Gaslighting Is A Very Real Form Of Abuse — Here’s How To Spot It

In the 1944 film, Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman plays a sweet, young woman named Paula who — while grieving the death of her aunt — is swept into a whirlwind marriage with Gregory, a handsome man played by Charles Boyer. After meeting in Italy, the couple return to the London-based home Paula inherited from her aunt and strange things begin to happen.
Paula hears knocking in the walls at night, items disappear, and the gas-fuelled lighting in the home mysteriously dims and brightens. The audience realises, before Paula does, that her husband is behind these strange disturbances. We witness the erosion of Paula’s sense of self as Gregory convinces her she is slowly losing her mind. He tells her she’s becoming forgetful. She’s imagining it all. She’s not well. “Are you trying to tell me I’m insane?” she asks, to which he replies, “Now, perhaps you will understand why I cannot let you meet people.”
Gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person that erodes their sense of self and makes them question their own reality. The term originated from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play, Gas Light, which was adapted into the aforementioned 1944 Oscar-winning film. Following the film’s success, ‘gaslighting’ became a common phrase to describe the manipulative way in which a person can lie with so much confidence, so often, that they drive another person to question their own sanity.

While the term emerged in psychological research in the ‘50s and ‘60s, over the last five years — as ending violence against women has become a bigger societal priority and our understanding of abuse has grown more nuanced -— it has become part of our everyday vernacular.
In 2016, the term was employed in a broader political context to describe Donald Trump’s tactics during the U.S election. As Trump preached ‘fake news’, the writer Lauren Duca penned a scorching op-ed for Teen Vogue claiming Trump was gaslighting America and he was soon known as the “gaslighter-in-chief”. Since then, the term has continued to proliferate through our culture, having been used to describe everything from Monica Lewinsky’s experience with Bill Clinton to the behaviour of Love Island contestants. By 2018, it was shortlisted for the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year.
Today, as society begins to pay more attention to the nuanced nature of psychological abuse in relationships and terms like coercive control become part of our everyday language, our ability to identify and recognise this common yet insidious tactic has also improved. A 2014 survey conducted by the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline asked 2,500 callers — all adult women who had experienced domestic violence — about coercion. When asked, “Do you think your partner or ex-partner has ever deliberately done things to make you feel like you are going crazy or losing your mind?” more than 73% of these women said yes. 
So, how do you know whether you are being gaslit in your relationship?

Relationships Australia New South Wales CEO, Elisabeth Shaw, says that an argument is really about context. An angry exchange of words can be an argument, or it can be abuse.

“A lot of couples who have, in general, a successful relationship and a good connection and see themselves on solid ground can still behave very badly when they fight… I think the difference is that those things are very limited and they are repaired,” she says. “In an abusive relationship, they’re often one component of a much broader range of things. So in fact, when there is name-calling, dismissing someone’s opinion, or ridiculing the person, it’s part of a much broader and more pervasive pattern where that person really does feel dismissed, ridiculed and treated with contempt in the relationship.”

One of the most harmful aspects of gaslighting is that it can initially seem so harmless. An abusive partner’s actions are subtle and build up gradually with the relationship.
Common gaslighting techniques can include denying your experience, escalating an argument, and trivialising your emotions with comments such as, ‘You’re too sensitive’. As the U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline claims, these actions can coalesce to create a pattern of behaviour that often leads to a victim becoming confused, isolated, or anxious. As they lose their sense of self and their sense of reality, they begin to rely on their partner to define reality for them. If you’re often confused in your relationship, asking yourself whether you’re too sensitive, always apologising, or having trouble making simple decisions, you may be involved in a relationship where gaslighting is in play. If this is the case, Elisabeth Shaw has two pieces of advice.
“First of all, trust your own judgement. If there’s something that you feel is deeply upsetting and eroding to you then take it seriously,” she says.
“Secondly, it’s often measured by what happens when you bring [something] up. If you’re scared to bring it up, or you bring it up and, again, you get another serve of ‘you’re too sensitive’ or ridicule or dismissing or a quick apology; but, in fact, there’s absolutely no change because the person really doesn’t seem to care how hurt you were by the behaviour, then that in itself is confirmation that there is a pattern which is not okay.”
To learn more about gaslighting, listen to Future Women’s new podcast, There’s No Place Like Home, which pulls back the curtain on domestic and family violence in Australia. 
If you or anyone you know has experienced domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service. You can also contact Lifeline (13 11 14).

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