This term comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home, and then he denies that the light changed when his wife points it out. It is a very effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question his/her own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power (and abuse is about power and control). Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.
There are several different gaslighting techniques that might be used:
- Withholding: the abusive partner will withhold conversation or affection at times or refuse to listen, which can make the victim feel confused and question what they did to cause this
- Countering: the abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately
- Blocking/Diverting: the abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts
- Trivializing: the abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant
- Forgetting/Denial: the abusive partner pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim
Gaslighting tends to happen very gradually in a relationship. The tactics can be subtle, but that does not lessen the result. Gaslighting does not necessarily require deliberate plotting, but only requires a belief that it is acceptable to overwrite another person’s reality. This core belief stems from a desire to maintain inequality within the relationship, as the abusive partner needs to be “one-up” to maintain control. When we hold the beliefs of devaluing another’s reality, we can quickly move to control and manipulation, which is a step beyond intimidation. This manipulation centers around not just influencing another person’s behavior, but the goal is to actually change who someone is. The abusive partner wants to make sure the victim relies on them to define reality.
Here are the signs to help recognize if you are a victim of gaslighting according to psychoanalyst Robin stem, Ph.D:
- You constantly second-guess yourself.
- You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day.
- You often feel confused and even crazy.
- You’re always apologizing to your partner.
- You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
- You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
- You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
- You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
- You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
- You have trouble making simple decisions.
- You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
- You feel hopeless and joyless.
- You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
- You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner.
Isolation is a tactic that controlling partners use in order to weaken their victims, prevent them from hearing others’ perspectives, and bring them into line with his/her own beliefs and requirements. The isolation is key to keep control. The abusive/controlling partner, often motivated by possessiveness and jealousy, will keep their victims from social contact with family and friends.
The following is a list of tactics often used to isolate:
- The abuser controls the money—the victim is only given a certain amount and they are often not allowed to do things like change the thermostat because they don’t pay the bill, or go grocery shopping on their own without an account of every penny spent
- The abuser will manufacture situations to stop the plans of a victim to go with friends or family
- The abuser will claim jealousy or deep love as a reason to keep the victim away from others
- The abuser demands loyalty to him/her, not others
- The abuser will not “allow” the victim to see certain people and limits their time with family and friends
- The abuser is often rude, critical, or dismissive of the victim’s visitors
- The abuser attempts to divide and conquer by provoking jealousies and rivalries
- The abuser requires the relationship issues be kept secret
The victim will eventually isolate him/herself in order to save face and due to fear of the consequences. The victim may feel misunderstood or judged or stigmatized, which is another reason they will isolate further. Anyone who lives with ongoing experience of being abused by a family or household member can become isolated as a result.
Many abusive partners function from a space of fear and core feelings of not being enough, which can catapult them into narcissistic personality behaviors. The abuser creates an ego-self, which is designed to keep them safe, but is a false self. The ego functions from fear and uses lies and half-truths to maintain the reality they create to ensure they are seen as wonderful and infallible. In this scenario, the abuser cannot tolerate truth or having anyone question their behaviors or beliefs. The abuser may use intimidation, gaslighting, or isolation to ensure the victim does not speak truth to others about them or the situation.
This is an aspect of abuse that is not often identified or talked about. The controlling/abusive partner finds the accomplishments of the victim to be a threat to their sense of self. Instead of being supportive and championing their partner, the abusive/controlling partner will put the victim down every chance they get. Successes will be discounted. Talents will be denied. And growth through learning and healing will simply not be tolerated. The controlling/abusive partner feels stuck and unable to break out of their own self-destructive cycles, so seeing their partner (victim) progress is incredibly painful for them. This is also tied to their need to be seen as “better-than” their victim.
The following are just a few ways the controlling/abusive partner will try to hold the victim back:
- Make fun of the victim’s accomplishments or blatantly discount them
- Show no support when the victim attempts to better him/herself and often find ways to discount the approach
- Express dislike for counseling and refuse to seek any help for emotional healing, whether through the traditional counseling route or alternative approaches
- Withhold praise or words of affirmation
- Actively try to put their partner (victim) down any time they attempt something new, such as a new skill or new job
- Take any opportunity to put the victim down with words or actions, sometimes subtle and other times blatant (they often seek pleasure in “kicking them while they’re down”)
(Images are from the photography show, “Victim to Victor” by Jane Merritt. All images are copyrighted by Pursuing Perspective.)