The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play and its 1944 film adaptation, “Gas Light,” which tell the story of a young woman, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman), who meets and falls in love with a charming and handsome man, Gregory (played by Charles Boyer). Paula and Gregory get married and move to the U.K., into a home formerly occupied by Paula’s aunt, who was mysteriously murdered years before.
It turns out that Gregory is a jewel thief and a murderer, and proceeds to manipulate Paula to convince her that she is crazy. Every evening, Paula is convinced that she sees gaslights in the home dim and hears strange noises in the attic, but Gregory convinces her that she’s imagining it – though he is the one who is causing these things to happen. Paula develops intense insecurity and doubts her own perceptions and memories, and eventually has a nervous breakdown. Hopefully you are not, in fact, living with a jewel thief or a murderer. But, you may be in a relationship with someone who is using the same tactics to gain control over you, and get you to stay in an unhealthy (and likely abusive) relationship.
Acts of gaslighting may include denying his behavior, trying to convince you that his behavior was your fault, or doing things to make you feel crazy. For example, he may hide your keys or other belongings and then tell you that you’re crazy for constantly losing things. He may say something mean or abusive, or even physically hurt you, and then deny that it happened. He may have an affair and then tell you that you are overly jealous and overreacting.
Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse, and often happens along with other power and control tactics, such as isolating you from friends and family, calling you names, accusing you of cheating, and controlling the finances. And gaslighting, just like other forms of abuse, is intentional. These tactics are used to get you to doubt your own memory, sanity, perception, and judgment, so that you eventually lose faith in yourself, and rely solely on your partner for your well-being.
Ask yourself the following questions to determine if you are a victim of gaslighting:
- Does your partner often tell you that you are overreacting, too sensitive, or crazy?
- Do you often second guess yourself?
- When your partner does something insensitive or hurtful – whether it’s being late for a date, having an affair, saying something mean, or physically hurtful you – does he try to convince you that it is somehow your fault?
- Do you often feel confused?
- Do you often apologize to your partner (and others) for your behavior?
- Do you often make excuses for your partner’s behavior to your friends and family? Or, have you stopped sharing information about your arguments and relationship struggles with friends and family at all, to avoid having to make excuses?
- Do you have difficulty making decisions – even simple decisions such as what to wear or what to eat – and often question your choices?
- Do you feel depressed, hopeless, or frequently sad?
- Have you lost contact with friends and family?
- Do you feel like you can’t do anything right?
If any of these statements sound familiar, it is very likely that your partner is emotionally manipulating (gaslighting) you – which is a form of abuse. The good news is that becoming aware of this, and accepting it, is the most important step.
Once you know that your partner’s behavior is abusive, it is important to realize that it is not your fault. There is absolutely nothing you could do to cause his behavior, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Only the person who is using abusive tactics can choose to stop, and most abusers will not.
The best way to avoid future effects of gaslighting is to start focusing more on you. Start to unravel the lies your partner has told you, realize that your memory and perceptions are accurate, and start to build trust in yourself again. Ending an abusive relationship can be a difficult process, but staying will likely be even more difficult – and possibly dangerous.
Remember, you deserve to be heard, believed, respected, and loved – every day. To talk with someone and make a plan to move forward, contact the National Hotline at 800-799-SAFE. Remember, this is not your fault. And you are not alone.