Despite being privy to most things related to sex and relationships, it wasn't until a couple months ago that I first came across the idea of gaslighting in relationships, while browsing Reddit. On the relationships subreddit, people post stories about all kinds of personal issues — infidelity, family problems, roommate disagreements, and sadly, stories of abuse — and ask Internet strangers for insight, advice, or even just an ear that's willing to listen.
In this particular Reddit thread, a woman was concerned about some strange behavior by her boyfriend of five months: He was hiding personal items of hers and then replacing them in the same spot a day later after she'd already noticed they weren't there, but he would get angry and pretend to be clueless if she confronted him about it. As one commenter pointed out, this is pretty much the definition of gaslighting — a form of psychological abuse in which "information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity."
As someone who'd never even heard the term, I was curious about its origin, so naturally I took to Google to get to the bottom of the mystery. Curiously enough, I found that the term was originally coined based on the 1938 play Gas Light and its later film adaptations. The gist of the plot is that the main character attempts to convince his wife that she is insane by manipulating small elements of her environment — like the flickering of a "gas light" — and then insisting she is mistaken when she points out these subtle changes.
The woman of Reddit was definitely experiencing this same phenomenon at the hands of her boyfriend, and long story short, she ended up realizing he was abusive and leaving him, but not before casually having him watch the movie version of Gaslight with her and watching him squirm as the fictionalized version of his abuse played out onscreen (props to her for serving justice with a sense of humor). Unfortunately though, not everyone is able to learn about gaslighting via an Internet forum full of wise and helpful strangers, so they might be stuck in a relationship where they don't even realize the abuse they're dealing with.
It's A Gender Issue
Gaslighting is a "subtle and nefarious" form of abuse that often goes unrecognized, so it's important to be aware of all its nuances, Parikh and Hartstein say. Because it's not as "straightforward" as physical abuse, the victim might have a hard time realizing abuse is happening, and can eventually become so worn down that he or she is totally dependent on the abuser (which is, of course, the abuser's intent).
According to Parikh and Hartstein, gaslighting is also potentially a gender issue: "Despite all the strides we’ve made towards equality, women are still socialized to be deferential and accommodating towards men. This climate helps perpetuate gaslighting because some women may be more likely to trust what men tell them rather than what they see with their own two eyes."
So it's especially crucial for women to understand how gaslighting works, and the ways in which a perpetrator might attempt to control and manipulate them into slowly losing their independence.
There Are Subtle Signs
In short, when your perceptions are continuously being challenged, put down, and dismissed, you might be experiencing gaslighting, Parikh and Hartstein say.
"Victims are often feel confused and crazy. They doubt themselves or wonder if they are overly-sensitive. Victims often over-apologize and have an inability to make decisions. In addition, they may lie to friends and family about the perpetrator’s behavior or make excuses."
How Gaslighting Impacts Victims
The One Thing To Do If You're Being Gaslighted:
"There is no rationalizing, arguing, or stating your case. The perpetrator is not interested in your reality. They are only interested in taking over your reality and having you completely dependent on what they tell you and what they want you to do."
How To Begin The Healing Process
"Abuse is more prevalent than you realize. And, it does not discriminate — women of varying ages, socio-economic status, and education levels can be equally impacted by emotional manipulation and abuse. There is no need to be ashamed or secretive. The sooner you can speak your truth, the sooner you can get help. Often, hitting rock bottom is a blessing — and the beginning step towards healing, self-empowerment, and finding healthy love."