Ingrid Bergman in ‘Gaslight.’
In a gaslighting relationship, one person states his or her case with so much certainty and regularity that the victim starts to wonder if it might in fact be true. “It’s not just saying ‘I’m certain,’” says Dr. Robin Stern, psychologist and author of The Gaslight Effect. “It’s saying, ‘I’m certain and you don’t know what you’re talking about.’” As a result, the victim is thrown off balance. “Your own confidence and sense of reality is compromised. You can no longer find your center or have confidence in your reality.”
It’s an insidious tactic, to say the least.
Unfortunately, gaslighting can be easy to pull off when there’s an imbalance of power. The perpetrator could be a boss or parent, an idealized partner or the popular girl in high school. Even therapists can easily become the bullies, particularly when a patient feels ready to leave therapy and the therapist says, ‘You’re not ready. This is resistance.’ “Because you’ve given this person power, you have a stake in believing them,” explains Stern. You wonder, ‘Why would my mom lie to me?’ or ‘Why would my therapist mislead me?’ And slowly, you start to accept their reality.
In many cases, gaslighting is also an expression of contempt, where one partner attacks the other with an air of superiority. “Contempt is found in sarcasm, mocking and put-downs,” explains Dr. Bob Navarra, MFT, a certified Gottman couples therapist. “It’s the position that you are crazy for feeling the way you do, that there is something wrong with you.”
It’s the single biggest predictor of separation and relationship unhappiness.
Elena, 38, fell prey to that statistic. She’s not sure why she married Brett in the first place, though after living together for six years, friends and family expected it and “it was something to do.” Even before the wedding, she knew she’d made the wrong choice.
Not long after the wedding, she told Brett that she wanted to break up. “I told him all the typical things,” she says. “That I was unhappy, that I wanted to be in charge of my own life again, that I didn’t see any kind of good future for us and that we were only holding each other back.” She even admitted she’d cheated. He ignored everything she said and blamed it on “depression.”
As she pushed to separate, he created a narrative that she was self-destructive, reckless, an addict. “On my birthday,” she recalls, “I went out drinking with my friends (as I do on my birthday) and was hung over the next day. He claimed that my alcoholism was out of control and that he ‘didn’t know what I would do next’ but suggested I would try to commit suicide or get arrested.”
He painted himself as her savior, as someone trying to salvage the life she was trying to ruin, going so far as to call up her family members to tell them about her ‘addiction problems’ and ‘self-destructiveness.’ She eventually started wondering if she was just in denial—a worry her friends fortunately allayed.