Gaslighting. It’s become a popular term to describe what happens when someone tries to manipulate someone into believing they’re insane.
A different version of gaslighting can happen when one person in the couple is a compulsive or perfectionist partner. The perfectionist may unintentionally make their partner question not their sanity, but their decency, virtue and strength.
I call it moral gaslighting.
Notice that the effect is to make the partner feel like they’re a bad person. That’s not necessarily the intent. Perfectionists and compulsives are often so determined to get things done, and get them done faultlessly, that they become oblivious to their impact on other people.
In fact, one reason why this form of gaslighting is more difficult to spot is that it may actually be intended to help, not to undermine, their partner.
But, as we all know, good intentions don’t ensure well-being.
I’m writing this for the benefit of both perfectionists and their partners–not to blame either one. Hopefully it will help perfectionists “perfect” their attempts to make the world a better place by being more sensitive to others as they do it. And hopefully it will help partners get the respect they understandably want from their perfectionist partners.
The Original Gaslighting
The concept of gaslighting evolved from the 1938 play by British playwright Patrick Hamilton titled Gas Light. (It was followed by the movie Gaslight in 1944.) In it, among many other deceptive ploys, the husband would turn the gas lights up and down, but deny that the light was changing. His wife ended up thinking she was going crazy. He destroyed her trust in her ability to see herself clearly.
In the play the gaslighter was a sadistic sociopath. With perfectionists the motivation is different, though the result may be similar.
Perfectionist Partners and Moral Gaslighting
The perfectionist partner may lead their non-perfectionist partner to feel that they are lazy, weak or depraved if they don’t sign on to the rules and standards that the perfectionist sets up. While it may even be done in a gentle, fatherly or motherly way, the result is that the partner ends up thinking that they are a terrible partner, parent or person.
It can be more insidious because the perfectionist partner appears to have the higher ground, and they are genuine in their efforts to make the other person a better person, even if their method is way off base. This can make it more difficult to identify the gaslighting and find a way out of it.
Change is often good, and being open to a different way of seeing things can help us to grow. But when a partner’s questioning goes too far, it may come under the heading of moral gaslighting.
Perfectionists can be healthy, productive and helpful. But when they don’t simply want to meet high standards, but need to meet them, they can become unhealthy, rigid, demanding, controlling, and workaholic.
They may guilt the partner into feeling that they’ve let the perfectionist down. The perfectionist may feel insecure about whether they can meet the standards they’ve set, and need the other person to be perfect in their support so that the perfectionist can deliver what they feel they’re supposed to deliver.
Perfectionists set unrealistically high standards and expect others to meet them. The really difficult thing in this situation, in contrast to the original movie and play, is that the perfectionist feels a real responsibility to try to make themselves and everything around them do just the right thing.
Those at the unhealthy end may be unaware of their underlying anxiety. They can be totally convinced that they’re correct, and completely unaware of their impact on others as they try to set the world straight.
In the worst cases, they may convey disgust for the non-perfectionist partner.
As I’ve described in previous series of posts, a perfectionist may think that they’re rescuing someone, but end up persecuting them. It’s important for the partner not to fall into a victim role.
Communication and Interpretation
My point is not for the partner of the perfectionist to write off everything the perfectionist says as gaslighting.
It is possible that a perfectionist may have some good insight as to what their partner might do differently to make themselves happier or more fulfilled. As I described in a recent post, one type or dimension of the compulsive personality functions as a leader or teacher, and this can be healthy.
Assuming this is the case, if the partner conveys it well, by describing what the partner can do differently, rather than by making generalizations about their character, they may actually be helpful.
Both how the perfectionistic partner communicates, and how their partner receives it, will determine whether the suggestion is constructive, or whether it leads to dejection on the part of the partner.
If the perfectionist decides to make a suggestion, it should be about a specific behavior, and not about the partner’s character.
And the partner should distinguish between comments that actually say that they are a bad person, and those that simply say that they could do something better.
Comparing and Differences
It’s not all bad to be conscientious, productive and driven. But some partners may begin to compare themselves to the perfectionist and begin to question whether there is something wrong with them because they’re not so driven.
If, on top of that, the partner keeps hearing that they are lazy, sloppy or bad enough times, they may become vulnerable to believing it. They lose their bearings and are no longer sure that they are working hard enough at being a good partner, parent, or person.
If your partner is a workaholic, compared to them you might not be as productive. But that doesn’t mean you’re lazy. Thank goodness not everyone is compulsive. In fact, they probably like having a partner that’s more relaxed–even if they don’t acknowledge it.
Motivations: Goodwill, Security and Projections
Perfectionists and compulsives often genuinely want to make their world a better place. Even when they get controlling and rigid their motives are usually pro-social. If they feel insecure in some way, they will become even more controlling and rigid, and their partner just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So, perfectionists are often motivated by a mixture of anxiety and goodwill—however skewed that goodwill may become.
But there is another motivation that’s more problematic. The perfectionist may project their own fears about their own laziness, sloppiness, or indulgence onto their partner, trying to control themselves through their partner. Projection occurs when we can’t tolerate an aspect of ourselves and we unconsciously see that aspect in the other person instead.
Just as an example, if the perfectionistic partner has been perfectionistic most of their life to cope with an insecure early environment, they may fear that their own sloppiness will get out of control and that they will be in jeopardy. This sloppiness feels so dangerous that they have to deny that they have the potential for it, and instead imagine that it’s the other person who’s sloppy.
Perfectionists struggle to accept their imperfections, and in the process may attribute them to others.
Carl Jung would say that they are projecting their shadow, their unlived or unacknowledged parts of themselves, onto the other person.
Externalizers & Internalizers: Hold the Projections, Please
In some couples, one partner’s tendency is to externalize, project and blame the other person. If the other person’s tendency is to internalize, to take everything in and accept too much blame and responsibility, this is a prescription for moral gaslighting.
Neither partner is “right.” They fit like a hand in a glove, unfortunately. Neither partner is able to grow this way.
Ending Moral Gaslighting
Here are some tools to help dissolve moral gaslighting:
For the perfectionist:
- Even if your intent is good, you may leave your partner feeling horrible. In your effort to improve the world you may lose track of the people you meant to benefit from the improvements.
- Ask your partner how you come across to them. It may be much different from what you imagine.
- If you feel clear that you want to help your partner rather than project your own potential for “imperfections,” communicate about specific things they do or don’t do–not about their character.
- Tell them what’s good about them.
- Come to terms with your own “imperfections.” People are loved not for being perfect but for being authentic, accepting, empathic and connected.
For the partner:
- Let your partner know how you’re feeling as a result of what they’ve said. Ask if they intended to make you feel bad about yourself.
- Clarify for yourself whether they’re actually making statements about who you are as a person– your moral character–or just particular things that you do.
- Don’t assume that their motivation is to bring you down.
- Ask friends and relatives for a moral reality check.
- Honor differences and set boundaries. You partner can be perfectionistic and workaholic, but that doesn’t mean you have to be as well. Don’t fall into victim mentality.
For more insights about perfectionists and compulsives, subscribe at the bottom of this page, or get The Healthy Compulsive book.