Of all the pernicious relational patterns, two stand out: stonewalling and gaslighting. These unhealthy forms of manipulation show up in relationships between adults but also in adult-child connections where they do long-lasting damage. Unfortunately, children who experience either or both grow up to be adults who often have trouble recognizing those patterns in action because they are so familiar. Both are abusive, reflect an imbalance of power in the relationship (and the fact that one partner wants to take advantage of his power), and highly destructive. According to marital expert John Gottman, stonewalling is one of the four behaviors which are signposts that the marriage will fail and end in divorce.
Needless to say, while these behaviors are emotionally hurtful in adulthood, they have long-lasting effect on children and their emotional and psychological development
This pattern has been the subject of so much study that it has a formal name along with an acronym: Demand/Withdraw or DM/W. It describes the situation when one person wants to initiate a discussion about something important and the person to whom she is speaking reacts by withdrawing—refusing to answer, saying nothing or displaying derision, or perhaps even leaving the room. This is a classic power play guaranteed to make the person making the demand feel belittled, ignored, and enormously frustrated which, in turn, is likely to turn up the emotional volume if it’s an adult doing the demanding. Unfortunately, that escalation is likely only to produce further withdrawal, because now the stonewalling person feels truly put upon and angry. It will surprise no one that in relationships where one person has an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment and the other has an avoidant style, the pattern of stonewalling can become a familiar fixture and a death knell for the relationship.
Depending on the dynamic of the household, children may find themselves either in the demand or withdraw position, each of which affects them in different ways. Children who grow up with hypercritical or controlling parents whose demands often are laced with derision or are abusive— “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” “Aren’t you capable of doing anything right?” “You should be ashamed of your grades; I am”—aren’t able to defend themselves and withdraw the way a snail retreats into its shell at the sign of danger. Children of emotionally unreliable mothers who may appear caring one moment and then unavailable the next—leaving the child in a quandary about whether the Good Mommy or the Bad one will show up— also pull back at the first sign of discord. These children use withdrawal as a way of self-protection and grow up to be adults with an avoidant style of attachment.
And, yes, they tend to use stonewalling as a defense mechanism as adults because that’s how they learned to cope with emotional flooding as children. Faced with a demand, especially an emotional demand— “I really want and need you to be more responsive to me,” “Can we talk about what’s going wrong in our marriage?” “I really need you to be emotionally present”—he reverts to his childhood maladaptive ways of coping.
But children who find themselves in the demand situation face a different kind of vulnerability. They might be asking about a decision the mother made or anything else that she responds to as a challenge to her power and authority; the issue is less important than the way the dynamic rolls out. Mother who are controlling, combative, dismissive, or high in narcissistic traits may use stonewalling as a way of marginalizing, ignoring and dismissing a child. The message communicated is that the question the child is asking is unimportant or irrelevant, and that her feelings and thoughts don’t matter to anyone, least of all her mother. These messages become internalized and carried over into adulthood as “truths” about the self.
The abuse we grow up with is, for most adults, harder to recognize because we’ve unconsciously normalized it. My own mother stonewalled me and I had to recognize that she had before I was able to see it as destructive; while it still pushes my buttons, I know better now than to engage with anyone who stonewalls. That said, it takes terrific effort not to react.
This term doesn’t come out of psychological literature but out of popular culture, derived from a 1930s play and then a movie Gaslight from the 1940s starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. It describes behavior orchestrated by one person to make another doubt her own perceptions and, ultimately, her view of reality. Generally, for gaslighting to be a success, the person doing the gaslighting must have some kind of power over the other person—the victim might love or trust the perpetrator or need him or her—and the victim must have insecurities that the gaslighter can exploit. People with an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment, who worry and fret about signs and signals that they’re about to be left or betrayed, present ideal candidates for gaslighting.
In adult relationships, gaslighting usually involves asserting that something that was said and done didn’t actually happen—essentially, making it a game of it’s “your word against mine”—or suggesting that the person imagined or misunderstood both the situation and its intention. Sometimes, gaslighting can include a subtle form of blame-shifting. For example, in my experience, when caught in a lie, my ex would suggest that it was really my problem because I had asked the wrong question.
While gaslighting an adult takes a certain amount of effort and the right circumstances, it’s easy for a mother to do because of her unique position of authority and the control she exerts over the child and the little world she inhabits. Bluntly put, it’s an abuse of parental power. Blame-shifting can be a part of gaslighting. For example, something gets broken or lost and the child’s explanation— “the vase was slippery,” “I tripped and didn’t mean to,” “I left the umbrella on the bus by mistake”—is dismissed and different motives are imputed: “You did it on purpose,” “You’re never careful with anything,” “You’re not capable of doing anything right.” Each and every one of these instances demeans the child, and leaves her to question her perceptions. Angry or hateful things said or done are denied out right— “You’re making this up. I never said that!”—leaving the child to wonder if her thoughts and perceptions are to be trusted. I know I’m not alone in having worried about being “crazy” for long stretches of my childhood, thanks to my mother’s gaslighting.
It’s hard to overstate the damage done by gaslighting. Being told that you’re lying or imagining things or that your own “sensitivity” causes you to misinterpret the world affects the child’s core sense of self, especially coming from a parent. This damage is carried over into adulthood, along with maladaptive coping mechanisms, with lasting effect unless therapy is sought.
If you’re in a relationship in which either stonewalling or gaslighting is being used to manipulate you, don’t normalize it and seek help and guidance on how to deal. If either pattern was part of your childhood, know that you’re especially at risk for both being treated this way and for having trouble seeing the pattern at work.
Photograph by Wu Yi. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.