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Gaslighting: The sneaky kind of emotional abuse

By Mariam Hakim , Family Flavours - Sep 12,2021 - Last updated at Sep 12,2021

Photos courtesy of Family Flavours magazine

By Mariam Hakim
Relationships and couples therapist

Manipulating someone into doubting their sanity is sadly quite prevalent in relationships. This type of emotional abuse is called gaslighting.

In the 1940s movie, Gaslight, a husband manipulates his wife to give up her fortune to his benefit by slowly making her believe she is insane. He takes pictures down from the walls of their home and asks her who put them down. He gifts her jewellery, then hides it and asks why she lost it. He makes noise in the attic and dims the gaslights in the house, leading her to doubt her sanity and her reality.

This psychological or emotional abuse, dubbed “gaslighting”, is when someone consciously or unconsciously manipulates another person to question their reality.

What does gaslighting look like in a relationship?

Generally, it mostly occurs in relationships that have an imbalance of power between partners: One person feels superior and has more power in the relationship and is invested in maintaining that power at all times by making sure that their reality (opinion, perspective) is always the right one and that their partner agrees with them. Gaslighting is commonly present in the following relationship dynamics: 

A partner with narcissistic tendencies

Narcissists want to feel better than everyone else, including their partner and thus feel that their opinions, needs and perspectives are the most important; they need to be right all the time. But deep down inside, narcissists are very fragile and have low self-esteem. To maintain that strong false image about themselves, they need to make you believe that they are always in the right. 

A partner with any form of addiction or dependency

Drug, alcohol, gambling, sex, work, shopping or gaming addicts use gaslighting to misguide and hide their addictions. For example, an alcoholic may keep denying that they have alcohol on their breath and tells her or his spouse that it is all in their imagination. A sex addict may deny that her or his sexual messages with someone are romantic or sexual in nature, telling their spouse that it is all imagined.

An unfaithful partner

A spouse may notice changes in a partner’s behaviour habits and attitude, such as late-night calls and messages, staying out late after work, acting very protective around their mobiles and computer. To deny the cheating and maintain the status quo, the partner may lie and manipulate their significant other by making them believe that they imagine things.

Examples of common phrases and words used by gaslighters

•They hurt you by being mean or disrespectful, but when you call them out on it, they tell you, “you are so sensitive”, or “I was just joking; why can’t you just take a joke!”

•If you need them to spend more time with you or meet any other emotional need, instead of validating your feelings and your request, they tell you that you are very needy, that there is something wrong with you

•The abuser denies or pretends to forget that something happened, has been said, or discussed, telling their partner, “what are you talking about?”, “you are making this up,” or “you are crazy.”

How to know if you are a victim of gaslighting

Here are the signs of gaslighting, according to Dr Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect – How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life: 

•You are constantly secondguessing yourself

•You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” a dozen times a day

•You often feel confused and even crazy

•You’re always apologising to your mother, father, boss

•You can’t understand why, with so many good things in your life, you aren’t happier

•You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behaviour to friends and family

•You find yourself withholding information from friends and family, so you don’t have to explain or make excuses

•You know something is 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

•You have trouble making simple decisions

•You feel that you used to be a very different person — more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed

•You feel hopeless and joyless

•You feel as though you can’t do anything right

•You wonder if you are a “good enough” girlfriend/wife/ employee/ friend/ daughter

Gaslighting can have enormous negative effects on the victim’s mental health: 

•Chips away at confidence or self-esteem; when someone constantly makes you doubt your perceptions and reality, you gradually start believing them

•The constant state of self doubt and confusion can develop into mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress and co-dependency

•Losing trust in one’s self, others and relationships in general

Recovering begins with awareness. I recommend reading up on gaslighting and engaging the help of a therapist who works with emotional abuse.

Reprinted with permission from Family Flavours magazine

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