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Gaslighting has entered into our common parlance in recent years. Sometimes the term is uttered out of frustration, anger or dissatisfaction in difficult relationships, whether at home or at work. Sometimes, women after long struggles to understand their intimate relationship, began to query whether they are a victim of gaslighting.

So, what exactly is gaslighting?
How can you tell?

In this series of Musings on gaslighting, I address gaslighting only in the context of adult intimate relationship. Notwithstanding that, it is important to note that gaslighting occurs in any situation where there is power imbalance. So gaslighting can occur in the context of family relationships, between bosses or managers and employees, by politicians or cult leaders.

I also refer to the victim as “she” not because women are incapable of being the perpetrators, but only because women are the victims in a majority of gaslighting cases in adult intimate relationships.

Origin of the term Gaslighting

The term originated from a 1938 play which later evolved into a 1944 film, “Gaslight”. It is a story about how a husband manipulated the wife into doubting her sanity so he could send her to a psychiatric hospital and steal her assets.

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the perpetrator repeatedly denies the reality of the victim. It is insidious, pernicious and manipulative. Over time, the victim feels confused, doubts her perception, her sense of reality, and her judgment. She fears the unreliability of her memory. She feels so invalidated that her sense of self, self-worth and confidence is battered.

For instance, if the victim raises any issue regarding the relationship or the behaviour of her partner, her comments may be met with rebuttals that query the validity of her observations, often laced with contempt, dismissal or ridicule:

  • No, I didn’t say that / I didn’t do that
  • I have no clue what you are blabbering on about
  • Oh it’s your bad memory again.
  • You are too sensitive / over suspicious
  • Stop acting like a drama queen
  • Why can’t you lighten up and take a joke
  • You never get things right
  • There’s something wrong with you, you are not thinking straight

Or the perpetrator may just turn the table to allege bad faith on the part of the victim:

  • You are just trying to make me feel guilty.

The perpetrator may also create a false narrative to malign the victim by lying about her to family and friends, for example, that she is not well, that there is something wrong with her. Over time such action could diminish the circle of support for the victim, isolating her.

Gaslighting can be ambiguous

Gaslighting is not black and white, especially in the initial stages. There are aspects that make it ambiguous and confusing. It may evolve over time.

A perpetrator may start by picking on the appearance of his partner, it could descend over time into insulting her intelligence.

He can also be very unpredictable. He may make devastatingly withering comments about the partner one moment, then become sweet and endearing later.

Gaslighting often is not a stand-alone signal of relationship failure.

He may behave in the following ways to exert his power over the victim:

  • Action to show he has power over her mood, that he can make her miserable, especially on occasions that she values, e.g., celebrations, festivities
  • Frequent demand for apologies
  • Meting out silent treatment.

The victim may also uncover acts of betrayal and infidelity.

Controlling and coercive behaviour

In some cases, gaslighting escalates to, or is accompanied by, controlling and coercive behaviour such as

  • Public humiliation
  • Monitoring or restricting social contacts and activities, access to phone and social media
  • Controlling expenditure, finance
  • Manipulating or forcing unwanted sex

Through these tactics, the perpetrator intimidates and instils fear.

It is noteworthy that in England and Wales, controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate relationship is now an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2015.

Potential escalation into physical violence

There is a risk that emotional abuse may escalate into abusive power and control, and physical violence. If a perpetrator perceives any act of the victim as defiance, he may resort to physical force to suppress and control the victim.

Do not under-estimate such risks.

Psychological impact of gaslighting on the victim

The impact is deep and devastating.

The victim begins to doubt herself, feels that she could not trust her senses and judgment about anything. She believes there is really something wrong with her, she may blame herself as being too suspicious, too sensitive, poor memory or otherwise. That it is her fault that she upsets the perpetrator, or provokes his retaliation with tighter control.

Generally, she may feel she is just not good enough in so many ways.

As her sense of self withers, she withdraws into a state of low mood, despondency, anxiety. She may even feel that she needs to rely on the perpetrator’s interpretation of reality, because hers is faulty.

When her trust in herself is destroyed, she also could not trust others.

How can you tell whether you are a victim of the abuse of gaslighting?

It is not an easy task to decipher that in an ongoing relationship. Women want the best for their relationships and families. They don’t want to lightly allege abuse or gaslighting. They want to give their partners the benefit of doubt, even if it is at the expense of the women’s own wellbeing.

The situation can be very confusing, “very foggy” as one of my clients described it. Unlike physical abuse, emotional abuse leaves no mark. And there is so much self-doubt amongst these women that impedes their ability to clearly analyse the situation.

The following are some indicators that you may be a victim of gaslighting:

  • For a while now, you have a deep uneasy feeling that something does not jell in your relationship, something is not right,
  • You sense that what you feel and perceive to be true is constantly denied and rebutted by your partner
  • You begin to feel you can’t trust your judgment, your memory
  • You are always querying yourself: did I imagine that? did I cause that? is it my fault?
  • You feel insecure and anxious about your partner and your relationship
  • You feel isolated, don’t know who to turn to, who to trust
  • You feel the ground under your feet is shaky
  • You are frequently forced to apologise for things that you know you are not in the wrong
  • You feel obliged to placate and pacify your partner for fear that worse thing could happen to you or the relationship
  • You recognise what’s described here as common behaviour and tactics in gaslighting.

Is the perpetrator of gaslighting always malevolent, intentional to cause harm?

To add to the confusion, it is possible that the perpetrator of gaslighting may not have acted intentionally, or is conscious of his intent to cause psychological injury.

It is also possible that he could be a product of family dynamics where the powerful members are emotionally abusive, and gaslighting is par for the course. In other words, it is possible that it is a learnt behaviour, and the perpetrator does not think there is any wrong in such behaviour.

That said, whatever is the root cause of the perpetrator’s behaviour, it cannot justify the behaviour of gaslighting. Gaslighting erodes trust, destroys the foundation of a secure and safe partnership, and causes psychological trauma and damage to the victim.

Do not accept gaslighting. It must be stopped.

Check out in Musings from Clinical Notebook:

Gaslighting 2: What can you do?
Why do you believe me Yi Shing?
Gaslighting 3: Recovery from Gaslighting
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