Gaslighting: what it means, how to recognise it and how to make it stop
Do conversations with your partner make you question your own sanity or perception of reality? Do you often find yourself apologising or making excuses for them? You may be experiencing gaslighting
David and Jane have been partners for three years and live together. Both have good jobs and recently they set up a joint bank account to cover shared expenses.
Jane has noticed regular substantial and unexplained withdrawals from the account, the timing of which often coincide with David being away on business. When she asks for an explanation, David accuses her of snooping, paranoia and, turning the tables, says her own overspending is more of a problem.
When she presses the point, David accuses her of trying to interfere in every aspect of his life and calls her a control freak. He wonders aloud if Jane would benefit from therapy for her anxiety issues.
David, of course, is trying to conceal an affair and Jane is being gaslighted.
The term gaslighting was coined in reference to the 1944 film Gaslight, nominated for several Oscars and starring Ingrid Bergman and Charlies Boyer. The film was an adaptation of a 1938 script by the British playwright Patrick Hamilton, in which a husband tries to convince his adoring wife that she has lost her mind. One of his methods is to cause the gas lighting in the house to flicker then, when his wife asks why, pretend nothing has happened.
Largely forgotten in the decades after the film’s success, gaslighting as a description of mental abuse in relationships has surged back into popular discourse and was one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s buzzwords of 2018.
What does gaslighting look like?
The word may be new(ish) but the technique is as old as human relationships and tends to be disproportionately employed by men. To an extent it has been institutionalized and the trope of an ‘hysterical’ woman is common in fiction (think of Sean Connery slapping Daniela Bianchi in From Russia With Love). However, it can be used by anyone seeking to impose their will on their partner, particularly those predisposed to narcissistic personality traits.
Gaslighting is essentially a control mechanism, where one person in a relationship attempts to subjugate the other by questioning their mental stability, often as a means of covering up or explaining away their own behaviour.
It can take the form of refusing to listen (“not this again”), inventing history (“I told you about this last week but you’ve forgotten) or perhaps implying a disproportionate response (“I can’t believe you’re angry about a little thing like that”).
It can often involve deflection, where one partner’s perhaps minor faults are magnified to bear comparison with the other’s worse behavior. Trivialising the victims’ problems – “you’re feeling sorry for yourself again” – is another common variant.
The effects can be profoundly damaging to mental health, where the victim begins to question their competence, memory and even sanity.
What can be done to combat it?
Gaslighting relies on bending objective reality and the unique state of mental tension that exists between two people in a relationship. If you think you are being gaslighted (and not being sure is perhaps the most common symptom) then try talking the situation through with an objective third party, perhaps a friend of family member.
Often it takes a perspective from outside to help you truly realise how bad things have become. But the perpetrators know this and being highly resistant to relationship therapy or any sort of outside influence that can lessen their control can also be a symptom.
Often people gaslight without quite realising what they’re doing – we can all go to silly lengths to justify our own behavior. Sometimes simple, honest dialogue about how you communicate can help. However, in the hands of a genuine narcissist, gaslighting can be dangerously abusive and may require outside intervention.
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