How to Identify Gaslighting
Have you ever been forced to question your version of events? For victims of gaslighting, the seeds of doubt are sewn deep, but the good news is they can be uprooted.
By Andrew Pain in Happiful, published 3 July 2020
The wine was flowing, the dinner party in full swing and, as usual, my wife was holding court. She was describing her experiences undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, with a work placement on the Isle of Sheppey, when she referenced the local drug abuse issues. “95% of people on the Isle of Sheppey are drug addicts.”
I shuddered. This is how things always went. She’d start off with a great story, then take it too far. The people around the table looked at each other in disbelief. No one dared say a word (they never did), and she carried on regardless.
Later that evening, I summoned the courage to question her: “Darling, you were in great form last night, but… are you sure about that 95% statistic? It doesn’t sound quite right.”
Her glare cut through me. “You pedantic t**t!”
My mouth went dry, and my heart was racing. As expected, she’d not taken this well and it was going only one way: rage then violence (it always did).
“Why can’t you just enjoy the evening?” She said. “You do this with the kids, always f***g picking at them. Now you want to have a go at me?”
I could hear my young daughter crying upstairs, woken again by the shouting – it was all my fault.
My wife stormed out the house and I breathed a sigh of relief – at least I didn’t get hit this time, but I’d been stupid for being so pedantic. So what if the stat was wrong; it probably wasn’t that far off, right?
Gaslighting: in abusive relationships, abusers skilfully take control of your every thought by pouring doubt into your mind, about:
• What they said • What you did or said • What the people around you think/thought • Events in the past – “No it didn’t happen like that, it was like this” • Your traits and skills – “No, you’re not talented – you never were” or: “You have some talent, but you’re so arrogant about it”.
Bit by bit, the onslaught wears you down and the stories your abuser spins in your mind have two purposes:
For a victim of gaslighting, it can become harder and harder to speak out, because every negative situation, every problem that arises is twisted to convince you that you’re at fault. And when you hear it enough, you start to believe it, too.
The abuser will often isolate the victim from their friends and family, which makes them all the more reliant on the abuser, with no one to speak up and say that what they’re being told, and how they’re treated, isn’t right. Their support networks crumble away, and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free from the gaslighter’s control.
As with many victims of gaslighting, I reached the point where I was struggling to make decisions for myself
My ex-wife convinced me that my family wanted me to remain as a little boy, and in order to mature, I had to cease contact with them. On the odd occasion when they would still visit, my ex’s behaviour made the situation unbearable and humiliating – making it the more appealing choice to have less contact with us all together.
When people would question her behaviour, I became my wife’s greatest excuse-maker to justify it all. “She’s tired.” “The kids are wearing her out.” “She’s working through some stuff.” “She’s under a lot of pressure.”
As with many victims of gaslighting, I reached the point where I was struggling to make decisions for myself, out of fear for picking the wrong thing – I lost my confidence and self-esteem, which again keeps victims trapped in this destructive situation. It’s easier to just hold back your thoughts and feelings, and instead agree with the gaslighter’s ideas and opinions.
In my own life, I felt like I’d become a manipulative liar, focused entirely on keeping my wife calm, hiding my mistakes, the kids’ mistakes, forward-planning in absurd detail to out-manoeuvre anything that might go wrong. I had become a control freak, ruled by paranoia and panic, and I no longer trusted my instincts.
The term “gaslighting” originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, where a manipulative husband drives his wife to insanity by causing her to question what she experienced. Gaslighting takes many forms, from convincing the victim that they have mental health issues or major personality issues, to undermining their confidence and self-esteem. When a victim challenges their behaviour or actions, they are told that they’re over-reacting, are being too sensitive, or always imagining things.
When you’re on the receiving end of gaslighting, it’s hard to see beyond it because your abuser knows you – your strengths, weaknesses, and motivations, and will consistently work to keep you unsettled and unsure of yourself, convincing you that you’re making it all up. But you're not – and it’s not your fault.
Are you the victim of gaslighting?
If in doubt, try to take a step back and see the situation with a clearer perspective. If it was a friend in your shoes, experiencing what you are experiencing, what would you say to them? Would you have serious concerns about what they are going through?
Find someone to talk to who you trust, who is outside the situation. Abusers will isolate their victims so their gaslighting goes unchallenged, but when you talk to someone who can help you see things for what they are, the walls built by the gaslighting abuser become more shaky, eventually tumbling, and the dominance of the abuser folds in on itself.
If you feel it’s safe to do so, having an open conversation with your partner can help to address the issue – they might not be aware of their behaviour. You could try relationship counselling, with an unbiased third party who can help mediate the situation.
There are numerous places you can go to get support and further information – this behaviour is emotional abuse, so if you are concerned for your safety please do speak to the National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247. They can discuss what you’re experiencing, and talk you through how you can address the situation.
I am now happily remarried and repaired, with all family relationships restored. There are no mind games now, and living without fear is liberating and wonderful.
There is life beyond abuse; the separating and moving forward takes time, and can be challenging, but there is life after abuse.