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What is gaslighting and could it be happening in your relationship?

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Megan Murray
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Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation that has even been attached to modern dating techniques, when a person might try and make someone believe they’re overacting or imagining a situation. We look at the serious effects of this type of abuse, explain what gaslighting is and how to spot if it’s happening to you or someone you know. 

Although it can be uncomfortable and painful to think about a relationship as abusive, if you’re questioning whether your partner’s behaviour is damaging, it’s probably a sign that something isn’t right.

Some people might limit their understanding of an abusive relationship to physical violence, but mental and emotional abuse can be just as harmful.

In fact, some of the most destructive behaviour in a relationship can be slowly insidious, taking the form of mental manipulation that gradually creeps up on the victim.

What is gaslighting? 

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that works in this way, and has recently been highlighted in the media after the apparent suicide of a young woman, who her mum believes was driven to take her own life by her boyfriend.

The term originates from the film and play, Gaslight, which tells the story of a woman whose husband slowly tricks her into believing that she’s going insane by tampering with the lights in their home and convincing her that she’s imagining their changing brightness.

Following this, gaslighting in a relationship refers to when someone makes their partner believe over time that they are not correctly perceiving reality, thus making them question both their judgement and sanity.

It works by slowly picking apart a person’s trust in themselves, making them believe the abuser and thinking that what they say is true. It can have a detrimental effect on a person’s self-esteem and confidence, which in turn can contribute to making them dependant on their abuser.

Someone might use gaslighting to control their partner, which is a serious form of emotional abuse and never acceptable. 

Gaslighting can leave you feeling on edge, confused and unable to understand reality 

Miriam Lewis, from Essex, tragically found her daughter Natalie after she hanged herself in her home, just before Christmas last year.

Lewis blames a toxic relationship and the gaslighting behaviour of her daughter’s boyfriend for her suicide, and is soon launching a website to raise awareness about this form of abuse.

Speaking to Essex Live, Lewis explained that her 28-year-old daughter’s behaviour didn’t seem to point towards someone ready to commit suicide, and she believes that it was manipulation tactics that influenced her.

“She was a really feisty character and you wouldn’t think it would get to her but quite often the people that are controlled in relationships are women and are in fact, intelligent women, because they overthink and try to rationalise it.

“The people that are in these relationships often don’t realise it is happening and it is made up of actions that seem insignificant at the time.”

The evening of Natale’s suicide, her mum said goodnight to her without detecting a problem but as investigations continued it was revealed that she had been on the phone to her boyfriend all evening.

“We knew that suicide was not in her mind, something happened that had altered her frame of mind. I think she would have got so frustrated and when you are in that moment, you want it to stop.

“This is not somebody who was going to commit suicide, she had very precise plans.”

According to Lewis, the “toxic” two and a half year relationship “affected the whole family”, as messages from Natalie’s boyfriend could change her mood in an instant.

“You could actually physically see a change in her, sometimes she would be so happy and then something would happen and she would leave the table and go outside and you would see her face drop. It was awful to watch”, Lewis recalled. 

An abuser will manipulate their partner emotionally  

Lewis is now setting up her own website which offers support for those being “gaslighted” or experiencing abuse within a relationship to raise awareness.

Highlighting the importance of doing this, Lewis said: “People do not talk about it so I decided quite quickly that I didn’t want her death to be in vain…We have got to start talking about the impact toxic relationships can have. I didn’t know who to speak to, I didn’t know where to go.

“If I had known everything I do now after all the research, I might have done something different. But I do know I can do something now to teach people that this is not a normal situation.”

How can you recognise gaslighting?

Stylist.co.uk spoke to the CEO of domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, Katie Ghose, about how to spot the signs of gaslighting and recognise if this type of emotional abuse is happening to you, or someone you know.

Ghose says: ““From our work with survivors, we know that perpetrators of domestic abuse will use every tactic available to them to try to exert power and control over victims. Gaslighting is one tactic of coercive and controlling behaviour that aims to make a victim doubt themselves, their perception of events and even their own sanity, with devastating consequences.

“Gaslighting is an insidious form of domestic abuse that is, by its very nature, sometimes difficult for victims to recognise and build up the confidence to escape from. Some of the gaslighting techniques that abusers use to control and exert power over victims include calling into question the victim’s memory of an incident, trivialising a victim’s thoughts or feelings, accusing the victim of lying or making things up, denying things like promises that have been made, and mocking the victim for their ‘misconceptions’.

“This form of abuse can be subtle therefore some of the signs to watch out for include: if you are second-guessing yourself all the time, feel confused, find yourself always apologising to your partner, you are having trouble making simple decisions and find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses for your partner.”

Women’s Aid works hard to raise awareness of all forms of abuse and offer expert support to those who are experiencing it and their friends and family. If you are worried that your relationship, or that of a friend or family member, is controlling or unsafe, visit womensaid.org.uk or call the Freephone 24/7 National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247. 

Images: Chad Madden / Getty Images

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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