Q. My wife is an alcoholic and overuses prescription drugs. When I confront her about anything, she becomes belligerent, accuses me of being paranoid, and says I’m over-controlling. I know that I’ve let this go on for too long, and I’m beginning to think there is something wrong with me. What can I do?
A. You are describing a form of psychological abuse called “gaslighting.” The word is derived from a play and movie called “Gaslight” in which a husband attempts to convince his wife that she is mentally unstable by systematically dimming the lights in the house and convincing her that it is not happening. According to Robert Weiss, a licensed social worker, writing for the website PsychCentral, gaslighting occurs when “false information is presented to the victim by a spouse or another primary attachment figure, causing the victim to doubt his or her perceptions, judgments, memories, and even sanity.”
Gaslighting happens so slowly that it’s often difficult to detect, according to Robin Stern, Ph.D., writing for “Psychology Today.” Stern states that the first stage of gaslighting is disbelief; people often dismiss a loved one’s behavior as an anomaly.
In the second stage, one begins to become defensive against manipulation. For example, you may confront your wife about her addictions. Instead of answering, she accuses you of not trusting her, being over-controlling or “crazy.” The more involved she becomes in her addiction, the more belligerent she will likely become.
The final stage of gaslighting is depression. At this point, you may be isolating from friends, not wanting to talk about her or even be embarrassed that you have not controlled the situation. You may even begin to believe that you are at fault.
Your wife needs to address her addictive behaviors but also the mental health issues underlying her addiction. If she is unwilling to seek treatment and no one can convince her that she needs help, it is time for you to move forward without her. It is also important that you talk with someone and take care of yourself during this difficult time.
Q. My ex-husband brought his new girlfriend to our daughter’s graduation. He cuddled with her during the ceremony and barely acknowledged me. We have joint custody of our two daughters, and he behaves like this constantly. What can I do when I share custody with a narcissist?
A. A narcissist is someone who is selfish, seeks control, lacks consideration for others and believes that he or she deserves special treatment. In an interpersonal relationship, they present difficulties because they must consider the needs of someone else. Your ex-husband probably was not rude to offend you; he was likely unaware of your emotions because he was focused on the novelty of his new girlfriend. That’s the way narcissists operate.
Since you are co-parenting, it is impossible for you to escape his narcissistic clutches completely; however, you can limit your contact. In her book “Divorcing a Narcissist: One Mom’s Battle,” Tina Swithin advises those in your situation to limit communication. If you must speak with him, make it brief, emotionless and about your daughters. She further suggests that if you are angry, respond in an e-mail: however, wait 24 hours before you send it or have a neutral party review your response.
Virginia Gilbert, a licensed marriage and family therapist, suggests that some divorced parents should try parallel parenting. This means that your children understand that they have two homes and two sets of rules. Unless you suspect a problem at their father’s house, do not inquire about their time there in detail. The less you know about his personal life, the less likely you are to be enraged by his narcissistic behavior.
If you have difficulty detaching from your ex-husband or you continue to experience increased anger, try a few sessions with a mental health professional. It is important that children have one healthy parent, and that seems to be you.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She currently teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a private practice.