Gaslighting: What is it?

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The term Gaslighting derives from the 1938 stage play Gas Light (originally known as Angel Street in the United States), and the 1940 and 1944 film adaptions. The plot concerns a husband attempting to drive his wife insane by manipulating small elements of their environment, while insisting that she is mistaken or misremembering when she notices and remarks upon these changes. The title stems from the husband’s subtle dimming of the house’s gas lights, which she accurately notices, but the husband insists she’s imagining.

“I am mad. I’m always losing things and hiding things and I can never find them, I don’t know where I’ve put them.” - Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

Gaslighting is Abuse

In brief, Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented to the victim, with the intent of making them doubt their own memory and perception. It may simply be the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, or it could be the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorientating the victim. Ultimately the victim ‘allows’ the perpetrator to define some or all of their reality. Gaslighting is sometimes called Ambient Abuse, or Sleeping Beauty Slavery.

Gaslighting and Infidelity

Gaslighting is employed by many wayward spouses, in an attempt to continue an affair while leaving the betrayed spouse none the wiser. Gaslighting is also used by many people as a form of control over co-workers, friends and family.

Psychologists Gass and Nichols use the term gaslighting to describe a dynamic observed in some cases of marital infidelity:

“Male therapists may contribute to the women’s distress through mislabeling the women’s reactions. […] The gaslighting behaviours of the husband provide a recipe for the so-called ‘nervous breakdown’ for some women [and] suicide in some of the worst situations.”

“The worst part Harry, is the lying”

“I’m not lying, you’re just imagining things”

The Manson Family, during their “creepy crawler” burglaries of the late 1960s, would enter homes and steal nothing, but would rearrange furniture to upset and confuse residents.

How do you know if you are being gaslighted?

If any of the following warning signs ring true, you may be being gaslighted. Take care of yourself by taking another look at your relationship, talking to a trusted friend; and begin to think about changing the dynamic of your relationship.

  1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself.
  2. You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” a dozen times a day.
  3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
  4. You’re always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend, boss.
  5. You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
  6. You frequently make excuses for your spouse’s behaviour to friends and family.
  7. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
  8. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
  9. You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
  10. You have trouble making simple decisions.
  11. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
  12. You feel hopeless and joyless.
  13. You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
  14. You wonder if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/ wife/employee/friend/daughter.
  15. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.

Is it possible over time to get so beaten down and so sure you might be at fault that you can’t identify the dynamic? The answer is YES. The Gaslight Effect happens over time, and very gradually, so by the time you are deep into the Gaslight Effect you are not the same strong – or not so strong – self you used to be. In fact, your ego functioning has been compromised and, no longer being certain of your reality, you are not often able to accurately identify when something is “off” with your partner.

There is good news about identifying the Gaslight Effect. The good news is that knowledge is power. Once you can name this all too insidious dynamic, you can work towards changing the dynamic, or getting out — take back your reality, and get more enjoyment from your life and your relationship.

In gaslighting cases, the ability to resist depends on the ability to trust your own judgment. Establishing “counter stories” to that of the gaslighter may help the victim re-acquire or even for the first time, acquire ordinary levels of free agency.

Discuss this article on our marriage forum.

References & Further Reading:

This entry was posted in Honesty & Deception, Infidelity Help, Relationship Safety & Security and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Gaslighting: What is it?

  1. Sean Patrick says:

    Josh, I believe I am married with children to someone who is gas lighting me. Just tonight she said she was going to a work thing and was gone for over 10 hours until 2am. When she came home and I attempted to confront her the conversation turned to her being mad at me, me having the nerve to question her, her threatening to leave with the kids, and her then bringing up something from over 6 years ago, which she accuses me of cheating because I befriended a female that I worked with at the time. This happens with any argument, this instance is brought up repeatedly. Just recently she brought up an incident that I am positive never happened and it made me question my reality. I can’t simply walk away from this relationship as I will lose time with my daughter and lose my step daughters completely. But I can’t go on like this. I dream of a day when my children are older and I can simply walk away from this marriage. I need help. I have found myself trying to call abuse hotlines just to talk to someone and I end up feeling stupid and hanging up. I am completely isolated. I work and spend time with my children.

  2. Josh says:

    Does anyone have experience with with having kids and being married to a gas lighter? My wife is a gas lighter and has had several affairs over the past couple of years. She has since ended those relationships but the trust in our marriage has been destroyed. I would leave the relationship if it weren’t for our kids. Does anyone have any insight on how to deal with a gas lighter if you have kids? Is it best to try to stY together for the kids or is it just too difficult to make a relationship with a gaslighter work?

  3. CZ says:

    My wife, mother in law and my wife’s best friend gas lighted me during an affair that my wife was having that lasted almost two years. Although the truth about her relationship and the lies and manipulation came out as her expatiation’s of the “boy friend” couldn’t meet her needs as he did not want to leave his wife. My wife told me at least most of the truth (she fell in love with another man) and her mother and friend supported this arrangement and tried to make me feel like I was crazy.
    We are still together and I have mostly forgave my wife but not her mother and friend (it’s been about 10 years) unfortunately i do not forgive easily). I am not really angry at anyone but still remember being played by all involved and don’t really trust them.

  4. Emerald Monroe says:

    unfortunately, my husband is schizophrenic & had not been taking his meds. He recently had a psychotic episode. Every time this happens he refers to gas lighting as if I am doing this to him to confuse or deceive him when in actuality he has become delusional because of his condition. He just posted this link on Facebook. Frankly, it makes me resent that this play was ever written or term coined from it.

    • Emerald,

      This article is not appropriate for your situation. No one here is a qualified mental health professional, and our articles are designed for those who have dealt with their condition and have it under control by following the treatment recommended by their qualified mental health professional.

      Regards,
      Marriage Advocates

    • Call me crazy says:

      I understand what you mean, Emerald. My husband has always used gaslighting for years and years as long as i’ve known him, but lately he has started turning around and accusing me of gaslighting HIM instead! It is really bizarre. I literally have to use a handheld recorder to keep my self sane. But in their defense, since they somewhat do believe their false versions of things, imagine how it must feel to always be hearing, “wait a minute, no, it definately didnt happen like that at all, you actually said this, this or this, remember?” It does sound like WE are the ones discounting THEIR perceptions and implying THEY are crazy! :) Also, i have no idea why marriage advocates answered the way they did. Does that mean i can only post here when my husband has stopped gaslighting and is getting help for it? Most gaslighters NEVER acknowledge or admit it. So i found that to be a very unusual response in general.

    • As Emerald has a husband with a diagnosed medical condition – schizophrenia – that affects his perceptions of reality as well as his behavior, what is going on is not gas lighting.

      Someone who gas lights is doing it on purpose. They are aware of the reality. Schizophrenia involves delusions where the person cannot differentiate reality and delusion. That’s why it is called a delusion.

      Therefore, this article is not for schizophrenia or any other condition that involves delusions.

    • Clare says:

      Thank you Marriage Advocates. Emerald’s post is counterproductive for anyone whom Gas Lighting has been their main experience of marriage.
      My spouse, as I have recently identified, has for years used Gas Lighting. The physical and mental toll and emotional expense for me has been extreme. I am very thankful to have a name and description for this mental and emotional abuse. There is power in knowledge. For the first time since I met this person, I have hope of, at some point regaining my sanity and me.

  5. Jojo says:

    I feel like this is what happened to me in my marriage. I was pregnant and my husband had been spending a lot of time with my ‘friend’. I kept explaining that their friendship and amount of time spent together hurt my feelings and it didn’t seem right the way they were together. Family and friends said they were together too much and acting like they were dating. I defended him and started to believe that I was going crazy. I blamed my hormones, I blamed my baby for changing things and I hated myself for pushing him away. I got angry at myself for feeling suspicious and doubting him, he kept telling me I should trust him. I later found out they had a 4 month affair. It had ended by time I got my proof and we are still together and working on our marriage. It’s been 6 months but I sometimes still feel really angry and stupid that I fell for it and as made to feel that way. I feel like my enjoyment of my pregnancy was robbed. I hope this feeling fades. I love my husband and we have made huge progress and uncovered the reasons behind it all but it still hurts.

    Sorry to go on a bit. I’ve kept it all to myself.

    • Clare says:

      Jojo, I would appreciate an update. I hope you were able to resolve this and be in a Healthy relationship with your child. (And your spouse, if he did turn from his actions and made you, your relationship, your marriage and your child his priorities.) Prayers your family is whole.

  6. 5star says:

    I have been divorced from a narcissistic man for a few years, but he is still causing problems over child custody and visitation. I am considering going back to court to modify visitation. We have court ordered schedule, but if it doesn’t spell everything out specifically, he insists that he gets “more, more, more.” If he verbally agrees to do something, later he denies it.

    Can I bring up “ambient abuse” or will the judge not want to hear about it? I don’t have an attorney. I can’t afford one. I know you can’t give legal advise, but I would like to know if anyone else has had to go through this, too. What did they do?

    • Sorry, 5star. I don’t have the answer to your question. Might you have access to no-cost, low-cost legal services in your area? You are certainly welcome to sign on to the Marriage Advocates forum (Marriageadvocates.com) and post your question. Perhaps someone can offer information.

    • Clare says:

      5star: Congratulations on ending an UNhealthy relationship!!! Especially since you have a child!!! Kudos for your Bravery. You have had faith and put your child’s welfare before any fears of your own.
      Document. Document. Document ALL of the Emotional/ Mental abuse and Every single time he Changes the story or veers off FACT. (I got that from a licensed therapist)

      Since my spouse Constantly changes plans, the story or his version of the story Always to his benefit himself , I know it will be one big LIE-fest for him when I do eventually leave him. I would speak to churches or therapists about helping you. Maybe DFAC could help for the welfare of your children.
      God, please help all of us who know or are involved with non-God centered, manipulative, narcissistic people.

  7. David says:

    My wife was gaslighting me for years. The constant lying, manipulation and deceit took it’s toll on me. Even when I would find the courage to confront her with the truth and had all my facts, she would still deny everything. We have been separated now for over a year.

    I have said if any reconciliation were to happen she would have to come clean about everything, but to no avail. She has said IT’S ALL ME! I’m amazed at the denial. The other day at my house a final letter came from her credit card company saying she hasn’t made a payment in seven months and they are charging it off. They didn’t even have her address or cell phone number. She gave them her work number and my address when she took the card out.

    The most ironic thing of all is that she is a business teacher who stresses to EVERYONE responsibility and being honest and just! My situation is almost bizzare if people knew the hell I have been going through.

    • Hi David. It really sounds like you’ve been through the ringer. We’re here to help on our support forum, and would love to have you there.

      Dealing with someone deep in denial and determined to stay there is frustrating and heart-wrenching. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Clare says:

      David, I am sorry you experienced Gas Lighting. I can empathize since I have also lived this lie…life, and always it, my spouse denies. He actually said he believes a great approach to confrontation is, ” Lie, deny and counter-accuse.” What a guy.
      I am at a point where this has cost so much emotionally, I am preparing to leave. Any suggestions?

  8. Pingback: Gaslighting | Diary of a Warrior Princess.....

  9. Melinda Sue Sisemore Payne says:

    It happened to me.

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