The topic of gaslighting has been a hot topic among both mental health professionals and social media sites for the last year. For those of you that have never heard of gaslighting, gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Individuals that gaslight others do so as a way gain power and control over others. Gaslighters persuade others to second guess themselves both in thoughts and in action. Unfortunately, gaslighting is a technique most often used by abusive and narcissistic people as a way to keep others “under control”. The goal of gaslighting is to break the other person or group down emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually over time. By breaking an individual or group down over time the gaslighter can assume control over that individual or group. Notably, gaslighting can occur either consciously or subconsciously, making it difficult for the gaslighter to identify his or her behavior or accept any responsibility.
My professional experience with gaslighting typically included a family member gaslighting another family member or a romantic partner gaslighting his/her partner. However, my first experience working with a gaslighting couple occurred several years into my career as a therapist. Prior to my work with Mr. & Mrs. Doe I had no prior experience working with a gaslighting couple, both partners were actively gaslighting each other. I must admit, few things surprise me when I work with couples, but I was not adequately prepared to work with Mr. & Mrs. Doe. My work with this couple began when I received a call from Mr. Doe requesting marital counseling to save his marriage. According to Mr. Doe, his wife had left the home six months earlier following a heated argument between the two. Mr. Doe insisted he was not immediately concerned when his wife left the family home with their children as she would often do so after an argument. Mr. Doe acknowledged he had encouraged his wife to leave following several heated arguments so they could have a break from each other. However, unlike previous arguments when his wife would leave the home, returning after she had “cooled down”, she decided not to return. Mr. Doe’s wife decided she “was done with the marriage and would not be returning” to the family home. Although, being told by his wife the marriage was over, Mr. Doe insisted she would return. According to Mr. Doe, his wife “had left and returned multiple times following an argument but she always returned”. He asserted she was “playing hard ball” and this was her attempt to control him.
Mr. Doe described his wife was a “malignant narcissist”, caring only about herself and using the children as pawns to control him. Mr. Doe complained his wife often provided mixed messages in an attempt to drive him crazy. He also stated his wife had begun turning friends and family against him, she was even flaunting her new boyfriend in his face. Several times throughout our various sessions he would appear to accept the end of his marriage, later he would insist his marriage was not over, and his wife was trying to psychologically abuse him. He stated during multiple sessions that his wife was unattractive, he had “done her a favor by giving her a second look”. Mr. Doe also stated he would often remind his wife of her lack of attractiveness and intelligence so she “would know where she stood in the marriage”. He felt obligated to provide his wife with this information as it would be “better to hear it from him rather than someone else”. He stated his wife has a “terrible memory”, however, he needed to “keep her on her toes by moving some of her things around without her knowledge”. He prided himself in his ability to “carry a conversation” on behalf of his wife so she wouldn’t “feel left behind in a conversation with others”. Mr. Doe felt it was his responsibility to make sure his wife was dressed appropriately for outings as “she couldn’t seem to dress for the occasion”. He also repeatedly stated his wife was trying to alienate his relationships with friends and family, forcing him to feel isolated. Mr. Doe suggested his wife needed to be “hospitalized involuntarily because she was mentally unstable”.
My meeting with Mrs. Doe wasn’t very different from my meetings with Mr. Doe. According to Mrs. Doe she had been “all but pushed out of the family home” by her husband following an argument six months earlier. She insisted her husband had a mood disorder and could not be trusted around the children because of his erratic behavior. She also claimed her husband was “sadistic”, constantly trying to “drive her crazy so you would stay in the marriage”. She claimed her husband was alienating her relationships with their mutual friends. According to Mrs. Doe her husband “does not do well around others” and she often needed to serve as a “buffer” during conversations. She regularly stated the marriage was “irrevocably broken”, however, later in the same conversation she insisted the marriage could be salvaged if her husband “got some help”. She insisted she had been asked to leave the home multiple times following an argument with her husband “but this time she had had enough”. Mrs. Doe later reported she had previously made an agreement with her husband that one of them would leave the home following an argument so the “other could cool off”. She later recanted this statement, insisting there was no such agreement.
During one of my sessions with Mrs. Doe she proudly announced she had joined a single parent support group. According to Mrs. Doe she joined the group for companionship and support “from other single mothers”. She insisted she joined this group to both talk about and process her feelings surrounding the breakdown of her marriage. She also stated she told Mr. Doe about the group “so he wouldn’t hear about it from anyone else”. She acknowledged she had become “close” with one of the single fathers in the group, however, she denied having any romantic feelings for this man. Later, Mrs. Doe would call her husband “just to clear the air”, telling him her new friend was not a single mother but a single father she met in the support group. Mrs. Doe also contacted her husband during one of his scheduled visits with the children, requesting to change the time he would be returning the children following his visit. She instructed her husband to return the children an hour later so he would not “run into her new friend”. Reluctantly, Mr. Doe returned the children an hour later as his wife requested. However, Mrs. Doe’s new friend answered the door to retrieve the children from her husband following the visit. Mrs. Doe called the police later that evening to request a wellness check on behalf of her husband because “he appeared extremely distraught” when he returned the children following his visit.
Signs of Gaslighting Include:
• The individual engages in deceptive behavior
• He/she manipulates others
• Denies he/she did or said something although there is proof to suggest the contrary
• He/she tells blatant lies
• He/she uses your personal fears against you
• He/she constantly breaks down your self-esteem over time
• He/she says one thing but do the opposite
• He/she constantly send you mixed messages
• He/she will throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you
• He/she projects their own feelings of inadequacy onto others
• He/she insist you could not survive without them
• They try to align people against you
• They insist you are the problem, you are crazy
• He/she insists you are a liar
• He/she causes you to second-guess yourself
• He/she makes you feel you cannot do anything right
• He/she trivializes your feelings or concerns
Unfortunately, for many people, gaslighting is a product of learned behavior. Some gaslighters learn this toxic behavior by watching others, such as their own parents. Children that grow up in a dysfunctional home that includes a parent with mental health issues or addiction are more likely to engage in gaslighting behaviors. Gaslighting parents often alienate their child’s feelings for the other parent in an attempt to undermine the relationship between the child and the other parent. He/she will often use children as pawns to “control” or manipulate the other parent. This does not mean all children that grow up in a home with a gaslighting parent will become a gaslighter when he/she becomes an adult. Rather, growing up in an environment with a gaslighter can make it more likely for children to replicate the behavior in adulthood.
Some gaslighters use this abusive technique to feel a sense of control in their own lives by making others dependent on them. Working with people who gaslight can be challenging as they often believe they know what is best. They often do not accept any responsibility for problems but will hold others entirely at fault. Once gaslighting has been identified it essential to receive therapy for both the gaslighter and the individual or group being gaslighted. Treatment can help the gaslighter identify and develop a better understanding of why he/she gaslights and develop techniques to stop the behavior. Persons or groups that have been gaslighted would benefit from therapy to boost self-esteem, trust their instincts, develop a positive self-image, and eliminate self-doubt. Even if partners choose to remain in the relationship, the relationship is forever changed. In some cases, when both partners are motivated to stay and work together in conjoint therapy, the relationship can be strengthened and the past forgiven.