Domestic abuse is a prevailing problem in our society. Because of the persisting stigmas and prejudices, these forms of violence are hardly discussed and recognized in public settings. What forms domestic abuse? Beating wives? Sexually assaulting her? These are just very few examples of abuse. Women are abused psychologically too. In a silent manner, the abuser is capable of destroying the mental well-being of a person. Psychological manipulation is also abuse, which is known as ‘gaslighting’.
Gaslighting is emotional abuse that manipulates someone in a subtle psychological process. This is a strategy used by abusers. It creates a feeling of insanity in a person. Abuse is mainly a behavior associated with power and control. Abusers use gaslighting to control the victim and establish a dominating power over them. On the other hand, the person who has been gaslighted starts to doubt his/her feelings, sanity, trust and self-worth. Their trust is broken and they begin to question reality. As a consequence, they start to believe in the abuser and continue to be a part of the abusive relationship. The term gaslighting was popularized by Psychotherapist Robin Stern in her 2007 book. She defined gaslighting as a ‘mutual participation’ between the gaslighter (perpetrator) and the gaslighted (victim). According to Stern, the signs of being a victim of gaslighting include: second-guessing oneself, asking “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day, feeling confused and even crazy, frequently making excuses for partner’s behavior to friends and family, withholding information from friends and family to avoid explanation or excuses, knowing that something is terribly wrong but failed to express what it is, lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists, feeling hopeless and joyless, wondering if she is a “good enough” partner and many more.
The term Gaslighting originates from a 1938 stage play named Gas Light in which the protagonist’s husband intentionally dims the light of their house and denies it happening when his wife finds out. He also hides a brooch, removes a painting, and blames his wife for losing her touch with reality. He tells her that it is not normal to go out with friends. He did these things to manipulate her and make her believe that she is crazy so that he can grab her property.
The person doing gaslighting is called a gaslighter. Very often, the gaslighter is a close partner. This is why they know who you are and what your insecurities are. They use such knowledge to victimize the person and make them emotionally numb. They create a line between right and wrong. The victim fails to distinguish between right and wrong, reality, and imagination. If anything happens, the blame is solely put on the victim. In a slow process, the victim realizes that she is the problem. She forgets reality and lives in an imaginary situation that affects her mental health. She suffers from anxiety, trauma, and stress as she forgets to think rationally and blames herself for any emerging situation.
In Bangladesh, domestic abuse is nothing new. Normally only brutal cases get reported and recognized. But millions of women are abused psychologically which we refer to as gaslighting. Sometimes the conjugal relationship seems perfect. The couple may spend good times with each other and have a happy family life. Gaslighting can take place in such a family as well. The nature of the act and unpopular use of the term makes it even more difficult for us to detect gaslighting behavior in a household. Suppose, (1) you have a loving husband who works very hard to support your family of fours. He brings you flowers and takes you and your children to dinner every month. But he does not allow you to work outside or earn money. He believes that as a woman, you should stay home and take care of your children. He makes you believe that you are not capable of doing any other work. He loves you but he does not believe in your potential. He fixes your role to play and wants you to do accordingly. Gradually you start seeing yourself the way he wants you to. You sacrifice your own dreams to remain faithful to your husband; (2) You are happily married to your lover. You both share a beautiful relationship and hope to have a happy future together. He never assaulted you or let you down. But he isolates you from your loved ones. He controls you and does not let you not meet your family members or invite them. He tells you to not hang out with your friends. When you see him at a restaurant with another girl, he tells you that you must have mistaken or seen someone else or that you are going insane. Will you call these incidents abuse or gaslighting? Yes, these are the exact examples of gaslighting behavior. Such stories are very common in our society. Sadly, most women here trust their husbands more than their own talents. So they do not take such remarks seriously. In this process, the gaslighting is being normalized. On the contrary, by telling constant lies, manipulating, and isolating victims, the gaslighter strengthens his action. It is easy to manipulate someone who has no support system. In this way, the victim becomes more dependent on the abuser as she has no place to go and check reality.
The word gaslight was declared the most useful word by the American Dialect Society in 2016. In 2018, it became one of Oxford Dictionaries’ “words of the year”. In the UK, gaslighting within intimate relationships has become a crime under coercive control legislation. To escape from gaslighting relationships, one needs to understand the way it works. It is high time that we recognize gaslighting and speak out to break the cycle of abusive relationships in our society.
The Sociology of gaslighting. Paige L. Sweet. (2019). American Sociological Review. Vol 84(5). 851-75
Image Source: Stop Abuse Campaign.
About the writer:
Nujhat Jahan likes to write on contemporary criminal and feminist issues with great passion. Her educational background in Criminology has given her a broad base from which to explore and evaluate several issues. She believes in bringing a positive change in the minds of the readers through her writings.