In a divorce, the shifting psychological dynamics come up in many ways.
The most obvious is when child custody is strongly contested between the
two parents. If there is an abusive relationship to begin with, or a relationship
where there is not a balance of emotional power between the parties, then
causing self-doubt in a person who already has self-doubt has
obvious gains for the person making statements to encourage that self-doubt. The person who has self-doubt, then begins to question their parenting skills and decisions, and may give the other parent legal custody and agree to a parenting
schedule that is not for the benefit of the children, but because of the self-doubt. It also becomes an issue in spousal abuse. The Aggressor will tell the Target that she imagined that she had been hurt, that it didn’t really happen. If there is no physical evidence, there is no way to get outside verification, and even then, there could be more than one explanation as to how physical marks happened. Another way is to normalize the abuse. The abuse that the target experienced isn’t really abuse, everybody gets angry and strikes out physically, this is normal, and the Target is crazy for thinking it is abuse.
What is the solution if you are experiencing some of the “headgames”
described here? First, find one, two or as many people as you need, to
give you a reality check. Your lawyer is a great person to start with,
because the lawyer is going to have experience with what is considered
the range of normal behavior, at least in a divorce context, which is
what you are
concerned about if you are going through a divorce. Take a hard look at whether you are engaging in the kind of behavior intended to cause self-doubt to influence behavior. As an attorney, I see and experience this on a regular basis. Here
is an example. A few weeks ago, I sent a colleague a judgment to be reviewed before submitting it to the court. I made a mistake in reciting the day of the month. The colleague, who is a dear friend as well as colleague, immediately wrote back the following: “Stop. Take a deep breath. You are obviously not thinking clearly and are becoming sloppy in your reasoning.”
Without question, a mistake had been made, but it was only a mistake, not a serious problem in reasoning. The
comment back was intended to create a power imbalance, to cause me to doubt the quality of my work, and to create a dynamic that could be used to influence the final outcome in the parenting schedule negotiations. I recognize the statement for what it was, and responded with humor that it must be a thrill to catch me making a mistake. Because I work with words, I have to review what I write to avoid making statements that are about power, and not about resolving the issue. If you can recognize it in yourself, you can recognize when someone is making statements that are not true, but intended to
insult, cause self-doubt and create a power imbalance.
Be careful in your word choice. Using “I” statements are often
helpful because they are not as often perceived as being an attack on
the other person, because they describe how you feel. Keeping the conversation
less emotionally intense can allow for communication that is productive
to resolving problems. If you find yourself getting angry, then think
twice about continuing to engage in the discussion. Recognize patterns
that the other person is not making statements to communicate information
to you, but for the purpose of engaging with you, even if the engagement
is negative. If you
recognize that pattern, then stop engaging, and end the conversation. Pick up the conversation at another time,
when cooler heads prevail. Look for ways to constructively collaborate, and work together, if there is a way to come to
a solution, but also look to make sure the conversation is about the issues, not about the power dynamics. If a
productive verbal conversation is not happening, find another medium of communication. If the other person
continues to make comments that are not about the subject, and you are feeling uncomfortable with the power dynamic, then stop the communications. You don’t have to pick up the phone, or answer the email or answer the text message.
Let me give you an example of how a normal conversation can turn into gaslighting.
Wife texts Husband, who has the children, that she needs him to give her
the raingear for the children because she is taking the children to get
a Christmas tree the next day, and because he abandoned her by filing
for divorce, she doesn’t have all of the kids’ clothes. Husband
guilty. During the marriage, he would have wanted to avoid Wife becoming upset and angry and would have rushed out to
buy new raingear, thus feeding into his own self-doubt about caring for the children. Husband could feel defensive,
and react emotionally that he may have filed the divorce, but she is the one who caused the breakdown of the family by her behavior. Or Husband could focus on the only real issue, figuring out if there is raingear. Husband should address that issue only, perhaps saying “the kids have outgrown all of their raingear from last year. We will both need to look for more raingear for the kids to have at our houses.” The last response clearly focuses on the real issue and doesn’t engage in the unproductive hook of the abandonment.
Wife may have a personality disorder, or just can’t let it go that Husband is not reacting by immediately fixing the problem by getting raingear for her. She writes an email saying “I need the raingear now, and I expect you to get it to me tonight. I can’t believe you are trying to hurt the children by refusing to allow them to wear their raingear.” Husband should not be engaging at this point. There is nothing productive to say. Wife then sends another email “why haven’t you written me back confirming that you will get me the raingear? Don’t you know that you are supposed to communicate and cooperate with the other parent? You are not cooperating with me, and clearly are not taking care of the children.” Again, there is no productive response to that statement. By addressing the issue directly, and by recognizing that the followup emails are not about the raingear, but about Wife’s feelings about the divorce, Husband is choosing not to engage. Unfortunately, choosing not to engage may cause Wife to further escalate because it creates anxiety in Wife that she is being ignored, and may cause further escalation. That isn’t Husband’s problem. All he can do is control how he reacts, and look out for the impact on the kids.
Recognize when you might be wrong. What you believe to be true may not
be a fact. Be open to considering whether the
other person might be right, and that your self-doubt is your own reality check. Then, if you believe that you are
correct, look to see if there is “gaslighting” going on, and decide how you should best deal with the problem.
Most importantly, learning information about patterns of behavior, and doing a regular reality check on your own viewpoints, will help keep you grounded in reality, and appropriately centered and confident in yourself.