With violence in intimate relationships coming more and more to the forefront in today’s day and age, violence in its most overt forms (especially physical and sexual violence) is being outlawed strongly in most countries across the world. However, when it comes to covert violence (such as verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, abuse by omission by distancing from one’s partner physically, withholding conversation, not providing care and treatment for health related issues etc), which is just as damaging, if not more for the survivor, and much harder to establish, the jury is still out. Covert forms of violence still do not receive the same kind of attention from the law and society at large, as the more overt forms mentioned above. Experiencing any of these forms of violence, therefore, often comes with the additional challenge of convincing other people that there is violence in the relationship in the first place.
While emotional or psychological manipulation and abuse does not leave behind physical injury, the intent like any other form of violence, is to harm, control, punish or demean an individual. The result is that the individual being abused becomes fearful of the abuser and lives in constant fear and isolation, as the abuser is often aware that no one will believe the survivor.
Moreover, while physical pain often fades in memory, emotional pain is remembered for a much longer period of time, and also has detrimental consequences on the mental health of the survivor (Chen, Williams, Fitness & Newton, 2008).
The Gaslight Effect: Is this happening to you?
Dr. Robin Stern, coined the term the “The Gaslight Effect” in 2007 as a means to explain the hidden manipulative patterns that occur in emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships. The term “Gaslighting” gets its name from a 1938 stage play, in which a character strategically manipulates small things in his wife’s environment with the intention of convincing his wife and others around them that she is insane (Formica, 2015). Gaslighting specifically refers to instances when an abuser makes the survivor doubt their sense of reality by making them question their memory, perception and sanity.
In intimate relationships perpetrators often use this tactic in order to further imbalance the power dynamic, and make their partner second guess themselves when they complain about the perpetrator’s behavior. Gaslighting is therefore considered to be emotional and mental violence (Nelson, 2015).
Signs that you are experiencing Gaslighting
If you are experiencing the following, you might be in a gaslighting relationship:
- You are constantly questioning the validity of your memories and experiences.
- Being regularly told by your partner that “you are overreacting”, “you are too sensitive/emotional” when you question their hurtful behavior.
- Your partner outrightly denying that certain things happened when you are sure that they did. It can reach an extent where they make you feel as if you imagined it, made it up, or they question your intelligence.
- You start having to lie in order to avoid being put-down by your partner or have them twist your reality.
- You having to think twice before bringing up a topic of conversation with your partner.
- Feeling low, hopeless and as if your confidence is lost.
- Your partner playing the victim and putting the blame on you when you try to bring to light their incorrect/hurtful/abusive behavior or accusations.
The three stages of being in a Gaslighting relationship:
While such a relationship pattern might be hard to spot earlier, it can soon take over your entire life and start preoccupying your thoughts and feelings (Stern, 2007).
Stage 1- DISBELIEF: In this stage your partner says something critical to you or accuses you of something outrageous, leaving you confused and feeling that either you or your partner have misunderstood the situation. However, though you have been criticized, you still believe you are right and you don’t doubt your point of view. You might even get into an argument trying to prove you’re not wrong.
Stage 2 – DEFENSE: When this occurs, you find yourself trying very hard to defend yourself, gathering evidence and trying to prove that you are not wrong. You no longer feel sure that you will be listened to or believed.
Stage 3 – DEPRESSION: This is the most difficult stage of all, because you believe that you are wrong and that you can’t do things right anymore – resulting in you accepting your partner’s negative view of you. You feel too exhausted to argue and try to do things their way, and win their approval, so as to stop the criticism and arguments.
What you can do to help yourself if you are experiencing Gaslighting
The first and most important aspect of removing yourself from being the victim of these manipulative patterns is to mobilize yourself to take action. At the same time, we must be prepared to meet with resistance, from our partner, as well as ourselves.
Stern (2007) discusses five ways in which you can create shifts in perspective, which may help you change the dynamic between your partner and you. It is not necessary to do them all, you can begin with what you find most easy and take it from there:
- Sort out truth from distortion: Hold on to what you truly feel deep down, and stick to your sense of what is true.
- Decide whether the conversation is really a power struggle, and if it is, opt out: In a genuine conversation even if emotions are high, both people are listening to each other and acknowledging each other’s concerns. Whereas in a power struggle, the powerful person tries to put the other person down, and the lesser powerful person tries to defend themselves. If you do find yourself amidst a power struggle, disengage.
- Identify your gaslight triggers, and your partner’s: It is not your fault if your partner behaves badly, however avoiding predictable topics and situations that set off these chains of interaction is a good idea from the point of view of self-preservation.
- Focus on your feelings instead of who is “right” and “wrong”: If you feel that the accusation your partner made is true, and you are genuinely feeling sorry, then admit it, apologize, and move on. However, if you’re feeling attacked, frustrated, hurt and terrified, then something is wrong.
- Remember that you can’t control anyone’s opinion—even if you’re right! : It’s important to accept that your partner alone has control over their thoughts and actions, and that though you may be right, you cannot do anything to change it. Focus on controlling the controllables.
The Role of Counselling
It may be very difficult for you to be able to spot such manipulative patterns in your relationship. Moreover, both the realization as well as the experience of such a relationship pattern can be extremely distressing. At such a point, it is very useful to have an outsider view from a supportive and sensitized mental health professional to help you identify these patterns and also guide you through the process of untangling yourself from them.
The team at iCALL endeavor to provide a completely safe, supportive, empathetic and affirmative environment for you. You shall never be required to provide evidence for the veracity of your lived experiences, and shall never be made to second-guess yourself. Know that you are not alone, and there are many others like you who reach out to us for help in similar situations.
Reach out to us by giving us a call on 022-25521111 at any time between 8AM to 10PM from Monday to Saturday. Our counsellors will be happy to cater to your concerns in ten different languages: English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, Konkani, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. You could also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chen,Z., Williams, K., Fitness, J., Newton, N. (2008) When hurt will not heal: Exploring the capacity to relive social and physical pain Psychological science 19(8) 789-795.
Formica, M. (2015). Gas-lighting: Burning the Bridges of Truth. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/enlightened-living/201509/gas-lighting-burning-the-bridges-truth
Nelson, K. (2015). Gaslighting Is a Common Victim-Blaming Abuse Tactic – Here Are 4 Ways to Recognize It in Your Life. everyday feminism. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/gaslighting-is-an-abuse-tactic/
Stern, R. (2007). The gaslight effect. New York: Morgan Road Books.
Stern, R. (2009). Are You Being Gaslighted?. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/power-in-relationships/200905/are-you-being-gaslighted