My husband and I often joke about our memory or, increasingly, our lack thereof when recalling shared events and conversations over the years. Sometimes, one of us clearly remembers a conversation while the other may vaguely recall it, recall it differently or not recall it at all.
And while there are occasions when we are both equally certain that our version is the correct one, the discussion about who is right (me) and who is wrong (also me) inevitably moves on to another topic. Although this scenario may sound familiar to many couples, those in an emotionally abusive relationship can have a completely different experience when it comes to relational dialogue.
In this situation, it is more than just disagreeing on certain facts or events, but instead by tone, innuendo or even outright, one's recollection, viewpoint and/or feelings are branded implausible or improbable by the other.
This oft-employed tactic of emotional abusers is called gaslighting. The term comes from a 1944 film of the same name in which a man seeks to slowly convince his wife that her mind is unraveling by, among other tactics, making subtle changes in her environment; hiding small items from her and then putting them back insisting they hadn't moved; dimming the gaslights in the house and claiming it's her imagination when she notices; in effect leading her to distrust the evidence presented by her senses.
In addition to the aforementioned mind manipulation, gaslighters are masterful at minimizing. "I was just joking." "You're overreacting." "It's not a big deal." Gaslighters pivot like a pro diverting discussions. "Is that another one of your sister's harebrained ideas?" Gaslighters deftly deny. "I don't know what you're talking about." Gaslighters discount and diminish your thoughts and feelings. "You're so sensitive." "Are you hormonal?"
Gaslighting is a truly insidious form of psychological abuse. The mind games gaslighters use are similar to those used in other psychological warfare like brainwashing, interrogation and torture.
Gaslighting is a deflection and projection mechanism used to diminish another person and make that person doubt and question his or her own reality. Gaslighting slowly eats away at one's ability to make judgments. Often persons being gaslighted are unable to articulate what they are experiencing while onlookers may perceive the behavior as benign or not notice it at all.
Gaslighters tell flagrant falsehoods, blatantly obvious outright lies, yet insist with a straight face it is truth. "The sky most certainly is green, just look at it." Why would someone lie about something so easily disproved? The lies are to lay the groundwork and set a precedent. Even in the face of irrefutable proof, gaslighters will deny they did or said something and continue to double down.
"I never said that." "You're lying." "Lies, all lies." This is done to make the other person question his or her reality, and the more the gaslighter does this, the more their victims doubt their own perception and accept the gaslighter's version of events as reality.
Gaslighters insist others are the ones not telling the truth, being dishonest. By reiterating that it is other people, those people, your family and friends who are lying, it again brings reality into question.
Gaslighters frequently and systematically withhold facts, replacing them with false information, alternative facts, in an effort to twist and reframe the narrative. "I didn't hit you. If you remember, you were agitated and aggressive, and I was trying to keep you from hurting yourself or anyone else."
Gaslighting is so dangerous because it skews the individual's capacity to articulate and comprehend what is wrong. Gaslighting tends to start gradually and can often appear ridiculous at first, like being accused of overreacting because you're hormonal. However, with continued and repeated denial of seemingly mundane comments, victims begin to question themselves, trying to argue their way back to reality.
This capacity to doubt is then pathologized by the gaslighter, who often uses psychiatric discourse to tell them they're too emotional, too irrational. Telling someone they're crazy is one of the gaslighter's most effective tools because of its dismissive nature. Gaslighters know that by questioning that person's own mental stability, others might doubt claims of abuse asserted later.
By systematically targeting an individual's mental equilibrium, self-confidence and self-esteem, the gaslighter ensures that that person is no longer able to function independently. Unable to trust their own judgments, victims start to question the reality of everything in their life. They begin to find themselves second-guessing themselves, making them extremely insecure about their decision making — even the smallest of choices — leading them to rely more and more on their abuser for the truth and for what is real.
From time to time we all forget things, project our insecurities and deflect our bad behavior. However, if your lived experience is constantly being denied or invalidated, you might be in a relationship with a gaslighter.
Julie Hunter is the media and marketing services supervisor at Meadville-based Women’s Services Inc. Women’s Services has been providing hope and resources to victims of violence and advocating to end it since 1977. For more information, visit womensservicesinc.org.