Gaslighting in Relationships
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
We may be conversant in the signs of abuse: We tend to recognise domestic violence once we witness direct physical or psychological aggression in relationships.
But psychological abuse can be more covert, and one element of this is Gaslighting, whereby the victim is manipulated into doubting their own sanity, and the perpetrators are calculating with it. The driver behind the gaslighter’s regime is to make the victim doubt themselves and lose faith in their own perception and assessment of events. It is a form of mind control that is so subversive, they may not know it is happening.
The phrase was conceived in 1938, when a mystery thriller was written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton, and it was called 'Gaslight'. An adaptation of this play was captured in film (1) in 1944. The synopsis of the plot was about a husband who manipulates his trusting wife into doubting her own experience of reality.
This may not be at the forefront of your awareness, but there’s a chance that you may have been gaslighted by someone at some point in your life, and you may have felt that the dynamic in your relationship wasn’t right, or it made you feel dis-empowered without being able to put a finger on why.
A relationship or friendship with a gaslighter may involve trying to re-frame your reality so that your valid reactions to unreasonable behaviour are symptoms of perceptual deficiencies in you. Usually gaslighters are successful in manipulating the perceptions in those around them so, you may feel that it is not just your partner who perceives you as deficient, it is also his / her friends and family. A person who is weakened may not have the strength nor the self-belief to combat this.
Here are some ways that gaslighting can manifest:
Avoidance / denial: The gaslighter will be dismissive of your thoughts and feelings, and this will cause you to doubt yourself more.
Examples: “You’re being irrational”, “ You're imagining things, that never happened,”
Trivialising: By minimising your thoughts and feelings, the gaslighter will make you feel that your thoughts and feelings are insignificant, or a product of your own faults.
Examples: “Your insecurities make you act that way”, “You’re oversensitive”, Why are you so paranoid? I was just joking!”
Reframing 1: A gaslighter will try and manipulate how you perceive their actions, so that whatever they did can be made to appear as an act of good will, rather than abuse.
Examples: “I did that to try and help you with [x] and you just don’t appreciate it”, “You made me react this that way because of the way you spoke me”
Reframing 2: Gaslighting may involve trying to reframe your reality so that your valid reactions to unreasonable behaviour are symptoms of your perceptual deficiencies. This may involve the transfer of responsibility to you, by blaming you for their actions, even though your response to the gaslighter's behaviour was justified. This can culminate in an endless dynamic of ‘tit-for-tat’. This can make you lose trust in your own perception, and you may question your valid responses.
Examples: “You’re jumping to conclusions”, “you have issues if you think like that”, or “you’re crazy, I never said that.”
Using insecurities as ammunition: If you trust your friend / partner, you may have shared sensitive information with them about your life; which may be used against you to bolster their position in the friendship / relationship, and to dis-empower you.
Examples: “You only think like that because of what happened in the past”, “You’re taking your insecurities out on me, this isn’t fair!”, “you’re lucky I want to know you, no-one else would if they knew about x”
Isolating from friends and family: If you are in contact with your sources of support (i.e. loved ones), then this empowers you, and this is threatening to the gaslighter’s sense of power. As you start to doubt yourself more, you may also be coerced into doubting those around you.
Examples: “There you go again. This only ever happens when you see [x]. [x] doesn’t have your best interests at heart”, “Has this crazy idea come from [x]?”
Gaslighting can have monumental effects on a person’s mental health, and this decline is gradual, so much so that you may not be able to pinpoint when it began. The false messages that you learn about yourself as a result of being gaslighted can influence your entire lived experience:
· Self-doubt: You may start second-guessing yourself when you never used to, your confidence levels may plummet,
· Withdrawal: You may feel scared of executing your voice, if the response is negative, and you may become preoccupied with people-pleasing (2).
Since the Serious Crime Act (2015) (3) was introduced, emotional abuse and controlling behaviour is now illicit. Although this is a great (though long overdue) advancement, it’s concerning that it will take a long time before the postures of those long-established in agencies (which are officially there to support the victims) will be overhauled so that they can be solid in their support of the victims, and the criminalisation of the perpetrator. There is still a plethora of victim-blame in certain professions, and this deters people seeking justice.
Historically, for victims of physical violence, the pursuit of justice has felt like another layer of abuse. It was founded that magistrates often trivialised abusive behaviour, excused it, and even blamed the female victims (4). This seemed to mirror wider society as casual misogyny became commonplace, where the female victim was portrayed as irrational and hyperbolic about what occurred.
Perpetrators look for people who are damaged, whose defences are weak. When you have experienced repeated Adverse Childhood Experiences (5), those who come into your orbit later may intuit that they don’t have to raise the bar very high. Any minimal nugget of validation is enough, and this will be used to hook the victim in. When the gaslighting is underway, the perpetrator will use any weaknesses against the victim in order to bolster their own position whenever the victim attempts to express concern about maltreatment.
There are several motives for why someone may not want to acknowledge the fact that they are being gaslighted:
· As soon as they realise the position they are in, it can feel hurtful and ungrounding to realise that the person they have invested so much time and energy with has bad intentions towards them.
· If someone has experienced emotional neglect during childhood, they may feel that this is the best source of support and validation. Forfeiting control may feel like a small transaction for the feeling of belonging that the perpetrator initially gives the victim.
· To truly acknowledge that abusive behaviour is happening means that you have to acknowledge that your partner doesn’t have pure feelings towards you, and it then means that something must be done about it. This requires strength, resilience, and conviction. Three traits that the victim just may not have.
· If someone has been coerced into thinking that they have perceptual deficits, they may not trust their instincts. They may also think that others may believe the perpetrator’s narrative, (and depending on how close they are to the perpetrator, the victim may be right) so no-one will be around to support them anyway. This can make the victim feel trapped.
After someone has escaped from an abusive relationship, this is when they will need the most support. After all, their identity has been invested in the relationship for a while, and there may be a period of grieving, not just the loss of the relationship, but the loss of their own sense of self.
What to do:
· Trust your instinct: If something doesn’t feel right, it’s because it isn’t. Acknowledge that this treatment isn’t deserved, and acknowledge that you don’t need to dismiss you feelings the way that your partner has. To gain clarity on your feelings, write them down in a journal. You can then analyse these feelings: does your narrative voice echo that of the perpetrator? Can you separate your voice from that of the perpetrator?
· Allow yourself to imagine: Can you visualise what your life would look like without the perpetrator in your life? How would you feel? What does you life look like? The first step to acquiring the life you deserve is to visualise it as if it has already happened.
· Seek counselling: Part of the work of counselling is to help clients reconnect with their identity, their resources, and their self-belief. Abuse of any kind can have an impact on many facets of a person’s life.
1. Wilkinson, A (2017). What is gaslighting? The 1944 film Gaslight is the best explainer. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/1/21/14315372/what-is-gaslighting-gaslight-movie-ingrid-bergman
2. Morin, A (2017). 10 Signs You're a People-Pleaser. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201708/10-signs-youre-people-pleaser
3. Serious Crime Act (2015). https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/9/contents/enacted
4. Gilchrist, E., & Glisset, J. (2002). Magistrates' Attitudes to Domestic Violence and Sentencing Options. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice
5. Furnivall, J., & Grant, E. (2014). Trauma sensitive practice with children in care. https://www.iriss.org.uk/resources/insights/trauma-sensitive-practice-children-care?gclid=CjwKCAjwgdX4BRB_EiwAg8O8He4bmNDMqOyyqLUdMOi90S__ui2fZB9DdLo9hMfHjc1sk4g_pYugahoC3iwQAvD_BwE