Abuse and manipulation within a relationship can take many forms. It doesn’t have to involve physical violence. Gaslighting describes the way some people try to exert control over others.
The term comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light (filmed in 1944 for the big screen as Gaslight). In it, a husband attempts to convince his wife that she is slowly losing her mind by subtly changing elements of her environment, then pretending that she is delusional or remembering incorrectly.
The wife notices the strength of the gas lights in their home dimming. This is when the husband turns up the gas lights in the attic while he secretly searches for hidden treasure. However, when she challenges him, he denies any change and tells her she is imagining it.
The wife increasingly starts to question her own sanity.
Gaslighting has since been used to describe the way some people attempt to distort someone else’s perception of reality. Whether mild or extreme, gaslighting can greatly affect the recipient’s self-esteem and confidence.
‘This went on for years. And it got worse’
Mike (not his real name), says he still carries the scars of being gaslighted. Aged 25, he met Craig, 29. After a whirlwind romance, they moved in together.
‘I was in love. We moved into his newly bought house. Then, after a year, he wanted me to go on the mortgage so the house was legally “ours”. I would be tied in legally and financially, which I didn’t mind because it made me feel more secure.
Over time, Mike picked up on odd behavior or belittling comments.
‘He always used to talk about his degree at university and how that made him an intelligent person. It’s not really something that anyone else really says, but you don’t argue over something like that: you just think it’s a quirk of theirs.
‘I hadn’t got a university degree at that point and he used to use that as a means of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Or “you don’t really understand the situation so it’s better that you follow what I say or do what I say.”
‘It happened really gradually. Little snide comments – but it was so infrequent that you didn’t notice it so much. You just eventually began to believe it. You believe that you’re not as valid.’
‘This went on for years. And it got worse.
‘When you’re inside a relationship – well, you don’t necessarily see it as wrong’
‘I was a creative person. He had a creative degree in art, and I was trying out new ideas to be an artist and designer.
‘My creative output at that time was very basic, I suppose. I was learning things, assisting a decorator and learning about paint effects and all of this sort of thing, and [Craig] would say, “You’ll always be an assistant, you’ll never be a designer because you don’t have a degree.”
‘This sort of reinforced my own worry about my abilities, and made me feel that I had a cap to my limits. This went on for quite a while, until I managed to sell furniture at [prestigious London store] Liberty’s and several art galleries. Some of it sold for several thousand pounds.
‘I began to think that, “OK, I might be limited in my achievements but I have a skill that people are willing to pay for.” That was validation for me. This is now about seven years into the relationship, and I was still being told that I had a long way to go to be accepted as an artist or creative.
‘When you’re inside a relationship – well, you don’t necessarily see it as wrong, you just think that’s the way it is: He was older and had a degree and would use words in situations against me.’
They stayed together almost 17 years. Mike ended it when he discovered Craig in bed with his best friend. He had thought they had had a monogamous relationship, but Craig later informed him that he’d slept ‘with around three different men every week’ they’d been together.
‘Whether that’s just bravado or there’s truth there, that just killed everything.’
‘He would do this thing of turning on the lights in the middle of the night’
Despite this, as they shared the house, Mike at first moved into their spare room.
‘Every single night, he would do this thing of turning on the lights in the middle of the night in the bedroom that I was sleeping in. I would be constantly woken up throughout the night. This would happen a lot.
‘He denied it. He said I was mistaken and that I’d fallen asleep and left the lights on. It got to the stage when I was going to bed, and writing a note on a pad next to the bed noting the time I turned off the lights, and hiding the pad, so I knew.’
Mike says that it was only after he moved out and got himself into a new relationship that he began to really realize how abused he’d been in his previous relationship.
‘My husband, who I’ve been with for ten years, he’s a really laidback kind of guy. It’s only through meeting him, and my relationship with him, that I realized how oppressed I was without knowing it. How the reality had been so twisted.
‘It’s embarrassing,’ he says. ‘I’m not an academic but I’m not unintelligent, so the idea of being hoodwinked, almost like Chinese drip torture, very slowly but regularly … I’m almost ashamed that it went on so long.’
Mike says that he experienced all the following examples of gaslighting behavior.
1. Outright denial
You find evidence of wrongdoing or misbehavior by your partner. They flatly or aggressively deny it’s anything to do with them or has any meaning.
They are so vocal and convincing, you begin to question whether you’ve made a mistake or got the whole thing wrong, despite evidence to the contrary.
In the end, they’re so adamant in their stance, you end up backing down.
2. Accusations of forgetfulness
Does you partner often tell you that you are forgetful?
‘Don’t you remember I told you …’
We can all forget things, especially if we have a lapse of concentration while listening. However, if you are very sure of your own recollection of events or conversations, be wary of someone who consistently assures you that they told you otherwise.
‘This happened throughout the whole relationship [with Craig],’ says Mike. ‘And I’m not a forgetful person.’
3. Repetition of one version of events
There’s a saying: If you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to believe it. This could well be the gaslighter’s mantra. If they consistently assert their version of an incident, you could find yourself doubting your own recollection.
Maybe your other half repeatedly tells you that you always get easily confused. When someone keep repeating such messages, they can become an accepted ‘norm’ within the relationship, casting doubt on future interactions and disagreements.
‘This is how I would actually start believing that I was not good enough,’ says Mike, ‘because that’s what he kept repeating.’
4. Attempts to make you feel ashamed or play on perceived weaknesses
Gaslighters may try to manipulate you to become emotionally dependent on them. Highlighting your perceived or imaginary weaknesses, and stressing how you therefore need them in order to function to the best of your ability, is one way of doing this.
‘That’s the bit that makes me feel ashamed of the whole thing when I think about it,’ says Mike. ‘I was beaten by words and attitude. Constantly told that I wasn’t valid.
‘Mental abuse seems to be seen less than physical abuse. I’m not introverted or quiet and shy. I’m not the type of person you would associate with being mentally abused. I’ve been scarred by the experience, although my husband has helped a lot.’
‘There is no single reason why people gaslight’
There are often misunderstandings in relationships, and sometimes we can make mistakes or forget things. But gaslighting is different. It’s a sustained tactic of manipulation which most therapists and counselors regard as a form of emotional abuse.
‘There is no single reason why people gaslight,’ says UK-based psychotherapist Jane Czyzselska. She is keen to point out that gaslighting doesn’t just happen between partners but can occur in friendships, families or the workplace.
‘Paradoxically it is said that people might exhibit this kind of behavior if they have been extremely neglected or extremely pampered.
‘So you could say the roots of gaslighting might lie in the child not being accurately seen for who they are, whether that’s because they’re idealized and don’t get feedback when they’re cruel to others or whether they are emotionally neglected by their primary care-givers and punished or invalidated when they express their needs or emotions.
‘Gaslighting behavior tends to occur among people with extreme narcissistic personalities and who have little or no empathy either for themselves or for others.
‘Some of those who gaslight may not have been taught that other people’s feelings are as important as theirs and so their own personal gratification is seen as essential in order to survive emotionally.
Besides psychological factors, Czyzselska believes the behavior also needs to also be viewed in the context of the socio-political system that rewards some over others. A manipulative co-worker might be driven by the ‘survival of the fittest’ mantra to which they subscribe.
Either way, tackling head-on the person gas lighting you can be very difficult.
Get support from those you trust
‘If it goes unaddressed long-term, or if you can’t get away from the person in question, it can gnaw away at self-esteem, cause self-doubt, depression, anxiety and worse,’ says Czyzselska.
‘Recording facts can be helpful, depending on the person or the situation i.e. if the gaslighting is occurring in your workplace.
‘Getting support and seeking advice from others who believe you and who you trust is key.’