Gaslighting is a less subtle form of emotional abuse that seeks to control a partner through a pattern of over the top criticism and reality distortion. The term “Gaslighting” comes from the classic from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband persistently torments his wife into doubting her sanity.
Gaslighting in modern relationships is not as dramatic. The kind of gaslighting we see in couples therapy is typically a relentless pattern of deception, unreasonable criticism, mean-spirited scrutiny, and contemptuous verbal aggression.
But gaslighting, like other forms of emotional abuse, occurs on a broad continuum. The milder forms often respond to science-based couples therapy, but extreme gaslighting typically is far more problematic.
The Gaslighter is hyper-focused on your flaws and weaknesses. They seem to delight in elaborating on your shortcomings and deficits. Your “issues” are discussed not with an eye toward resolution, but as a relentless attack. Gaslighting is about establishing and exploiting an ever-widening power differential in the relationship.
Gaslightees are anxious and fretful. They lack confidence in their ability to reliably please the gaslighter, so their self-esteem is constantly eroded. They can never anticipate when the gaslighter will become angry or sarcastic, so they become increasingly anxious and wary over time. Gaslighting is a relational trauma in which your perception of reality is invalidated.
There is no reasoning with a gaslighter. They are always right, and you are always wrong. You feel stressed and nervous as they pick and pick and pick at your imperfections. There are mental health consequences of being a gaslightee. Depression, anxiety, and even traumatic stress are common symptoms.
Gas lighters operate on the outer limits of authentic intimacy. There is nothing wrong with your relationship. Do not attempt to adjust the power imbalances. They control the horizontal. They control the vertical. For the next hour sit quietly as they control everything you see and hear.
And what you will see and hear, if you just shut up and listen, is that everything that you are thinking, doing or feeling is wrong. It’s no surprise that Narcissistic Personality Disorder and/or Anti-Social Personality Disorder are often found in Gaslighters. Extreme gaslighters will lie to your face and insist they are telling you the truth.
Complaining to the gaslighter is a losing strategy. They might smirk at their own shortcomings because they believe your flaws are epic by comparison. They will deflect your complaints as just another indication of your immaturity, unreliability, etc. etc.
It’s common for gaslightees to eventually capitulate and accept their partner’s opinion of them. They apologize for breathing. They accept the notion that they are deeply flawed. One of the signs of gaslighting I see in couples therapy is a partner who is always saying “I’m sorry” when there is nothing to be sorry for.
Hard-Core gaslighters mix it up to keep the gaslightee off balance. They may offer an occasional crumb of approval. This random reinforcement creates a crippling emotional dependence on the gaslighter, which is, of course, their ultimate aim.
In cases of extreme abuse, some gaslightees will curtail their social contacts, often by intimidation, and retreat into their cramped critical universe. Gaslighting is often found with other controlling behaviors such as controlling access to transportation, money, friends, and family.
If friends or family pick up on your gaslighting partner, you rush to their defense. “It’s not what you think” “He’s under a lot of pressure at work.” “She’s a bit overwhelmed right now.” “He doesn’t always act that way.”
Inexperienced therapists might confuse such comments for positive sentiment override, sympathy, or empathy. They are nothing of the sort. These comments reveal an internalization of the gaslighter’s perspective.
When the gaslightee eventually colludes in their own gaslighting, the gaslighter has achieved their goal of total spousal domination.
As I said earlier, like other patterns of emotional abuse, some of the tamer forms of gaslighting are treatable. But some gaslighting behaviors are an indication of extreme psychological and emotional abuse. A State of the Union clinical assessment might be an appropriate first step to consider.
But the odds are pretty good that an abusive Cobra husband would resent the involvement of outsiders, see no value in a clinical assessment, and refuse to cooperate.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.