression different from gaslighting is intent. Recall that partners don’t want the spotlight because (1) they don’t trust the addict, (2) it feels like insult to injury to even suggest they are unwell, and (3) they no longer recognize the person staring back at them in the mirror. These reasons are pure. They are not at all couched in deception, dishonesty, and secrecy. It’s important for the addicted partner to acknowledge this truth.

So, back to the metaphor of holding up a mirror. I explain to addicts that when they are progressing in recovery, they start to become less and less dangerous. Thus, their injured partner begins to have less and less reason to keep such a sharp eye on them. Instead, the partner gets glimpses of her wounded self in him – this new mirror that seemed to come out of nowhere. She sees that her recovering partner is the one holding it up. She doesn’t like the feeling of this new experience and deflects it by reminding him of his transgressions and shortcomings in an effort to get him to put the mirror down, or at least redirect it onto himself. After all, he’s the one that put them in this position, right?

“Why does this happen?”

Dr. Patrick Carnes, who is referred to as the “grandfather” of sex addiction treatment, explains that somewhere in the development of the addict, the addict makes a bargain with chaos, which is like making a deal with the devil. In recovery, I explain to sex addicts that they are now making a deal with Healthy. I tell them to think of Healthy as a separate entity. In recovery, the addict approaches Healthy to ask if s/he will be a part of his life? Healthy says, “Absolutely! But with one condition – I eventually have be a part of every aspect of your life, not just where you pick and choose to have me. We can start with your own individual recovery and then slowly expand to other parts of your life, like your marriage, family, friendships, and work life.”

In other words, “Healthy demand healthy!” I explain to the addict that this means eventually Healthy will demand to be a part of your marriage, which will require your partner to also become healthy. I also explain that this will feel like a dick move (i.e., insult to injury) to her when it happens. Injured partners usually want nothing more than their addicted spouse to get well. However, they often don’t quite understand the emotionally chaotic journey they are about to embark on in experiencing their unfaithful partners truly recover.

“Information is found contrast”

Dr. David Fournier

Reflection. A major part of sex addiction recovery requires that the addict take a deep look at himself and the traumas experienced in childhood, which ultimately led him down the dark road of addiction. The sex addict usually discovers that at the helm of the problem is a strong disdain for self, otherwise known as “shame.” In treatment, the addict starts to embrace the freedom and peace that comes with recovery, learning that a true love for self is the only way to keep him out of the shackles of addiction. As he embraces this new reality of love and self-care, maybe for the first time in his life, he begins to find meaning and joy in his recovery.

Now, imagine you are the injured partner witnessing this process of transformation. Experiencing the unfaithful or addicted partner progress in recovery creates a contrast that is nearly impossible for the wounded partner to ignore. She is forced to look at the depths of her own injury, which exacerbates her pain, amplifies her sense of injustice, and intensifies her anger.

“How dare you get better when you are the one that did this!”

Aggression. This reminds me of the classic Hollywood scenes where a troubled character finds herself staring into a mirror. Her anger begins to well up. Her body gives her away to the viewers as her face contorts, her breathing intensifies, and her fists clinch. We know what’s coming. Then, it happens – an alarming scream followed by a strong punch to the face in the mirror splintering it into a thousand shards of glass that refuse to fall! After a sigh of relief, the tortured soul looks back into the mirror, seeing a more accurate reflection of how she truly feels. Shattered. Unrecognizable. Defeated. This, in essence, is reflection aggression.

If we truly empathize with the injured spouse, we can see how any one of us might experience reflection aggression when faced with the reality that we have been unjustly wounded. No matter which direction she turns, she finds herself staring at her own face, her own body, her own pain. The mirror doesn’t hold back either. It provides an overwhelming amount of detail. She can see the gaping wound of infidelity. She can see it’s depths; and she understands that it will destroy her if she doesn’t stop the bleeding, close the wound, and apply the right kind of meds for healing.

“How dare you force me to face my childhood trauma without my permission!”

Unfortunately, the wound of sexual infidelity isn’t the only culprit at play with reflection aggression. As the injured partner examines the person in the mirror, she notices that surrounding the gaping wound created by partner betrayal are many other wounds, some large and some small; she is puzzled, unsure of how they got there. In her own recovery, she is troubled as she learns that these wounds existed, in many cases, long before her partner was even in the picture. As you can imagine, this reality can be quite overwhelming for partners because there is an underlying message they can’t escape – the wound of betrayal trauma isn’t a hundred percent responsible for the pain I’m experiencing. This revelation sucks! And what fuels the flame even more is that partners often feel like the decision to work through this pain on their own time was stolen from them, which can lead to more aggression toward the unfaithful partner.

In conclusion….

I hope this information helps you see how gaslighting and reflection aggression, although similar, are vastly different. Reflection aggression is not about convincing someone they are crazy in order to keep secrets, it is more about partners putting the brakes on and redirecting the spotlight, because it is just too damn difficult to look into a mirror and not recognize the person staring back at you.

Partners of addicts experience an immense amount of change in what seems like a moment’s time. They are stressed, scared, and overwhelmed in ways they have never experienced before. They need to take their recovery in stride and with professional direction and insight. Reflection aggression is a way of telling themselves and their partners, that “I see it! I recognize the condition I am in. Please put down the damn mirror and let me take one thing at a time!” It looks and feels aggressive, which makes it unpleasant; and, yes, if it goes unchecked or ignored, it can even be further damaging to the relationship; but, make no mistake, it is not the same as gaslighting.

Shifts spotlight off of self and on to anotherSame
Results in partner questioning own realitySame
Embedded in deception & dishonestyEmbedded in pain and injustice
Intent is to keep the truth hiddenIntent is to pace healing and recovery
Deepens the betrayal woundCommunicates the depth of the wound
©Joshua Nichols 2019

I’d like to give a special thanks to Dr. Alexandra Katehakis for the time she spent helping me edit and organize my thoughts for the article. Dr. Katehakis a licensed therapist, certified sex addiction therapist, certified sex therapist, published author and the co-founder of the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles.  I am truly grateful for her wisdom, expertise, and generosity. 

 ~Joshua Nichols~
Licensed Marital & Family Therapist
Certified Sex Addiction Therapist

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