Gaslighting in Relationships: Recognizing and Responding to Extreme Emotional Abuse
If you recognize these kinds of scenarios, then it’s likely that you’re a victim of gaslighting – an emotionally abusive manipulation tactic that can affect your self-confidence, self-worth – and cause you to question your sanity. It’s more common than you might think, but once you can recognize the manipulation for what it is, you can begin to reclaim your life.
Gaslighting Definition: What Exactly Is It?
A common gaslighting definition, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “to attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation).”
The term originated in a 1938 stage play, Gas Light, which portrayed a husband who repeatedly dimmed the house lights while insisting that his wife was imagining that the lights were being dimmed. As the frequency of the manipulation increased, the wife, inevitably, began to think that she was going crazy.
The original gaslighting meaning has been expanded to include any kind of emotional abuse where the victim is made to feel that they are imagining things or misinterpreting situations. The goal of gaslighting is to get the victim to start doubting their memory and perceptions, thereby making them reliant on their abuser to reveal the “truth”. It’s the worst form of manipulation, with the victim becoming increasingly under the control of the abuser.
Gaslighting in Relationships
Gaslighting happens in all kinds of relationships. While it is more common for children and women to be victims of gaslighting, men, too, may find themselves experiencing the extreme manipulation of an abusive friend, relative or partner. Some psychologists believe that the perpetrators of gaslighting are sociopaths or have sociopathic traits.
Child Victims of Gaslighting
Parents who are sexually or physically abusing their children often engage in gaslighting, causing the children to think that they’re imagining the abuse. For example, a child who confides in a teacher that they are being abused at home may find that their parent(s) deny that the abuse has taken place and then “explain” to the child what “really” happened.
Nine-year-old Ethan has become quiet and withdrawn at school, and confides in his friend Peter that his stepdad has been sexually abusing him. Peter tells their teacher, who involves Child Protective Services. However, when CPS visits Ethan’s family home, his stepfather Ron is charming and apologetic, explaining to the CPS agent that Ethan is “acting out” because of his baby half-sister’s birth and Ethan’s birth father’s recent incarceration for sexual assault.
When the CPS agents leave, Ron tells Ethan to get in the truck, promising a trip to the local Dairy Queen. Instead, Ron drives Ethan out of the city to a junkyard belonging to Ron’s brother. He tells Ethan that telling lies is bad – especially when it can cause big trouble.
Ron explains to Ethan that the abuse didn’t happen, that it was just a nightmare that Ethan had after watching something on Netflix that he shouldn’t have been watching. Ron then tells Ethan that if CPS decide to investigate more, then not just Ethan but his younger half-siblings will be taken away and separated from each other in foster homes where they’re more likely to actually be abused.
If that happens, it will all be Ethan’s fault, Ron keeps telling him. When the CPS agents visit Ethan at school, he tells them that he was lying for attention. The abuse continues and Ron continues to convince Ethan that he’s having bad dreams. Ethan is so confused that he believes Ron’s interpretation and starts to doubt his own memory and perceptions.
Child victims of gaslighting often continue to be victims into adulthood, with their abusers manipulating them into maintaining contact and even caring for the parents who have abused them. Making a younger victim feel guilty for wanting to escape the abuse is a popular tactic of perpetrators of gaslighting.
Gaslighting in Adult Relationships
Manipulative spouses and partners use gaslighting to exert control and inflict emotional damage. Sometimes there is no motivator other than causing harm to their spouse, but in many cases, husbands who are having extra-marital affairs will use gaslighting to cover their tracks or, if the affair is exposed, to put the blame on their wives. In other cases, men use gaslighting to blame their partners for their addiction to porn.
Rebecca and Michael have been married for fifteen years. They have twin boys who have just begun their freshman year of High School. Rebecca has noticed that Michael is often angry and irritable, rarely makes it home from the office in time for the family meal, and doesn’t want to be intimate with her. The only time they seem to do anything together as a family is the Sunday morning excursion to church.
Feeling lonely and neglected, Rebecca asks Michael if something is wrong. He insists that everything is “fine”. Rebecca then tells him how she has been feeling, and how it upsets her when he gets angry with her for no reason. Michael reacts by insisting that he doesn’t get angry with her, that she’s imagining it or she’s just too sensitive. When she reminds him how long it’s been since they were intimate, Michael tells her that she’s too sexually demanding.
A few months later, Rebecca’s sons tell her that Michael is having an affair with one of his co-workers. Rebecca confronts him about it, and he doesn’t deny it. Instead, he twists the situation to make Rebecca feel that she’s the one responsible. She drove him into the arms of another woman by being too needy, too demanding, too sensitive. If she had been a better wife, Michael wouldn’t have had to look elsewhere.
As Michael’s emotional abuse continues, Rebecca becomes depressed and anxious, feeling worthless and a failure as a mother and a wife. She stops going to church because she feels so ashamed and because Michael has convinced her that the pastor of the church is aware of Michael’s affair and agrees that Rebecca’s failings as a wife forced Michael to commit adultery.
As this gaslighting example shows, the extreme manipulation and emotional abuse can have devastating effects on the victim.
Signs and Tactics of GaslightingRecognizing that you’re a victim of gaslighting can be difficult because of the manipulative nature of the abuse. However, the only way to escape the cycle of abuse is to be able to see how your abuser is manipulating you.
There are a number of common tactics and signs of gaslighting that you can look out for:
Gaslighters tell blatant lies, yet manage to seem convincing. Telling lies is a means of getting you to doubt yourself, your perceptions and your feelings. Once a gaslighter is able to make you believe a huge lie, they can keep you in a perpetual state of self-doubt.
You can present gaslighters with verifiable proof that they have done something, and they will still deny it, often by convincing you that there is another explanation, causing you to doubt your reality.
Wearing you down
The longer the gaslighting continues, the more power the perpetrator has over you. It builds over time, which makes it more difficult to recognize.
Gaslighters know that causing confusion is the fastest way to make you vulnerable. When they cause you to question everything, you’re constantly in an unbalanced state, and you come to rely on the gaslighter to explain reality to you because you can’t trust your own mind.
By telling you that other people are liars and can’t be trusted, gaslighters are able to create division in your life so that they become the only person that you can trust to tell the truth when in reality they’re simply controlling you.
To protect themselves, gaslighters will tell other people that you’re crazy, delusional or unwell. This means that if you are able to recognize the techniques of gaslighting in your relationship, other people are much less likely to believe you. Sowing doubt is a pre-emptive technique that makes it harder to get help when you’re in an abusive relationship.
Am I a Victim? — Gaslighting Checklist
- You’re always second-guessing and questioning yourself
- You’re constantly wondering if you’re being too sensitive and overreacting
- You’re always the first to apologize for anything, just in case it’s your fault
- You’re often confused and filled with doubts about your perception of reality
- You look to your partner/spouse for the “truth” all the time
- You find it really hard to make any decisions because you don’t trust your own judgment
- You have the feeling that something is wrong, but your partner/spouse always puts the blame on you
- You feel hopeless and joyless all the time
- You feel like everything you do or say is wrong
- You don’t express your opinions anymore because you don’t trust your own mind
- You never feel good enough
- You feel ashamed and guilty all the time
- You feel like you’re going crazy
How Can the Bible Help with Gaslighting?
If you’re able to recognize that you’re a victim of gaslighting, the Bible has some great wisdom to help you. The first step towards recovery from gaslighting is being able to trust again when you have been so mercilessly emotionally violated and abused. God is always trustworthy, but it can be difficult to trust even Him at first.
However, Hebrews 6 offers hope when you’ve been a victim of gaslighting, by reminding you that no matter what your abuser has told you, God cannot lie, and His promises are true and trustworthy.
So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. Jesus has already gone in there for us. He has become our eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. – – Hebrews 6: 18-20
The behavior exhibited by gaslighters goes in direct contradiction of God’s Word in Ephesians 4:29: “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” This wisdom can help you if you are still struggling with feelings of guilt and self-blame.
When you are escaping from an emotionally abusive relationship, you may find that you have a distorted view of what love is. 1 Corinthians 13 offers the perfect definition of what love truly is and this is the love that God has for you.
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. – 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7
Getting Help for Gaslighting and Other Kinds of Emotional Abuse
To help you on your road to recovery, working with a Christian counselor experienced in emotional abuse can allow you a safe space to explore your feelings and begin to heal your relationship with God. This will allow you to rebuild confidence and begin to see yourself through God’s eyes.
A Christian counselor can help you to understand your worth — it is defined by God, not by other people. Coming to a true revelation of your identity in Christ can help you to heal from the trauma of gaslighting and begin to live the full and abundant life that God has planned for you.
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