‘Gaslighting’: The form of domestic abuse you probably haven’t heard of


It’s often difficult to spot

By Becky Fletcher

You’ve heard of physical abuse, and you’re probably aware of verbal abuse, but have you ever come across the term ‘gaslighting’? It’s a form of domestic emotional abuse and manipulation that often causes a victim to question feelings, instincts and sanity.

The term derives from a 1944 film called Gaslight – starring Ingrid Begman and Charles Boyer – whereby a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights in their house, but denying it when she asks him about it, hiding her jewellery and then accusing her of losing it, or taking pictures from the wall and insisting that she had removed them. Because he convinced her that he still loved her and would look after her, she became more and more dependent on him, meaning she was unable to see that he was the cause of her misery

“Emotional abuse is an attack on your personality rather than your body, and it can be just as harmful as physical abuse, explains Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of Refuge. “Abusers manipulate and control their victims carefully and purposefully; they switch readily between charm and rage, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.”

Easy to hide

Unlike physical domestic violence, but like other forms of emotional abuse, gaslighting can often be tricky to spot because there are no obvious physical signs. Worryingly, to an outsider, the perpetrator may also appear to be the perfect, caring partner.

Sandra explains that what these partners have in common is that they are invariably the last people anyone would suspect of abusing their partners.

“They are the “nice guys from next door” who are always willing to do a neighbour a favour; they will mend the plumbing, weed the garden, jump-start the car… They may be the men who seem to uphold strict moral standards, who are popular at parties or in the local pubs. Or they may be quiet, “steady” chaps, the ones “you can always rely on.” They present a likeable face to the rest of the world: charm obscures the abuser.”

Why do people do it?

Like many forms of abuse, the perpetrator may be doing it to gain control.

“Distorting a person’s reality can be part of a pattern of control for many abusers,” says Sandra. “It is the kind of mental torment used so successfully by torturers and terrorists who know that they can keep their prisoners compliant by frightening them and disorientating them with rapidly changing moods and situations – the more a woman doubts herself and her judgment, the easier it is for her abuser to control her.”

How it differs from other forms of control

As mentioned, with many forms of abuse control features heavily, but unlike violent abuse, anger and intimidation is often an unlikely feature of gaslighting. Abusers use subtle abusing behaviours. Sandra explains all:

“Anger and intimidation are common techniques for an abuser to use to maintain control over his partner; to make her comply with his demands. However, many techniques of control are much more subtle. Extreme jealousy and possessiveness, for example, can be dressed up to look like ‘care’ or ‘concern’.”

Are you being affected by gaslighting?

Here are some of the signs to look out for that suggest you are a victim of gaslighting:

  • You alter your behaviourbecause you are frightened of how your partner will react
  • Your personality feels attacked
  • Is your partner charming one minute and abusive the next?
  • You keep doubtingyourself
  • You regularly feel confusedand feel like you’re going ‘crazy’
  • You feel massively insecure
  • Your partner might trivialise your emotions
  • Your partner refuses to listen to you
  • Your partner questions your memory, even though you’re convinced you remember correctly
  • Your partner denies or ‘forgets’ promises, plans or things you have said

Sandra recommends asking yourself the following if you suspect you’re suffering from emotional abuse:

  • Is your partner excessively jealous and possessive?
  • Is he stopping youfrom seeing your family and friends?
  • Is he constantly criticising youand putting you down in public?
  • Does he control your money?
  • Does he tell you what to wear, who to see, where to go, what to think?
  • Does he withhold affectionif he doesn’t get his way?
  • Are you starting to walk on eggshells to avoid making him angry?

Getting help

If you think you might be experiencing domestic violence, you are not alone. Tell or confide in a close friend or family member, if you are able to and try visiting a website dedicated tackling domestic violence, such as Refuge or Women’s Aid, where you can find information or support. If it is safe to do so, you can phone the 24-Hour Freephone National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge and Women’s Aid, on 0808 2000 247. An expert helpline advisor will be able to talk you through your options in the short and long term, and support you to access any services you might need.


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