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'Gaslighting', stalking and intimate partner violence

'Gaslighting', stalking and intimate partner violence

Last week I attended a DVRCV training session called ‘Maintaining Fear and Control’ (now known as 'SmartSafe'), aimed at educating workers dealing with survivors and perpetrators of family violence – particularly intimate partner violence – on the issue of stalking as a form of violence. In this session, the trainers discussed the prevalence and seriousness of stalking in Australia and outlined common tactics used by stalkers, including tech-facilitated stalking through surveillance and monitoring of their victims’ email, phone conversations and social media use. One of the issues that was raised by attendees was how it can be difficult to work with stalking victims whose mental health is undermined by such behaviour, and how many victims present to workers with stories that go something along the lines of ‘I know this sounds crazy, but... (things keep getting moved around in my house/garage/car), (he [the stalker, frequently an ex-partner]seems to always know where I am and what I do, when I haven’t told him), (I feel like I’m being watched)’, etc.

What is ‘gaslighting’?

An area of family violence theory that is gaining prominence is the concept of ‘gaslighting’. This form of emotional and psychological abuse is named after the Ingrid Bergman film ‘Gaslight’, in which a woman is driven to doubt her sanity by a predatory partner who, among other things, sets the gas lights in their house to flicker, and then when she comments on it, he tells her she’s seeing things. In the context of many abusive relationships, this type of behaviour can be seen in abusers telling their victims that she “imagined” previous incidences of violence, or claiming that she is irrational, overly-emotional or simply “crazy”. In instances of stalking by a current or ex-partner, it can have the effect of undermining a victim's own sense that something is wrong (and therefore, her ability to recognise and protect herself from the stalker) , as well as impact on her credibility when reporting the stalking to police or another service. ‘Gaslighting’ is a form of emotional and psychological abuse that is recognised by clinical research and is beginning to gain prominence through popular internet articles such as ‘A Message To A Woman From a Man: You Are Not “Crazy”’ by Yashar Ali and ‘One Abuse Script with Many Faces’ by Lauren Bruce, founder of popular feminist site Feministe. In his article ‘A Message To A Woman From A Man’, Yashar Ali writes:

As far as I am concerned, the epidemic of gaslighting is part of the struggle against the obstacles of inequality that women constantly face. Acts of gaslighting steal their most powerful tool: their voice. This is something we do to women every day, in many different ways.

The Feministe article (part of a series of blog posts on gaslighting) questions this placement of gaslighting simply within the context of everyday sexism against women by men, however, and describes the effects of it within a pattern of abusive behaviour:

Overall, gaslighting has the gradual effect of making the victim anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception, which makes you less likely to fight back or feel confident accusing the abuser of bad faith later when he’s siphoning money off you, for example, or isolating you from your friends and family... As part of a larger system of abuse, it makes you vulnerable to accept escalations of abuse AND attribute them to your OWN failure and not the ill will of the abuser.

Woman holding her hands over her face

Have you experienced gaslighting?

Dr Robin Stern is a psychotherapist, educator, and author of ‘The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life ’. In her article, ‘Are you being gaslighted’, she outlines some common signs of being a victim of gaslighting emotional abuse:

  1. You are constantly second-guessing yourself
  2. You ask yourself, "Am I too sensitive?" a dozen times a day.
  3. You often feel confused and even crazy at work.
  4. You're always apologizing to your mother, father, boyfriend, boss.
  5. You can't understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren't happier.
  6. You frequently make excuses for your partner's behavior to friends and family.
  7. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses.
  8. You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
  9. You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
  10. You have trouble making simple decisions.
  11. You have the sense that you used to be a very different person - more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
  12. You feel hopeless and joyless.
  13. You feel as though you can't do anything right.
  14. You wonder if you are a "good enough" girlfriend/ wife/employee/ friend; daughter.
  15. You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don't have to explain or make excuses.

Stories from survivors

In our work with survivors of family violence, we often hear stories from women who describe such behaviour, but all too often the effects are minimised in the context of wider abuse, and its function in making it more difficult for the victim to leave (by questioning her sanity, whether anyone else would ever ‘have her’) often goes unrecognised. From Kaz’s story:

He was wonderful for the first 3 months, but then he changed and became very controlling. He didn’t allow me to talk with friends freely, and would throw and break things if I did. ... I began to believe that it was my fault and felt like I was in this rollercoaster that I couldn’t get off.

From Maria’s story:

Gradually he made me believe that I have no friends. If I had any, I wouldn’t introduce him to them because I was so afraid of being embarrassed. So he discouraged me from making friends and on the other hand he criticised me for being a loner. Later I read in a psychology book that this is called a “double bind”, a manipulation.

From Julie’s story:

He had convinced me that I was crazy and unlovable. I started going to the support service and became educated on the cycle of abuse. I saw so clearly that it wasn’t my fault. A support group has shown me that I am not alone. Friends have stuck by me. They were there. They saw what happened.

Have you experienced gaslighting from an abusive partner or ex-partner, or worked with a survivor of violence who has? How was this experienced – and (how) were you able to identify and escape (or help someone else escape from) this form of abuse? Please share your experiences here in the comments.

Related links

Image credit

Still image from 'Gaslight', sourced from Big Think Photo from Flickr by Mandee Carter