How the act of gaslighting isolates people from society and distorts their immediate reality
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A psychological phenomenon explaining a form of abuse and manipulation rooted in social inequalities and understood through power dynamics in relationships

November 16, 2022 10:30 am | Updated 12:49 pm IST

Gaslight

Gaslight | Photo Credit: /iStockphoto

In 1938, playwright Patrick Hamilton wrote a thriller play called the Gas Light, which tells the story of a man who attempts to drive his wife insane in order to steal from her. He convinces her that she was going insane, to the point where she was made to believe that the noises from the attic and the flickering gas light were imagined by her, while in reality, he was responsible for it. Though not used in the play, the etymology of the term “gaslighting” dates back to it which was later adapted into two movies in the 1940s. Psychologists R. Barton and J. A. Whitehead coined the term “gaslighting” in 1969 as they analysed involuntary hospitalisation as a form of abuse. Rarely used after this, the term was popularised by psychotherapist Robin Stern in 2007 and has now become a ubiquitous term.

The workings of the phenomenon

Gaslighting is a phenomenon wherein techniques of manipulation are used to control people in politics and interpersonal relationships. Stern explained that in order for such abuse to exist the “mutual participation” between the “gaslighter” (perpetrator) and the “gaslightee” (victim) is imperative. When a person is gaslighted they experience confusion, anxiety and loss of trust in themselves. If successful in the act of gaslighting, the perpetrator can isolate the victim from society and even from their closest social circles to the extent that the gaslightee starts believing that the gaslighter is the only person they can trust.

In relationships, especially romantic or intimate ones, the process begins gradually, with the perpetrator gaining the partner’s trust by showering them with romantic gestures. As time goes on, the abuser tends to suggest that their partner is unreliable, forgetful and endlessly dependent. They go on to isolate them from any systems that may provide the victim support. With the help of these techniques, the perpetrator pushes the victim to doubt their sense of rationality by suggesting that they are mentally unstable.

Different approaches

There are various methods used by gaslighters to manipulate their victims into questioning their realities.

Under countering, the perpetrator questions the victim’s memory. “I don’t think you remember what happened?” or “Are you sure about that?, You do tend to cook things up in your head” are a few questions that may frequent such conversations, in order to create doubt in the mind of the victim about their reality. The perpetrator acts like they don’t understand the conversation or refuses to listen convincing the victim that they must have misunderstood.

By trivialising the victim’s experiences or feelings, the perpetrator makes sure that the victim starts questioning their own character. “Are they right? Am I too sensitive or did I overreact?” is a familiar question the gaslightee might ask themselves.

The perpetrator also tends to deny taking responsibility for their actions of hurting the victim by blaming the victim for causing the situation that resulted in abuse by the gaslighter. Moreover, they divert the focus of a discussion, when the gaslightee starts questioning the gaslighter’s credibility. For example, they could say statements like, “ Those books you read are manipulating you. This is what real relationships look like”.

Perpetrators can also use negative stereotypes, based on the victim’s gender, class, caste, race or ethnicity to lower their self-esteem.

Sociology of the concept

The concept of gaslighting is primarily considered to be psychological in nature. This highlights the importance of intimate relationships in the phenomenon, ignoring the gender-based inequalities that make it a common feature of domestic violence. Studies show how the sociological implications of the concept must be considered. Perpetrators of such abuse, use the already present structural inequalities and stereotypes, and institutional vulnerabilities to control their victims. A social environment is created that distorts the victim’s sense of reality, autonomy, mobility, identity, and community, isolating them from society, completely dependent and at the mercy of the perpetrator. Placing the phenomenon in its cultural, structural, and institutional contexts we understand that while men can also experience abuse, the patriarchal structure that subjugates women, deprives them of the power to define a man’s reality, making women more likely to be victimised. Until a woman manipulates society into believing that she is the victim, it becomes difficult for her to gaslight a man, and such an exception is shown in the movie Gone Girl, as the protagonist, Amy, personifies the act of gaslighting.

The act of gaslighting

So what could an act of gaslighting look like? X, a charming man, who has a way with words, pursues Y, a woman. In the “honeymoon” phase of their romantic relationship, he is well-dressed, and polite and showers her with gifts, flowers, and chocolates. He spends time with her and gains her trust. Once Y is comfortable with X, she starts sharing her problems, traumas, and vulnerabilities. He slowly starts using her vulnerabilities against her. If Y has ranted about her family and friends, X manipulates her into believing that they are not to be trusted. If she has any insecurities about herself, it is used to lower her self-esteem. X starts being secretive and controlling yet trapping her into believing that he loves Y, making sure that she is dependent on him. He starts disrespecting and mocking her or flirts with other women in front of her. When questions about this abusive behaviour come up, it is trivialised as he denies taking any responsibility for his actions. He instead turns the blame on Y for being overly sensitive or for being too insecure and jealous. Since he is charming and sweet to most people, Y starts believing that she is in fact thinking too much or making things up in her mind. Y’s memory and rationality are put into question, making sure that she relies on X for everything. X takes complete charge of Y’s life, behaviour, and personality, and can be compared to a puppet master, who pulls the strings on his puppets.

Gaslighting is a serious issue which can be difficult to recognise especially when one is involved in an intimate relationship. Moreover, it is possible for a person to get used to such behaviour from their partners, mistaking it for love. The movie Darlings is an interesting example that portrays stages of abuse — addiction towards the relationship, denial of abuse, dissolution, the difficulty in accepting reality and finally the recognition of one’s role in gaslighting — through the course of the movie. Thus, the first step in abusive relationships is to become aware of one’s own role in gaslighting, the ways in which one’s behaviour, desires, and fantasies may lead to idealising the gaslighter and seeking their approval.

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