Why gaslighting makes trauma worse and how to identify and respond to gaslighting in order to heal






For those of you who are watching live, I want to welcome you to Bloom Live, Dr. Skinner with you. 

I’m grateful that you guys are with me today and I’m going to be talking about gaslighting. It’s one of the most influential things, when I start looking at the research and how it influences the traumatic response after discovery.

So I’m going to talk a little bit about that today, and I’m going to share my screen if I can actually get that there. So here we go. As I start to share my screen. All right, let’s see if I can pull up where I was at. There we go here, here, here, there. All right. So I want to then talk a little bit about how to identify and respond to gaslighting in your healing.

What is gaslighting?

When we look at gaslighting, this actually comes from a story that happened to me back when I was doing research. When I was looking at some early research, we were trying to understand the post-traumatic stress response to betrayal. Really this came from a conversation that I was having with a colleague of mine. We were starting to see more and more betrayed clients come in with anger, frustration, and hurt. So much so that it was like, well, how do we help these individuals? And, then if we have to build our insurance companies, what are we even billing it as? We started looking and she said, I think it’s post-traumatic stress, like PTSD and I couldn’t help but agree with her when I had read through the diagnosis. I’m like, man, it looks like a lot of betrayed individuals are experiencing PTSD symptoms.

So, this goes to the concept of what is gaslighting? As a clinician and as we started looking at post-traumatic stress as a common outcome, because again, it never been really talked about, I thought, okay, we were going to have to somehow measure this. We’re going to have to start looking at it. And, then I started looking at well, what increases the trauma levels? At the time, I had never heard the term gaslighting but I created some scales that looked at denying. Did the betraying spouse or partner deny their behaviors? Then, I included a section on blame. Did they blame their spouse for their behaviors? Then, we looked at deception, and this really came more from a conversation that I had with Dr. Sheri Keffer, a friend of mine, and she said, “I think I’d add to that, deception” because if you’ve got denial, blame, deception, you know, our, our hypothesis was is that would increase the trauma.

And so, that’s really where this began is looking at denial, blame, deception. And again, I hadn’t heard the term gaslighting, but when I was taught about the term gas lighting, I’m like, man, I actually have a scale for this. I can measure it because I’ve been measuring it. So then I started looking at the research findings of what the betrayed partners were telling me and I started then comparing that to the PTSD scores. And, um, I’ll share some of those results with you a little bit later on, but ultimately gaslighting is denial, blame and discipline. 

What is denial?

Let’s look a little bit about denial and here’s some of the research findings that I’ve gathered over the years, but here’s one of the core questions. How often has your partner looked you straight in the eyes and denied she or he was viewing pornography or sexually acting out? Now, again, this form of denial is actually done through our eyes. I’m actually denying my behavior. In the research I found, if you look at never, that’s about 10%, but that would be 90% of individuals who have been betrayed have had their partner look them in the eyes and just deny their behavior.

But if you then say, okay, how often is this happening? Well, more often or not, more often than not, and always, are the highest answers, which account for about 68 to 70% of individuals. Now think about what that might mean. So, somewhere between 65 to 68% are saying, yeah, my partner looked at me in the eye and lied to me. It’s our eyes through which we feel safe and our senses in which we read, is this person safe or not? As I started looking at as man that’s a high, high response. 

All right, then we look at this next question. If your partner disclosed his or her sexual behaviors, how often they only tell you half the story? What would often be what we would later find out would be a staggered disclosure.

And again, you can see that never was only about 5%, which means that in about 95% of the cases, and this is a large sample, this one right here in particular had 1600 individuals complete this and answer this question. You can see, well over 95%, sometimes or more, but always, right, I was only told half the story.

I wasn’t given the full story. So that’s a part of the deception and the denial. 

What is blame?

Here’s the one where we start to see blame. How often has your partner told you that if you’d be more sexual, he or she would not have to do pornography or act out in other ways? Now we see that about 50% haven’t said that but that means in about 50% of the cases, the betraying partner would kind of push that energy and say, well, if you’d be more sexual with me, I wouldn’t have to do what I’m doing. If you had just XYZ. So they’re shifting the responsibility. And again, that’s a form of gaslighting. 

How does gaslighting influence the trauma symptoms?

One of the core questions that I ask is how has gaslighting influenced trauma? Again, we looked at adverse childhood experiences, we looked at other variables, and in reality, it was gaslighting that had the strongest influence on the individual’s traumatic response to sexual betrayal. Gaslighting currently has the strongest relationship that we can find with trauma. Even more than adverse childhood experiences. And a lot of people say, well, this is just because I’m responding this way, or you’re responding this way because of the adverse childhood experiences. Well, in my research, adverse childhood experiences did have a significant influence on trauma responses, but the strongest relationship, that increased the trauma was the gaslighting, the denial, the blame and the deception.

As gaslighting increases, trauma responses increase as well. As gaslighting decreases, trauma responses also decrease. 

If we’re going to help couples heal their relationship, not only does gaslighting have to stop, but gaslighting needs to be addressed because it’s one of the core problems that prevent the relationship from healing. As a professional therapist, when I see that gaslighting scores are high, I recognize that we have to address that behavior specifically if we’re going to help couples heal.

Seven steps you can take to respond to gaslighting

I now want to conclude part of this discussion or part of this topic by talking about seven steps that you can take to respond to the gaslighting.

I’m just going to go over these and then if you have questions, I can answer any questions that you have. 

The first one is we have to recognize the gas lighting. We have to identify it and recognize that it’s happening, minimization, lying. When we see those patterns, we need to name it and actually call it what it is.

It feels like you’re gaslighting me and not telling me the truth. So we recognize that it’s happening, we name it. We might be very specific. “It feels like you’re minimizing the behavior and it seems to me that, here you are looking at me in the eye and you’re telling me this, and yet, in the past, when you’ve done, this same thing, I wanted to believe you, but now I don’t know.”

That’s identifying what it does to you, that’s the third part of this. When I feel like you’re not telling me the truth, or when I sense that you’re telling me a partial truth, or when I sense you’re denying a behavior and then I catch you. It makes me feel like I can’t be safe around you because I can’t predict how you’re going to respond.

In gaslighting itself, we have to help understand what it does to me as a person. What does the deception do to me? What does the denial, what does blaming do to me? If you’re in a relationship where you’re experiencing a significant amount of denial, blame, deception. A valuable step is to identify what it does to you so then you can talk with your spouse or partner about what it’s doing to you. 

As an example,  “I recognize that when I found out that you were lying to me after looking me in the eye and saying you weren’t doing XYZ. I thought I could trust you. Now, I don’t know how to trust you because you literally looked me in the eye and you’d lie to me.”

Or another example of that, the outcome. 

 “When you blamed me for our sexual problems in the bedroom and told me that you were tired all the time and you didn’t want to be sexual with me. It made me feel like I wasn’t enough for you. Because I didn’t feel like enough, I pulled back. Obviously I’m not wanted, I’m not cared for. The outcome for me personally, is I pulled back because I didn’t feel safe and I didn’t know how to trust anymore. So it broke my trust.” 

Now we turn and shift. Did you notice that this is a very critical step here? If I can explain the outcome, and be heard, if they continue to Gaslight, minimize or feel like you’re attacking them, isn’t this is not going to be as effective, because they’re not able to hear what their behavior has done to you. Which usually means that they need to deal with their shame before they can hold you in your pain. But explaining the outcome is really laying the foundation for being able to create a boundary. Here’s what that might sound like:

“Because you were not telling me the truth, you looked at me at the eyes in lied to me and I’m pulling away because I don’t know how to read you anymore so I don’t what to do. I’d like to create a specific request (this is the boundary) that if that happens, that you just simply recognize I am going to pull back and I’m not going to want to be close with you emotionally, physically. Because when you’re gaslighting, I can’t read you and I can’t determine if you are safe or not. The boundary is if you’re going to respond to that way and you’re going to, and you’re not going to be honest, then I can’t be close to you. I don’t know how to be close. And so I’m going to ask that if you’re gaslighting me, that we sleep in different rooms or we have a temporary separation, or that if you’re going to do this, that you expect that we’re not going to be having sex because I can’t come close when I don’t feel safe or secure.”

That would be just an example. You need to create the boundary that’s most appropriate for you and your situation. So we recognize it, we name it, we identify what the gaslighting is done to you, explain the outcome, and when you’ve been gaslighting I’m pulling away because I don’t feel safe. And so I’m going to say, if this happens, for my safety, I need to pull away. Notice the concept here is I’m not selling you what you need to do. I need to create this boundary because I can’t determine if you’re safe. That’s what gaslighting does to me.

Or, if you’re blaming me for your sexual behaviors then I feel like, if it’s my fault, if you’re saying it’s my fault, the outcome is I feel like I’m not enough for you. I don’t want to be close to you when you’re accusing me or making me feel like I’m not enough for you. 

The boundary here is if you’re blaming me for our problems, and not taking responsibility for your own decisions, then, of course, I just don’t know how to feel safe. I don’t know how to come closer to you. 

Those are the first five steps that are a foundation to this process. 

Then number six is, over time, as we start to identify it, talk about it, and communicate, we’re going to then reevaluate. Is this working out? Are we healing some of these gaslighting behaviors and we’re going to evaluate what’s happening in the relationship.

Do I still feel the gaslighting is happening, or do I feel like it’s lessened or gone away? If it’s not going away, then we continue to go through this process. 

Let’s say that it’s reducing, then number seven, and this sometimes needs to be done with a professional therapist, we begin to heal the old gaslighting patterns.

What I mean by this is this. If gaslighting has created problems over the years, lying, deception. Then, one of the best things that betraying partner or spouse can do is take those old gaslighting actions, specifically the memories of the betrayed partner, and acknowledge and own the fact that those were inappropriate and unhealthy patterns.

In my couples work, I actually look for gaslighting patterns, have the couple identify them, which is usually done in the third step of a disclosure. So, we have the disclosure, followed by an impact letter written by the betrayed spouse, that is followed up by an emotional restitution letter, and in that emotional restitution letter, that’s where we have identified the gaslighting patterns, the deception, the blame, the denial, and we have the betraying spouse acknowledge, identify those specific behaviors and own them. In their way, acknowledge the hurt that has been created. 

This is the process, in my opinion, that is so critical and often misunderstood, and overlooked, in the healing process. If we don’t address gaslighting, then I’m not sure we’re going to help reduce the trauma symptoms. So for me as a professional, gaslighting is a significant part of the healing process. And, if it’s not resolved, if it’s not addressed, then we’re going to continue to have problems because the root is not being addressed.

Gaslighting is the number one reason that I’m seeing in higher levels of trauma. Statistically speaking, I can’t find anything that is more powerful to create the trauma symptoms than gaslighting. And if I was to reverse engineer that, if we address the gaslighting, we might see the greatest reduction in those trauma symptoms. And, ultimately, that can lead to healing in the relationship. 

Emotional Restitution

One of the things that I’ve observed is that the greatest progress in my couples is when we get to the emotional restitution and really helping couples understand the gaslighting. That’s how we’re going to help you heal. Again, if you’re working in therapy, that truly is, in my opinion, it’s the most critical thing that you can work to do is to resolve the gaslighting. Because if you’ve been lied to and deceived, the research shows that many people would prefer to know about sexual behavior rather than the betraying training spouse lie about it. 

Based upon our research, most people are saying, I’d rather know the truth than be lied to. As we address the lying that’s when I see couples make the greatest progress. So we reduce the lying, get rid of the gaslighting, have the betraying spouse, acknowledge, identify and be aware of it. 


All right, I don’t have anything else. I appreciate you guys taking the time. I appreciate those who are leaving comments and I hope classes like this are helpful to you. 

If you have specific topics that you would like us to address, we would love to do that and answer any questions that you have. 

All right, this has been Dr. Skinner and we appreciate the opportunity to be with you and may you be blessed in your healing. 

Thanks again for being with us.

Take care and we’ll see you again soon.

Join Bloom for Women

For women seeking healing from betrayal trauma.

Join Bloom for Partners

For men seeking help for unwanted sexual behaviors.