Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation that has even been attached to modern dating techniques. 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.
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.
Taking its name from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight, later adapted for screen in 1940 and 1944, the word refers to a particularly subtle form of psychological manipulation. In the play a husband slowly tries to convince his wife that she’s insane, turning the gaslights in their house up and down but claiming not to notice, to avoid detecting suspicion for a murder he’s committed. Essentially gaslighting is a form of mental deception that, over time, causes a person to doubt their own perception of the world around them.
An example of this behaviour, which was picked up by the media last year, is Love Island contestant Adam Collard’s insistence that his then-girlfriend Rosie Williams was overacting or imagining that he was ignoring and intentionally upsetting her.
At the time, chief executive of Women’s Aid Katie Ghose made a statement, urging viewers to make a stand against domestic abuse and encouraging recognition of what gaslighting is and how it works.
She said: “On the latest series of Love Island, there are clear warning signs in Adam’s behaviour. In a relationship, a partner questioning your memory of events, trivialising your thoughts or feelings, and turning things around to blame you can be part of a pattern of gaslighting and emotional abuse.
“Last night, Rosie called out Adam’s unacceptable behaviour on the show. We ask viewers to join her in recognising unhealthy behaviour in relationships and speaking out against all forms of domestic abuse – emotional as well as physical. It is only when we make a stand together against abuse in relationships that we will see attitudes change and an end to domestic abuse.”
Another example that in the last few years has increased public awareness of gaslighting is the case of Natalie Lewis from Essex, whose mum Miriam urged the public to recognise the devastating effects of gaslighting after she tragically found her daughter, who had hung herself in her home just before Christmas 2017.
Lewis blames a toxic relationship and the gaslighting behaviour of her daughter’s boyfriend for her suicide, and has been keen 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.
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 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.
She 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.”
Can gaslighting happen in the workplace?
Gaslighting doesn’t just happen in our personal lives, it’s prevalent in the workplace, too.
“Many people think of it in terms of a power dynamic,” clinical psychologist, Dr Mary C. Lamia, tells Stylist.
“[Gaslighting] often plays a part in the workplace in competitive situations, where one person wants to get ahead and they’re pushing somebody aside. Or when one person wants their way, or there’s an agenda that someone in an organisation wants to carry out, and another person may present an obstacle. So [gaslighting] helps them to push them [out of the way].”
You can find out more about workplace gaslighting and read accounts from four women who it has happened to here.
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