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Are You Living with a Gaslighter?


The 1938 play Gas Light is about a woman who suffers emotional abuse at the hands of her manipulative husband. His actions are designed to force the woman into believing that she is going insane by isolating her, and then engaging in a number of deceptive practices.

The play (and the subsequent films based upon it) are believed to be where the term “gaslight,” originated as a way of describing psychological manipulation. In psychology, gaslighting means “a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions.”

What does gaslighting look like?

This form of psychological abuse can occur in relationships where no physical abuse occurs, and can easily morph into a type of coercive control. Like other forms of abuse, gaslighting is designed to do both short and long-term damage to a person’s self-esteem and psyche. The National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines five categories of gaslighting techniques:

  • Withholding, usually of emotions. In such cases, the abuser refuses to acknowledge what the other party is saying.
  • Countering, where an abuser questions a person’s ability to accurately recall memories, which leads the victim to second-guess all of his or her recalled memories.
  • Blocking/diverting, where the abuser changes the subject of the conversation to divert attention away from the abuser’s actions.
  • Trivializing, where the abuser attempts to minimize the feelings or responses of the victim.
  • Forgetting/denial, where the abuser claims to forget what happened, or outright denies something has happened.

An article in American Sociological Review provides that gaslighting can also be in the form of stereotyping – as in, using negative stereotypes about race, gender, sexuality, age, etc. to exert control.

How gaslighting could be affecting your marriage and family

The goal of intentional gaslighting is to obtain and maintain control over another person. The perpetrator may attempt to control his or her spouse as well as his or her children. This can create a system where the spouse and children feel entirely dependent upon the abuser. Examples might include:

  • Demeaning family members based on “traditional” gender roles, such as making a male child feel bad about playing with dolls or belittling a wife who would prefer to go back to work than stay home and raise the children.
  • Giving family members the silent treatment whenever there is an argument in order to make those family members beg for forgiveness (even when the family members did not start the situation leading to the argument).
  • Changing the direction of a conversation about Spouse A’s spending habits into a conversation/argument about Spouse B’s behaviors (regarding money or literally anything else).
  • Denying responsibility or deflecting blame for one’s actions, behaviors, or choices, with expressions like “look what you made me do” or “I didn’t want to do X, but you left me no choice.”

These behaviors will likely not end just because one spouse says they want a divorce, as perpetrators are likely to employ them during and after a divorce as well. In some cases, gaslighting techniques may be employed to sway the children to see one parent’s side over the other’s, or as part of a plan to alienate the children from the other parent.

If you believe that your children are in danger you should contact a NYC divorce lawyer right away to discuss the legal paths open to you regarding child custody, protective orders, and other domestic issues. You should also consider seeking counseling for yourself and your children, so that you can begin the process of healing.

Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein LLP handles high-conflict divorce litigation for clients throughout the state. If you believe you are being emotionally abused, or that your partner is engaging in gaslighting techniques that are harming you or your family, we want to help. Please call (212) 466-6015, or fill out our contact form today. We proudly serve clients throughout New York City, Westchester, and Bergen County, NJ.