In the last few years, it seems the term “gas lighting” has become nearly ubiquitous. The term was first used in the 1950s to mean some kind of emotional manipulation, but more specifically to mean making someone doubt his or her own sanity by repeatedly presenting a false narrative about events within the relationship. At least one person, (you can see Alfred MacDonald’s blog here), claims that gaslighting actually requires someone to tell an outright lie in order to convince someone their memory or perception is faulty. Others believe the manipulation can be more subtle, and still others use the term so loosely that almost everyone is guilty of gaslighting (e.g., telling someone they are over-reacting to a minor event or episode).
I don’t think anyone has provided strict diagnostic criteria for gaslighting, and I won’t try, but I think we can agree that it does involve manipulating someone to question whether their perceptions are accurate. It is a form of abuse and a means of exercising control. When one person complains of some behavior, the other partner may question it by saying, “I think you’ve been working too much—that never happened.” Or they may say, “Did you remember your meds this morning?” Or they may say, with an air of concern, “Honey, that didn’t happen. Do you think it is time to see a psychiatrist or something?”
This type of manipulation can be extremely subtle. We all over-react sometimes, and who can claim to have a perfect memory? With any given instance, we may doubt our memory or perception. When you start carrying around a voice recorder or considering keeping security cameras in your home just to verify your account of things, though, you are either a victim of gaslighting or you really are suffering from some severe psychosis. If you are psychotic, you are probably having more than relationship problems, so if you do all right around other people, you probably live with an abusive partner.
If you are lucky, your friends, family, and coworkers can help assure you that your memory and grip on reality are firm; unless, of course, your abuser has gotten to them first. In early stages, her or his campaign against you may appear to be genuine concern. He or she may tell close friends, “I’m worried about my husband. He never seems happy anymore.” Or, the abuser may become more assertive: “I can’t get him to go to a doctor. If you see him, maybe you can find out why he is so reluctant.” By making such comments, the abuser raises suspicion that you are not in your right mind, and you may also begin to doubt whether you are in your right mind.”
As things progress, the abuser may begin to portray herself or himself as the victim, saying things like, “She keeps track of everything I do,” or “She controls all the finances. I don’t even know how much money is in the bank.”
A blog on AngieMedia (attributed only to Rob) describes how far abusers sometimes go: “An abuser who is using gaslighting on you is also likely to behave similarly with others to make them dislike you. This is a common attack used during what can become tremendously damaging distortion campaigns that these abusers will use against people close to them to maintain control and a sense of superiority. Such abusers may report you to police to get you falsely arrested and perhaps prosecuted for absolutely no reason other than they want to be in control of you and how others perceive you. They are likely to make remarks to their friends, family, neighbors, and others to “prove” they are being abused, often behind your back for years until you learn what they have been doing. “
The abuser may then come back to you and say, perhaps accurately, “All my friends think you are a bully.” Or, “Your Mom thinks you need to see a psychiatrist.” Living in an intentionally distorted reality, it becomes impossible to verify or even corroborate claims about your mental state, others opinions of you, or what has been said about you. Your alleged mental breakdown may, indeed, be imminent. Under the stress of this type of relationship, you are likely to doubt yourself, question the loyalty of your friends and family, and withdraw from all social contact. Once you are isolated, you are under the control of your abuser. You will no longer have access to the solid moorings of reality, and will drift in a cloud of confusion as you become more depressed, anxious, and desperate.
If you are doubting yourself, it helps to hear of the experiences of others. If you have survived this type of abuse, please help others by sharing your story. For example, I suspect Princess Diana helped many people when she described her marriage in her famous BBC Panarama interview:
DIANA: Well, people were – when I say people I mean friends, on my husband’s side – were indicating that I was again unstable, sick, and should be put in a home of some sort in order to get better. I was almost an embarrassment.
BASHIR: Do you think he really thought that?
DIANA: Well, there’s no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it.
BASHIR: So you were isolated?
DIANA: Uh,uh, very much so.
This is how people become trapped in toxic and destructive relationships. The only way out, really, is to find others who can verify your sanity and help you see the campaign against you for what it is. This is why it is important for survivors to speak up about their experiences. When people speak about what happened to them, victims who feel trapped may recognize the techniques of the gaslighter, and may gain some strength.
Finally, when you encounter others who seem unhappy in a relationship who may feel trapped, try to remember they may be victims of a gaslighting campaign. Things may not be as they seem. Your patience and understanding may save a life.