Gas lighting is a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, or concealment. Some people occasionally lie or use denial to avoid taking responsibility. They may forget or remember conversations and events differently than you do, or they may have no recollection — say, due to a blackout if they were drinking. These situations are sometimes called gas-lighting, but the term actually refers to a deliberate pattern of manipulation calculated to make the victim trust the perpetrator while doubting his or her own perceptions or sanity, similar to brainwashing. (See “How to Spot Manipulation.”)
The term derives from the play of the same title, and later, the film with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in which Bergman plays a sensitive, trusting wife struggling to preserve her identity in an abusive marriage to Boyer, who tries to convince her that she’s ill in order to keep her from learning the truth.
As in the movie, the perpetrator often acts concerned and kind to dispel suspicions. Someone capable of persistent lying and manipulation is also quite capable of being charming and seductive. Often the relationship begins that way. When the gaslighting starts, you might even feel guilty for doubting a person you’ve come to trust. To further play with your mind, an abuser might offer evidence to show that you’re wrong or question your memory or senses. More justification and explanation, including expressions of love and flattery, are concocted to confuse you and reason away any discrepancies in the liar’s story. You get temporary reassurance, but you increasingly doubt your own senses, ignore your gut, and become more confused.
The person gaslighting you might act hurt and indignant or play the victim when challenged or questioned. Covert manipulation can easily turn into overt abuse, with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy, or abusive. Abuse might escalate to anger and intimidation with punishment, threats, or bullying if you don’t accept the false version of reality.
Gaslighting can take place in the workplace or in any relationship. Generally, it concerns control, infidelity, or money. A typical scenario is when an intimate partner lies to conceal a relationship with someone else. In other cases, it may be to conceal gambling debts or stock or investment losses. The manipulator is often a narcissist, addict, or a sociopath, particularly if gaslighting is premeditated or used to cover up a crime. In one case, a sociopath was stealing from his girlfriend whose apartment he shared. She gave him money each month to pay the landlord, but he kept it. He hacked into her credit cards and bank accounts, but was so devious that to induce her trust he bought her gifts with her money and pretended to help her find the hacker. It was only when the landlord eventually informed her that she was way behind in the rent that she discovered her boyfriend’s treachery.
When the motive is purely control, a spouse might use shame to undermine his or her partner’s confidence, loyalty, or intelligence. A wife might attack her husband’s manhood and manipulate him by calling him weak or spineless. A husband might undermine his wife’s self-esteem by criticizing her looks or competence professionally or as a mother. To further isolate the victim and gain greater control, a typical tactic is either to claim that friends or relatives agree with the manipulator, or to disparage them so that that they cannot be trusted A similar strategy is employed to undermine the partner’s relationships with friends and relatives by accusing him or her of disloyalty.
Effects of Gaslighting
Gaslighting can be very insidious the longer it occurs. Initially, you may not realize you’re being affected by it, but gradually you lose trust in your own instincts and perceptions. It can be very damaging, particularly in a relationship built on trust and love. Love and attachment are strong incentives to believe the lies and manipulation. We use denial, because we would rather believe the lie than the truth, which might precipitate a painful breakup.
Gaslighting can damage our self-confidence and self-esteem, our trust in ourselves and reality, and our openness to love again. If it involves verbal abuse, we may believe the truth of the abuser’s criticisms and continue to blame and judge ourselves, even after the relationship is over. Many abusers put down and intimidate their partners to make them dependent, so that they won’t leave. Examples are: “You’ll never find anyone as good as me,” “The grass isn’t greener,” or “No one else would put up with you.”
Recovering from a breakup or divorce can be more difficult when we’ve been in denial about problems in the relationship. Denial often continues even after the truth comes out. In the story described above, the woman got engaged to her boyfriend — even after she found out what he’d done. It takes time for us to reinterpret our experience in light of all the facts, once they become known. It can be quite confusing, because we may love the charmer, but hate the abuser. This is especially true if all the bad behavior was out of sight, and memories of the relationship were mostly positive. We lose not only the relationship and the person we loved and/or shared a life with, but also our trust in ourselves and future relationships. Even if we don’t leave, the relationship is forever changed. In some cases, when both partners are motivated to stay and work together in conjoint therapy, the relationship can be strengthened and the past forgiven.
Recovery From Gaslighting
Learn to identify the perpetrator’s behavior patterns, and realize that they’re due to his or her insecurity and shame, not yours. Then get help: It’s critical that you have a strong support system to validate your reality in order to combat gaslighting. Isolation makes the problem worse and relinquishes your power to the abuser. You could join Codependents Anonymous, along with seeking counseling.
After you acknowledge what’s going on, you’ll be better able to detach and stop believing or reacting to falsehoods, even though you may want to. You’ll also realize that the gaslighting is occurring due to your partner’s serious character problems. It does not reflect on you, nor can you change someone else. For an abuser to change, it takes willingness and effort by both partners. Sometimes when one person changes, the other also does so in response. However, if he or she is an addict or has a personality disorder, change is difficult. (To assess your relationship and effectively confront unwanted behavior, see the book Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People.)
Once victims come out of denial, it’s common for them to mentally want to redo the past. They’re often self-critical for not having trusted themselves or stood up to the abuse. Don’t do this! Instead of perpetuating self-abuse, learn more about how to stop self-criticism and raise your self-esteem. (For more on how to stop abuse, see the book How to Be Assertive and Set Boundaries.)