The reality of gaslighting

Domestic violence. What’s the most salient image that comes to mind when reading those words? The image tends to be that of a woman with a black eye and bruises on her body, however, what we know about domestic violence is that it encompasses a pattern of behaviors that aim to control the victim’s emotions, thoughts, sense of physical safety, financial stability and sexual sovereignty/autonomy. Unfortunately, the results can be seemingly invisible to the untrained eye. One particularly insidious, harder-to-see pattern of abusive tactics referred to in the field of domestic violence is colloquially referred to as Gaslighting.

At its inception, the term Gaslighting was the title of a 1944 film adaptation of a British play, in which an abusive husband convinces his wife she is losing her mind. The husband subtly and covertly gains control over his wife’s thoughts, feelings and perception of reality.

Gaslighting, like all other forms of abuse, escalates over time.

A statement like, “She’s just an old friend. You know you’re the only woman I’m dating,” is just the beginning. The abusive partner lies continually, causing the victim to question the validity of her memories. “You didn’t hear my phone go off. You know you are the only person I text.” When she confronts a lie, the name of the game is deny, deny, deny. He comes home carrying their child and when she questions him about his slurred speech and the strong scent of alcohol, he says, “I haven’t been drinking. See? First you were hearing things, and now you’re smelling things.” Then the subject changes as he weaves a tangled web of words in an attempt to confuse her and make her question her judgment and perception of reality. “You’re worrying about me drinking and you go out all the time with your friends. You go out so much, I don’t even think you love me anymore. See, I called you earlier to check on you and you didn’t even answer my call. I know you don’t care about me. You are going to destroy our family.” What started as her confronting him about drinking with their child in the car, he has intentionally and effectively shifted to her, absolving himself of any responsibility.

After he shatters a plate intentionally thrown against the wall, he might say, “If you had cooked this right, I wouldn’t have gotten angry!” She tells him he is scaring their child, and he responds with, “No, I didn’t scare our two-year-old; he’s crying because you’re crying. If you would get control of your emotions, he wouldn’t cry so much. You’re so sensitive!” When he reacts with dismay and anger, she is blamed for his actions, ultimately convincing her that she is at fault for his actions. With any expression of feelings, she is told she is too sensitive or too emotional, leading her to doubt her strength and question her self-worth.

And then the honeymoon phase – a temporary respite from the anguish of walking on eggshells in an attempt to appease and comply. As it sounds, the honeymoon phase is rife with love-bombing and empty promises, intentionally manufactured to create a sense of hope in her after a verbally or physically violent episode. Hope that he has learned, hope that he has changed… and hope that she has survived the worst of it.

What we, in this field, know about the cycle of an abusive relationship is that the honeymoon phase is temporary.

Undeniably, phrases like, “I was just joking when I told you your co-worker is cuter than you, you know I love you” – used to minimize his actions when the facts are undeniable – begin again. The tension returns when she walks in the door with a shopping bag containing shampoo and a snack. His first words are, “I see you went shopping, out wasting my money again.” Through these tactics, he is covertly establishing himself as the authority, the expert, the one who makes the rules, the one in control. She begins to feel shameful for not being smart enough, not an adequately skilled wife/girlfriend, or mother.

The above illustration is a glimpse into one day in the life of a victim of domestic violence with a partner who is gaslighting her. Each day the circumstances change, but the pattern of intentional manipulation remains. She is living in a constant world of manufactured confusion, doubt and shame. He has worked to ensure she incessantly questions her perceptions, her intuition, her thoughts, her feelings, her entire sense of self.

What we know is that gaslighting is REAL, but its effects are not permanent. A domestic violence professional can help untangle the web of confusion and support her in regaining trust in herself. If you may be experiencing this, help and hope is only a phone call away. We answer the phone 24-hours a day, 7 days a week: 214.946.4357 (HELP).

 

Written by Katherine Crooms, women and children’s therapist at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support.

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