When life imitates art: Gaslighting in the bedroom

A patient believed he was saying explicit, sexual things in his sleep because of his partner.
A patient believed he was saying explicit, sexual things in his sleep because of his partner.

If you have never seen the 1944 film Gaslight, you should check it out. It was nominated for 7 Oscars and was Angela Lansbury's first film. In Gaslight, a husband tries to make his wife think she is insane so he can send her to a mental facility. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where a person is manipulated into doubting their own sanity.

While looking through the recent sleep literature, I found an interesting article about a couple and a case of gaslighting. I thought readers might find it interesting, both personally and professionally.

We trust that the partner we choose for life has our best interest at heart, right? Unfortunately, this is not always the case. This patient, a 67-year-old male, was in relationship with a woman for 18 months. A few months into their courtship, his partner started complaining that he talked in his sleep every night. She said that he talked about other girlfriends and used some “crude and vulgar” language. He also talked about having sexual relations with friends and the sexual abuse of children. She would wake the man and complain. He was apologetic but did not remember anything about the event. He denied having these affairs. At times, he was told he had to spend the night in a hotel because she could not bear hearing this talk about his other relationships.

Concerned about his relationship, the patient sought out the help of sleep professionals. They did the usual workup and suggested a sleep study. The results were positive for sleep apnea with an apnea/hypopnea index of 32.5 events per hour, which is severe. However, there was no evidence of sleep talking.

Follow-up showed that the patient's sleep had improved with control of his apnea, but his partner was continuing to complain of nightly ramblings in his sleep. The patient himself started to doubt her complaints, so he hid a recording device in their room. To his surprise, he found there was no sleep talking on his part – he only heard her complaints and yelling during the night. It appeared that she was gaslighting him for financial reasons. She denied any wrong doing.

I thought this was very interesting, but it also gave me pause. Many couples bring their spouse to their sleep evaluations to give details of what is occurring during the night. The patient will state, “I don't know what is going on; I'm asleep.” I have never before thought that the partner could be lying about what is occurring in their bed at night. Why would I? Now, I might think twice if something seems amiss.

Sharon M. O'Brien MPAS, PA-C, is a practicing clinician with an interest is helping patients understand the importance of sleep hygiene and the impact of sleep on health.

Reference

  1. Bashford J, Leschziner G. Bed partner “gas-lighting” as a cause of fictitious sleep talking. J Clin Sleep Med 2015:11(10):1237-1238.
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