Have you watched the movie Gas Light with Ingrid Bergman? In the movie, a woman’s lover slowly but surely causes her think she is insane. The movie title lends itself to a type of emotional abuse called gaslighting. Gaslighting occurs when someone persuades you to “believe the unbelievable” despite your instinct’s whispers of “Something is not right here…”
When I think about myself at the beginning of my relationship with my ex-husband, Will, I remember being slightly wounded, but strong. I was competent and trusted my thoughts and feelings. His gaslighting caused me to doubt myself and my perceptions; it rolled my thoughts around until I felt like silly putty with his fingerprints all over me. Six months into the relationship when he held my face to the stove, previous gaslighting enabled him to bring me back home even though I was determined to stay away.
In fact, I’d packed my bag and took it to work, intending to move back into the barracks. Will talked me out of it by making a same-day appointment with the chaplain. We couldn’t talk about the physical violence or he would lose his job. (Me agreeing to see the chaplain even though we couldn’t talk about the physical assault is my first hindsight clue he’d already got into my mind.)
The chaplain worked us through an alternate problem. We had many.
I had hope that Will would abide by his promise made outside the chaplain’s office to never do it again. However, “I don’t remember that” was his mantra. He said “I don’t remember that” so many times it felt like he was telling me I was lying (also gaslighting).
I went home with him that night, feeling that something is not right but shoving my instincts down in favor of accepting the idea that Will was partially right. After all, his insistence that something was wrong with me was already ingrained into my psyche . . . gaslighting works.
Gaslighting occurs when one person consistently assaults another person’s emotions and intelligence to the point of causing self-doubt in the victim. The point of gaslighting is to increase the victim’s self-doubt so that eventually victim believes what the abuser says is true no matter how ridiculous.
Whether the gaslighter’s insults drip off the abuser’s tongue like honey or callously and overtly attack the victim’s character (or mental health) depends on both the abuser’s style of bringing their victim under control and the effectiveness of previous gaslighting attempts.
Types of Gaslighters: Their Style of Gaslighting
The abuser, your gaslighter, may try several different types of gaslighting before settling on the one that works best for him or her. However, if your gaslighter has effectively used gaslighting in past relationships, s/he may see you as less of an experiment and immediately begin using his or her own special style.
If you do not respond favorably to the gaslighter’s modus operandi, the abuser may end the relationship early and search of someone who will respond easily.
If you’ve ever met a great guy or girl who dropped you like a sack of potatoes for no good reason, maybe you should count yourself lucky. It’s very possible that the excuse, “It’s not you, it’s me” speaks the entire truth!
The Three Types of Gaslighters Defined
In her book, The Gaslight Effect, Dr. Stern says that there are three types of gaslighters. She exposes the Glamour Gaslighter, Good-Guy Gaslighter, and the Intimidator.
My abuser was a combination of the Intimidator (primarily) and Good-Guy. Do you see your gaslighter’s type in Dr. Stern’s list?
Intimidators bully, withhold and guilt-trip.
- Verbal abuse in the form of a joke (“I’m just teasing! Can’t you take a joke?).
- Frequent temper tantrums, loud and scary.
- You feel afraid of him.
- He uses your worst fears against you (“You’re so stupid!” or “You’re just like your mother!”).
- He uses silence as a weapon.
- He does not seem to like you at all – he doesn’t like your attitudes, beliefs, etc.
- He threatens to leave, take your kids, leave you ruined, gut you like a pig, etc.
Good-Guys need to appear good and reasonable while getting their own way.
- You can’t quite put your finger on “what’s wrong” or feel dissatisfied even though he appears to help and support you.
- He works to please you and others yet you feel unsettled and unheard.
- You feel he always gets his way in the end but you can’t figure out just how it happened.
- You describe a great relationship to yourself and others but increasingly feel depressed and discouraged about life in general.
Glamour Gaslighters create a special world just for you.
- You and your friends are impressed by how romantic he is.
- He doesn’t seem to take your tastes into account when surprising or treating you romantically.
- He is overly charming in most situations.
- He appears two-faced in that you know what venom he spouts behind the backs of those he is most kind to in public.
- Your friends become nervous about how romantic he is (they sense a false front).
- Insists on being physically or otherwise romantic after you’ve told him you’re not into it right then.
You can find Dr. Sterns book on Amazon at The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Dr. Robin Stern. I recommend you read the product description near the end of the page as it offers 15 tell-tale signs of gaslighting.
Do you recognize your abuser in these types of gaslighters? Do you see some other examples?
*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.