Gaslighting: why it is dangerous in a relationship, a definition, and how to spot a gaslighter
A curious word derived from a 1930s drama, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation whose victims often don’t understand what’s happening to them
“Gaslighting” may get more attention these days because of US President Donald Trump, but if you’ve not been a target of this type of behaviour, you probably don’t know what it means.
This curious word derives from a 1938 British play, Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to psychologically manipulate his wife by changing insignificant elements in their home, such as dimming the gaslights, while repeatedly dismissing her suspicions about the changes – to the point where she begins to doubt herself.
By destroying her perception of reality, he hopes to convince his victim and people around her that she is delusional, or worse, insane.
Nowadays, gaslighting is commonly described as a form of domestic abuse, although it is also prevalent outside romantic or spousal relationships. “Gaslighters” can be anyone – a colleague, a boss, a professional scammer, a cult leader, or anyone in a position of power – who wants to influence or control their target.
The word has become a trending search term on Google in the United States, where critics of Trump warn the American public is being collectively gaslighted by their president, who exaggerates and tells untruths on a daily basis.
Anyone can fall victim to gaslighting, but it is particularly dangerous when it happens within an intimate relationship because a person in love can be extremely vulnerable.
It is a treacherous mind game that begins in a subtle manner and hence goes unnoticed; over a prolonged period it erodes its victim’s self-confidence and judgment. The perpetrator’s aim is to make the target lose their sense of self and their grip on reality, and to start questioning their own sanity.
“It’s like breaking small pieces of themselves every day until there is nothing left but doubt. It is the weapon of choice for con artists, online dating scammers and bullies, and pretty much everyone can fall under their spell,” says Valentina Tudose, a certified dating coach and relationships expert at Happy Ever After, a dating agency.
Tudose outlines some common tactics used by gaslighters.
“A gaslighter is primarily a blatant, aggressive liar. He or she will tell you the biggest lies about yourself, how you come across to others, and the world around you to the point where you don’t really know what is real and what is fictitious. By ignoring any facts or proof you might have, they keep pushing you to question your reality …
“They continuously and methodically make you feel bad about yourself, calling you incapable, unworthy, undeserving, and they will confuse you by showing you made-up ‘proof’ of this at any opportunity.
“They will project their own behaviour on you (for example, accusing you of cheating or lying when this is exactly what they are doing). They also tell you and other people that you are crazy and a liar, so they end up destroying your credibility with others and even yourself,” Tudose says.
It’s often not easy to spot the telltale signs that you are being targeted, because not all gaslighting is deliberate and premeditated.
“The signs are actually difficult to spot, as this form of abuse is extremely subtle. It evolves gradually, and it works by destroying the very foundation of your own judgment. So by the time the pattern becomes clear to others, the victim is already too confused to be able to correctly interpret this behaviour as abuse and take steps to leave the relationship,” she explains.
That said, gaslighters share some common traits.
“They are mostly control freaks, people who derive pleasure from making others feel bad about themselves, or people who make a profession of this. They are deceitful and cunning, extremely persuasive, very good at creating illusions, and talking you down,” says Tudose.
Ariadna Peretz, founder of the Maitre D’ate matchmaking agency, warns that some of them can be rather charming. “In my experience, people who have proven themselves to be gaslighters are highly charismatic, charming, and have a lot of self-confidence.”
So is it possible to put an end to such manipulative emotional abuse and save a relationship?
According to Tudose, if you’re dealing with intentional gaslighting, it’s really not worth the effort, because the perpetrator’s intentions are clearly malicious. Simply put, the only option is to get support and find a safe way to get out of the relationship as quickly as possible.
On the question of whether gaslighters are aware of their behaviour, Tudose says if the aggressor has decided to go down this path with the specific intent to scam or control someone, the abuse is intentional.
However, in milder cases where someone might put their partner down and deliberately try to make them question their judgment in order to gain a sense of superiority, the relationship can be rescued by helping the abuser identify why this behaviour is occurring, as well as helping them find win-win solutions.
Tudose and Peretz agree that gaslighting can have severe mental repercussions for its victims.
Peretz says: “One of my biggest fears, as a matchmaker, is unwittingly introducing a client to a gaslighter, because of the impact that kind of abuse can have on someone.”
Ultimately, Tudose says, whether you are dealing with a devious gaslighter or not, any relationship that makes you feel lousy about yourself, diminishes your self-worth, or goes against your values and beliefs is probably not the one for you.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post