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Sleep Deprivation Can Be a Weapon in the Hands of an Abusive Partner

Unlike other types of physical abuse, sleep deprivation doesn’t leave a mark.

Vice/July 9, 2019

By Kimberly Lawson

Alice’s former husband often woke her up by slamming his hand down on the bed. He would keep her awake “until the wee hours of the morning,” she recalled. Sometimes, it didn’t matter who went to bed first; he would still find reasons to wake her in the middle of the night. “It could be because I was snoring. It could be because he [had woken up] and I was asleep and if he couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t sleep. [Or] he’d had a dream and I’d done something in his dream and therefore he was really upset with me.”

Nights were terrifying, she said, though she often felt it was safer to go to sleep after her husband. “It became a really big deal for me,” she said. “If I was to fall asleep before he did, that’s usually when something would get out of hand.”

It’s been 10 years since Alice left her husband, but she remembers those experiences like they happened yesterday. To process her experience and help others understand the complexity of domestic violence, Alice (whose last name we’ve withheld to protect her children’s privacy) started a personal blog. One of her most viewed posts was the one published in 2012 detailing how her partner intentionally deprived her of sleep.

Victims of domestic violence often have trouble sleeping. But when a person intentionally weaponizes sleep deprivation—including not allowing their partner to go to bed, interrupting their sleep or punishing them for sleeping—experts say it becomes a form of physical abuse and torture, one that often goes unnoticed to the outside world. “I don’t know that anybody really would have told me it was abuse [back then],” Alice said. “I had a very good therapist at that time who pointed out that that wasn’t okay, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on it either.”

Everyone needs sleep; it is a basic biological function that is critical for our health. And it’s only now that we’re realizing how powerful, and devastating, sleep deprivation can be.

A 2007 exploratory study in the journal Violence Against Women offered a glimpse into how sleep loss leaves survivors feeling vulnerable to violence. Researchers interviewed 17 women whose sleep was disturbed by an abusive partner; all reported adjusting their sleeping patterns to minimize the daily threat of violence they faced. Some said they were afraid to sleep “too deeply” and others said they avoided sleep altogether when their partner was home.

“You would pretend to be asleep, then you would have to pretend to wake up. Either way it would be better to be awake, trying to figure out what he wanted or what he was going to do next,” one woman said.

As the study’s authors write, these narratives “bring into sharp relief the connection between sleep deprivation and the establishment of a regime of power and control by one person over another—the hallmark of domestic violence.”

In a follow-up study, researchers determined: “Sleep deprivation was clearly a direct strategy of abuse used by perpetrators. It also indirectly undermined the mental and physical resilience of women.”

Unlike other types of physical abuse, sleep deprivation doesn’t leave a mark. “Unfortunately, I think the only thing that society recognizes as abuse is a black eye,” said Heather Frederick, a spokesperson for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “A lot of people who are experiencing sleep deprivation as a part of abuse understand this isn’t healthy, it’s not sustainable…but they may not make the connection that it’s about their partner trying to control them or trying to strong-arm them or have power over them.”

At her organization, Frederick said sleep deprivation is classified as a form of physical abuse, though it easily falls under emotional abuse as well. Similar to stopping someone from taking medication they need, interrupting someone’s sleep has a significant impact on their bodies and minds.

Victims of sleep deprivation often experience drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, and eventually disorientation, hallucinations, and paranoia. Chronic sleep loss can lead to serious health problems, including risk of high blood pressure, depression, and heart attack.

According to data gathered by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, four in 10 women and four in 10 men have experienced at least one form of coercive control (which includes any behavior a person uses to dominate their significant other) in their lifetime. One example where sleep is a vehicle for manipulation, Frederick said, occurs in the context of a long-distance relationship: A partner may require the other person to videochat with them to prove that they’re home alone or ask them to leave their phone on their pillow all night to listen to them sleep.

In Alice’s case, her partner even justified the sleep deprivation with one of the messages in the sermon given during their wedding, which had to do with married couples never letting the sun go down on their anger. “He used that against me for a long time,” she said, referring to her former husband. If she begged for sleep, he accused her of loving sleep more than she loved him.

In these scenarios, abusers usually aren’t trying to reach any kind of compromise, Frederick explained. “Their goal is to wear their victim out so that they cave in and give in to whatever it is the abusive partner is wanting to happen or whatever they’re looking for.”

As recently as 2014, the United Nations’ committee against torture called on the United States to end its practice of using sleep deprivation on detainees, calling it “a form of ill-treatment.”

In 2016, Tania Tetlow, then a law professor at Tulane University and now president of Loyola University New Orleans, made a compelling argument for states to pass laws “banning torture by private actors” as well, primarily as a better way to address domestic violence. She included sleep deprivation among the techniques that should be outlawed.

Imposing sleep deprivation on someone isn’t a crime in and of itself, Tetlow said in an interview, but that’s why the analogy of torture and domestic violence works. Domestic violence generally is a pattern crime, similar to stalking. “Any one act in isolation will not seem that egregious. It is the context of the pattern of behaviors and the intent of those behaviors and their cumulative impact that really makes it terrible.”

Tetlow acknowledged that sleep deprivation is one of those abusive tactics that may not seem like that big of a deal on its own. But it is an effective way to render somebody unable to function and make good judgments. “The biggest risk of lethality with domestic violence is not measured by the level of violence; it’s about the level of control,” she said. “That is a bigger indicator of the chance that someone will murder their victim.”

As an example, Tetlow pointed to one 2010 case in Louisiana: Jennifer Muse, 31, was shot and killed by her 78-year-old husband. Two days earlier, he’d been acquitted of domestic violence battery, a charge stemming from a fight in the middle of the night when she was upset that he woke her. According to Muse’s testimony, he did so often.

Repositioning domestic violence in the law as torture—a legal argument that’s yet to gain any traction—would send both abusers and the people they hurt a powerful message, Tetlow said: “Describing domestic violence as torture focuses the criminal justice system and the public on the defendant’s clear premeditation and culpability. We see batterers as merely angry, whereas we acknowledge torturers as cruel.”

For Alice, the survivor who left her partner over a decade ago, the long-term pain caused by the abuse continues to disrupt her life. She still has trouble going to bed at times. “I do feel like I’ve come a long way. I’m in a much different spot than I was then, but I still have my triggers. I still have things that can upset me quite a bit.”

50 Shades Of Gaslighting: Disturbing Signs An Abuser Is Twisting Your Reality

Thought Catalog/September 29, 2019

By Shahida Arabi

Gaslighting, explained.

How do you convince someone that something they know to be true isn’t? In psychology, what is known as the “illusory truth effect” is a phenomenon in which a listener comes to believe something primarily because it has been repeated so often. When an abuser continually tells you that you are oversensitive or that what you are experiencing is in no way abuse, you begin believing it, even if you know deep down it isn’t true.

In other words, a lie that is repeated long enough eventually can be seen as the truth. Researchers Hasher, Goldstein and Toppino (1997) discovered that when a statement (even when it is false and readers know it to be false) is repeated multiple times, it was more likely to be rated as true simply due to the effects of repetition. This is because when we’re assessing a claim, we rely on either the credibility of the source from which the claim is derived or familiarity with that claim. Surprisingly, familiarity often trumps credibility or rationality when assessing the perceived validity of a statement (Begg, Anas, and Farinacci, 1992; Geraci, L., & Rajaram, 2016).

The illusory truth effect can cause us to become susceptible to the effects of another dangerous form of reality erosion known as gaslighting. Deliberate manipulators who gaslight with the intention of eroding your reality and rewriting history tend to use the “illusory truth effect” to their advantage. They will repeat falsehoods so often that they become ingrained in the victim’s mind as unshakeable truths.

When this is done repeatedly to override what was truly experienced, it can leave an immense dent in the fabric of someone’s perceptions and ability to trust themselves. When used chronically to control a victim, it becomes a damaging aspect of psychological abuse, placing the survivor at risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal ideation and even what is called by some therapists as “Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome” (Van der Kolk, 2016; Walker, 2013; WolfFord-Clevinger, 2017; Staik, 2017).

What is Gaslighting?

The term “gaslighting” first originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, in which a manipulative husband drives his wife to the brink of insanity by causing her to question her own reality. It was also popularized in the 1944 film adaptation, Gaslight, a psychological thriller about a man named Gregory Anton (played by Charles Boyer) who murders a famous opera singer and later marries her niece, Paula (played by Ingrid Bergman) to gain access to the rest of her family jewels.

Gregory erodes his new wife’s sense of reality by making her believe that her aunt’s house is haunted in the hope that she will be institutionalized. He does everything from rearranging items in the house, flickering gas lights on and off to making noises in the attic so she feels as if she’s becoming unhinged. He isolates her so that she is unable to seek support for the terror she is experiencing. The real kicker? After manufacturing these crazymaking scenarios, he then convinces her that these events are all a figment of her imagination.

Gaslighting has become a well-known term in the abuse survivor community, particularly for the survivors of malignant narcissists. Unlike more vulnerable narcissists who may possess more of a capacity for remorse, malignant narcissists truly believe in their superiority, are grandiose and lie on the higher end of the narcissistic spectrum. They have antisocial traits, demonstrate paranoia, bear an excessive sense of entitlement, show a callous lack of empathy and display an egregious liking for interpersonal exploitation.

Gaslighting provides malignant narcissists with a portal to erase the reality of their victims without a trace. It is a method that enables them to commit covert psychological murder with clean hands.

Is Gaslighting Intentional?

One might wonder: is all gaslighting intentional? After all, we’ve all had experiences where we’ve inadvertently invalidated someone’s experience without meaning to. Perhaps we lacked enough information about the matter. Maybe we were defensive about being right. Or, we just didn’t agree with their “interpretation” of events. What Dr. Sherman calls “everyday gaslighting” may occur due to human error – but that does not negate the danger of gaslighting when it is used to emotionally terrorize someone.

In the context of an abusive relationship, gaslighting is used to deliberately undercut the victim’s reality and make him or her more malleable to mistreatment. As Dr. Sarkis writes in her article, “Are Gaslighters Aware of What They Do?” not all gaslighters engage in it intentionally, but those who are cult leaders, dictators and malignant narcissists most certainly do so with an agenda in mind.

As she writes, “The goal is to make the victim or victims question their own reality and depend on the gaslighter…In the case of a person who has a personality disorder such as antisocial personality disorder, they are born with an insatiable need to control others.”

Gaslighting allows perpetrators to evade accountability for their actions, to deflect responsibility and exercise their control over their partners with alarming ease.

“Narcissists are like Teflon; nothing sticks. They don’t take responsibility. For anything. They are master deflectors and try to avoid the blame when cheating, stealing and everything in between. They make up complex excuses and can rationalize anything. When they are finally called out, they are quick to claim they are being persecuted, though they may be apologetic for a minute. When someone never takes responsibility for anything – words, actions, feelings – it is a challenging, if not impossible way to maintain a relationship,” Dr. Durvasula, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist.

Beliefs, after all, are immensely powerful. They have the power to create division, build or destroy nations, end or start wars. To mold the beliefs of an unsuspecting target to suit your own agendas is to essentially control their behavior and even potentially change their life-course trajectory. If narcissistic Calvin decides he wants to wreak havoc over his girlfriend Brianna’s reality, all he has to do is to convince her that she cannot trust herself or her instincts – especially about the abuse she is experiencing.

How Does Gaslighting Unfold?

As Dr. Robin Stern notes in her book, The Gaslight Effect:

“The Gaslight Effect results from a relationship between two people: a gaslighter, who needs to be right in order to preserve his own sense of self, and his sense of having power in the world; and a gaslightee, who allows the gaslighter to define {his or} her sense of reality because she idealizes him and seeks his approval.”

It is in the victim seeking validation and approval from the gaslighter that the danger begins to unfold. Gaslighting is essentially psychological warfare, causing a victim to habitually question himself or herself. It is employed as a power play to regain control over the victim’s psyche, sense of stability and sense of self.

By playing puppeteer to the survivor’s perceptions, the manipulator is able to pull the strings in every context where his or her target feels powerless, confused, disoriented and on edge, perpetually walking on eggshells to keep the peace.

What Gaslighting Looks Like: An Example

Imagine this scenario: Diana and Robert* have been dating for several months. Diana thinks she’s met the “one” – Robert is generous, kind, supportive and funny. They become enamored with each other quickly and move in together shortly after their one-year anniversary. As soon as Diana signs the lease on their new apartment, however, it is evident that there is some trouble in paradise. Robert’s usual warmth and affection begins to wane. After several months, Diana notices that he has more become inexplicably cold and withdrawn.  He lashes out more often, creates nonsensical arguments (in which he uses Diana as a scapegoat for every issue) and criticizes her on a daily basis. It’s almost as if he’s undergone a personality transplant from the once charming and down to earth man she thought she knew.

He has also stopped paying his half of the rent, claiming that he has been struggling financially ever since the move. Though Diana remembers him enthusiastically choosing the neighborhood where they currently live, he now complains it is far too “expensive” for his taste and accuses her of being too extravagant. She notices he has more than enough funds to spend on drinking with his friends or gambling late into the night, but grudgingly agrees to pay his half until he gets back on his feet.

Diana recognizes that Robert is not only taking her for granted, but taking advantage of her. When she finally confronts him one night as he stumbles into the apartment at an obscenely late hour, his response is rageful and defensive. He accuses her of not trusting him. He calls her horrible names. He threatens to leave and never come back. He refuses to speak to her at all about his behavior and ends up going to a “friend’s” place, leaving Diana in tears and filled with anxiety about his whereabouts.

In the midst of her despair, she begins to wonder if she’s been too hard on him. She calls him multiple times, begging for him to come back and apologizing profusely for the things she’s accused him of. He does come back, but the cycle only continues. After only a few blissful days of “making up,” where Robert “graciously” forgives Diana for her “overreactions,” Robert begins disappearing during the nights and reappearing with a suspiciously unkempt appearance. He also receives mysterious phone calls at odd hours, which he takes privately in the bathroom with the door locked.

Each time Diana tries to raise questions about where he has been and whether he’s been seeing other women behind her back, he pushes back, accusing her of being “crazy,” “needy” and “paranoid.” Despite her attempts to uncover the truth, she starts to wonder if she really is being paranoid. Maybe it really is her fault that he is distancing himself. Maybe he just needs time to “unwind.”

She begins avoiding confrontation with Robert altogether and instead tries her best to please him instead – doubling her efforts to show him more affection and understanding. Her hope is that, once he realizes what a great partner she is, he will stop his shady behavior and go back to being the man he presented himself to be in the beginning. Unfortunately, as most victims ensnared in the vicious cycle of emotional abuse know, this is rarely the case. This is just the beginning.

(Note: This example was created using the accounts of multiple survivors from surveys on narcissistic abuse; the characters are fictional and only used for the purpose of illustration. Although in this particular scenario the gaslighter is male and the victim is female, gaslighting is not exclusive to any gender and can happen to anyone.)

Why Does Gaslighting Work So Well?

Diana and Robert’s story illustrate a classic example of the cycle of narcissistic abuse – one in which idealization is followed by devaluation and the honeymoon phase dissipates into the unmasking of a covert predator. Robert is able to gaslight Diana into believing she is the problem – all while she financially supports him and doubles her efforts to be a more loving partner. Meanwhile, he engages in infidelity, verbally berates her and subjects her to bouts of narcissistic rage, without any consequences or accountability. This isn’t at all the healthy, loving relationship Diana signed up for, but the powerful effect of gaslighting is that Robert’s version of reality (Diana is crazy, he is the one putting up with it) replaces the truth.

Do you see what’s wrong with this picture? Gaslighting lets the perpetrator off the hook while the victim is left picking up the pieces and then some.

Why do survivors believe in gaslighters?

Executed effectively and done chronically, gaslighting causes self-doubt and cognitive dissonance – a state of turmoil stirred by inconsistent attitudes and beliefs. Survivors of emotional predators sense that something is amiss, but when they attempt to address it, they are often blindsided by their abuser’s complete dismissal and invalidation of their reality.

Diana “knew” something was wrong and felt like she was being taken advantage of when Robert stopped paying his half of the rent and began coming home at odd hours, but after being on the receiving end of his gaslighting and verbal abuse, she rationalized that her behavior must have caused the conflict. She did not want to lose out on her emotional investment in what appeared to be a great relationship in the beginning. As a result, she instead invested more – unfortunately, risking the loss of her own sense of self.

Gaslighting, after all, begins insidiously in stages; in the first stage, survivors still have a grasp of their perceptions even if they might not understand what is happening. Like a frog in slowly boiling water, they become accustomed to the insidious warping of their reality, until they no longer recognize their reality or even themselves. Initially, like Diana, they may attempt to reiterate their perspective and express disbelief at the gaslighter’s claims.

As gaslighting continues, however, it wears down the victim. Diana eventually tries to “win” Robert back because she feels unable to self-validate after his constant verbal attacks and rageful responses. This is not uncommon for victims of chronic gaslighting, especially when a repetition or reinforcement of false claims is involved. According to Lynn Hasher, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, “Repetition makes things seem more plausible…and the effect is likely more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information.”

Chronic gaslighting eventually leads to pure exhaustion – victims develop a sense of learned helplessness as they are met with the intense consistency of denial, rage, projection or accusations from the gaslighter.

Exhaustion from abuse and retaliation for asserting oneself creates a mental fog of epic proportions, one in which a survivor can easily drown in even the most ridiculous excuses as long as they carry a grain of truth.

The survivor of a conniving gaslighter becomes submerged in confusion about what actually occurred and whether anything truly occurred at all. So instead of questioning the gaslighter, they attempt to prevent further psychological assault by feeding their own self-doubt and uncertainty surrounding the abuse that is occurring. Dr. George Simon, who specializes in the character disordered, writes:

“Gaslighting victims question their judgment. They can even come to question their very sanity. Crafty covert-aggressors know how to make you doubt. In your gut you feel they’re trying to play you. But they can have you feeling like you’re a fool for thinking so. They can even have you questioning what’s real and what isn’t,” – Dr. George Simon, Gaslighting Victims Question Their Sanity.

To summarize: why does gaslighting work? There are more than a few reasons:

  • Gaslighting exploits any existing self-doubt about one’s capabilities as well as any past traumas that may cause the victim to feel too “damaged” to see reality clearly.
  • Gaslighting exhausts a victim’s internal resources so they are unable to self-validate and eventually give into a sense of learned helplessness.
  • Gaslighting depletes individuals of a stable sense of self-worth and certainty about how they interpret the world.
  • Gaslighting manufactures insecurities and fears that never existed, causing the victim to focus on his/her perceived flaws rather than the abuser’s transgressions.
  • Gaslighting causes the survivor to investigate whether he or she has done something wrong, instead of looking at the perpetrator’s behavior as the cause of concern.
  • Gaslighting sets up survivors to fail no matter what they do; abusers will demonstrate disapproval regardless of how hard the survivor tries to please the abuser. Whether victims stay silent and compliant or aggressive and assertive, they will be punished. By moving the goalposts, the perpetrator is able to shift their expectations and their claims at the drop of a hat.
  • Gaslighting diverts from, denies, rationalizes and minimizes horrific acts of psychological and physical violence.
  • Gaslighting creates a dangerous form of retaliation for victims speaking out, because each time they do, they are met with a psychological or even physical assault that causes them to feel increasingly diminished.

Survivors often take on the responsibility for reducing the cognitive dissonance that arises when what they know to be true is threatened by gaslighting of an abuser. They do so by essentially “gaslighting” themselves into believing in what their manipulators are telling them, rather than trusting their own inner voice. They may even socially withdraw and become overly defensive about protecting the gaslighter due to their need for validation from the relationship. The gaslighter “trains” and conditions them into seeking their approval, and they fear losing that approval because it symbolizes the loss of the relationship itself.

Smoke and Mirrors: How Gaslighting Works to Erode the Victim’s Reality and Sense of Self

While the definition of gaslighting may appear clear-cut, the reality of how it is used in abusive relationships is complex and multifaceted. There are many ways in which malignant narcissists gaslight their victims, and when done chronically, gaslighting becomes an effective tool to manage down the victim’s expectations for decency, honesty and transparency over time.

After all, if someone cannot trust their own perceptions, it becomes that much easier to hand over the reins to the person who is shaping their reality in the first place. It becomes that much more difficult to confront the gaslighter without the fear of being shamed and silenced. Here are some ways in which gaslighting can show up in toxic relationships:

1. Denial and dismissal.

Perhaps the most popular form of gaslighting occurs in the art of the blatant denial. A cheating wife refuses to admit that she had an affair, even when concrete evidence (such as explicit photos) surface. A malignant parent denies ever abusing their children despite the fact that they still have the scars (whether emotional or physical) and memories to prove it.

A predator with a history of committing sexual assault simply says it did not happen, despite many victims coming forward. By dismissing the evidence and holding steadfast to the “alternative facts,” the abuser is able to instill a sense of doubt – however tiny – and by planting that seed, they create a burgeoning ambivalence in their victims, law enforcement, society as a whole – that perhaps it really didn’t happen, or at least, it didn’t happen in the way the victim reported it did.

Much like reasonable doubt can sway a jury, continually denying a victim’s experiences can lead the victim to search for evidence that confirms the abuser’s reality rather than their own. At most, it provides a counternarrative to the truth that enablers of the abuser can hold onto, and at worst, it creates so much distortion that the abuser is rarely held accountable for his or her actions.

Unfortunately, this form of gaslighting also preys on a sense of hope just as it does uncertainty. Victims may have their own reasons for believing in the abuser, but they are also trauma bonded to their perpetrators through the intense experiences of abuse in an effort to survive. As a result, victims of a trauma bond often protect their abusers and work even harder to depict their relationship as a happy, stable one.

As trauma and addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes (2015) writes in his book, The Betrayal Bond:

“Exploitive relationships create betrayal bonds. These occur when a victim bonds with someone who is destructive to him or her. Thus the hostage becomes the champion of the hostage taker, the incest victim covers for the parent, and the exploited employee fails to expose the wrongdoing of the boss…{this} is a mind-numbing, highly addictive attachment to the people who have hurt you. You may even try to explain and help them understand what they are doing – convert them into non-abusers. You may even blame yourself, your defects, your failed efforts…these attachments cause you to distrust your own judgment, distort your own realities and place you at even greater risk. The great irony? You are bracing yourself against further hurt. The result? A guarantee of more hurt.”

As Carnes notes, the emotional investment we have built in our relationship with the gaslighter is what keeps us hoping for a return on our investment. Yet the more we invest, the more we inevitably risk.

An adult child of an abusive parent does not want to face the reality that their parent may have never loved them; a doting husband may prefer to believe that any evidence of his wife cheating was misconstrued; a sexual predator’s victims may wish to not move forward with legal charges because they hope they can move forward with their lives.

Denial – however simple it may seem – can be an effective strategy for an abuser to use precisely because it also works with a victim’s natural desire to avoid conflict, protect themselves from the trauma of the truth and maintain the false comfort of the abuser’s false mask.

2. Shaming and Emotional Invalidation.

When abusers are unable to convince you that your truth is a false reality, or when they feel they need to add an extra dose of emotional anesthesia to keep you quiet and compliant about their transgressions, they’ll add in subtle shaming or emotional invalidation. This is when, not only are your claims dismissed and denied, the fact that you brought them up in the first place make you somehow defective, abnormal or incompetent.

“I can’t believe you would think that of me. You have serious trust issues, to even search through my phone like that,” the cheating wife might say, displacing the onus of her own infidelity onto her husband and diverting from the fact that her shady behavior caused trust issues in the first place.

“Why are you bringing up the past? You really can’t let go of things, can you? I am so angry you’re bringing this up,” cries the abusive parent hysterically, bringing the focus to her emotions rather than her child’s plight. This effectively silences and shames the child for speaking up in the first place, discounting the impact of their traumatic childhood.

The sexual predator? He or she is able to shift the focus back to the victim’s behavior instead – asking, why did he flirt with me? Or why did she come back to my place, if she didn’t want to have sex?

Shaming is powerful because it taps into the deepest core wounds of childhood. To be shamed is to ‘regress’ back into the first time you were reprimanded, belittled, made to feel small. It reminds you when you were once voiceless – and it repeats the destructive cycle by regurgitating old belief systems of unworthiness. When we feel unworthy, we are less likely to speak out or counter injustice in empowering ways by advocating for ourselves – which is why we tend to rationalize, minimize and deny gaslighting behavior and blame ourselves.

3. Pathologizing the Victim.

Malignant narcissists take it one step further when it comes to their victims; they engage in concrete actions that pathologize and discredit their partners. They play the smirking “doctors” in their intimate relationships, diagnosing their victims like “unruly patients,” all while downplaying their own pathological behavior. While they can also do this through a smear campaign, the most covert predators tend to use more underhanded methods to come out on top.

A victim whose credibility is weakened serves as ammunition for an abuser, because the abuser is able to evade accountability for his or her actions by claiming that the victim is unhinged, unstable, and pursuing some form of vendetta against the abuser.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline estimates that around 89% of their callers have experienced some form of mental health coercion and that 43% had experienced a substance abuse coercion from an abuser. According to them:

“Most survivors who reported their abusive partners had actively contributed to mental health difficulties or their use of substances also said their partners threatened to use the difficulties or substance use against them with important authorities, such as legal or child custody professionals, to prevent them from obtaining custody or other things that they wanted or needed.” – The National Center on Domestic Violence and the Domestic Violence Hotline

The most covert gaslighters manufacture scenarios that drive their victims over the edge while erasing any trace of their involvement. They exploit existing vulnerabilities in the victims, such as past traumas, addictions and mental health issues. They create chaos so that the victim reacts and they are able to use the reactions of their victims against them (sometimes even going so far as to videotaping their reactions while failing to provide the context of their abusive behavior).

“Narcissists magnify the gaslighting effect when they accuse their victims of requiring professional help, medication or a psychiatric evaluation when their victims begin to call out the abuse. They may even coerce their victims to take drugs or push them over the edge when their victims are feeling suicidal from the impact of the long-term psychological terrorism they have endured. This is all done with the dual purpose of gaslighting the victim into thinking he or she is the crazy one – and of gaslighting society into thinking that they, the abuser, is actually the victim instead,” – Shahida Arabi, POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse.

They use the vulnerabilities their victims disclosed to them early in the relationship against them to retraumatize them and shame them into feeling that no one would believe them if they spoke out. They accuse their victims of being “bitter” and “obsessed” with them, when in fact, they are the ones stalking their victims. Not unlike the set-up in movies like Gaslight, the victim finds himself or herself being told that they are “crazy,” “losing it,” “imagining things,” or “delusional” even after they endure blow after blow.

Similarly, as victims of psychological violence get closer to the precipice of truth, the man (or woman) behind the curtain creates a great deal of noise to divert their victims from ever seeing what is beneath the surface of their façade and grandiose claims of authenticity. The noise malignant narcissists create instead refocuses on attacking the credibility of the victim rather than addressing their own crimes.

This includes: (1) telling the victim to seek “help” for calling out their behavior, convincing the victim to obtain medication to help manage their “symptoms” (because getting close to the truth, apparently, requires extensive care) (2) encouraging the victim to abuse substances (in an effort to control them, as well as to make them a less credible ‘witness’ to their crimes) and (3) using their trauma history against them to make them believe that they have no case for accusing them of abuse.

An expert gaslighter will point to the fact that you were violated in the past, which must be why you’re acting out your trauma onto them in the present.

An expert gaslighter can even drive his or her victim to suicide.

Gaslighting in Conversations

What does gaslighting look like in day to day conversations? It usually involves some form of the following:

Malignant repetition of falsehoods. As noted previously, repeating a lie frequently enough can become a way to reinforce and cement it as truth. Whether these lies are seemingly innocuous or potentially damaging, they can overwrite existing perceptions.

“You flirted with that guy. I saw you.”

“I am such a nice guy/girl. I treat you so well.”

“I told you, I was at work. You need to stop with these baseless accusations.”

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Minimizing the impact or severity of the abuse. This is when the gaslighter has committed a serious offense against you and instead of acknowledging it, minimizes the impact the abuse had on you or the gravity of the abuse. Tell-tale signs someone is minimizing verbal, emotional or even physical abuse may sound something like:

“That wasn’t even abusive. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“I didn’t hurt you that badly. You’re just being a crybaby. There’s barely a scar.”

“I didn’t raise my voice. You’re just misinterpreting things.”

“So what if I cursed? Are you a child? Do I have to censor myself?”

Projection and generalization – The gaslighter diverts the claim back to the victim, claiming that he or she is the one who “always” creates trouble, when in fact, it is the gaslighter who is perpetually creating chaos and refusing to validate the victim’s claims. The gaslighter then generalizes all of the victim’s claims and assertions as ridiculous or characterizes them as attempts to create conflict, as if conflict did not already exist in the first place. Common examples include:

“You’re just so sensitive.”

“You take everything so seriously!”

“You’re always causing trouble.”

“You just love drama.”

Withholding information and stonewalling – The abuser is unwilling to engage in the conversation at all and often shuts down the conversation any time a claim is made against him or her about their behavior. This might look like:

“I am done discussing this.”

“I am not going to argue with you, this is pointless.”

“This conversation is not going anywhere.”

“That doesn’t even warrant a response.”

“The fact that you’re accusing me of that says a lot more about you than it does me.”

Questioning their memory, emotional stability and/or competence – The abuser avoids accusations and conversations by questioning the victim’s memory or ability to comprehend the situation in an unbiased way.

They may say things like, “I don’t remember that. Are you sure you’re remembering that correctly?” even if the event just happened a few moments ago. They may call into question a victim’s awareness, or, if they’ve engaged in substance abuse coercion with the victim, may use that against them to ensure that no one would believe them by asking things like, “Have you been drinking again?” or “Are you off your meds?”

Other common phrases include:

“You really have some issues.”

“You need to learn how to trust people.”

“God, you’re crazy.”

“You need to calm down and think about this.”

“You’re blowing everything out of proportion, as usual.”

Bringing in a third party/the triangulation maneuver. Triangulation is the act of bringing in another person into the dynamic of a toxic interaction. While we usually talk about triangulation in the context of manufacturing love triangles, when it is used in gaslighting, it can manifest quite differently.

Triangulation (in the context of gaslighting) can be used to confirm the abuser’s version of reality and shame you into believing that you truly are alone in your beliefs and perceptions. It fuels a victim’s sense of alienation when another person (or a group of people – such as the narcissist’s harem) agrees with his or her distortions.

Malignant narcissists are prone to recruiting what the survivor community refers to as “flying monkeys” to agree with their perspective. They may bring these people in physically to confirm their point of view (“Hey Sandra, what do you think? Isn’t Laura being paranoid?”), or even mention them in passing (“Even Sandra agreed with me that you’re being a bit paranoid, Laura”).

For example, in the movie Gaslight (1944), the conniving husband is able to bring in his maids one by one to confirm that a small painting (which he deliberately misplaced) was not in fact, moved by them. This enables him to pretend that his wife has moved the portrait, though she has no recollection of doing so. These third-party “witnesses” or enablers convince her that she must be truly going insane, if she doesn’t at all remember doing what he accuses her of doing.

Diversions from the topic to assassinate the victim’s character or challenge the validity of the relationship. The gaslighter diverts the focus from his or her behavior onto the perceived character traits of the victim or the stability of the relationship.

They may say things like, “We just don’t get along,” or “We’re just too different. We’re not right for one another,” drawing attention to the relationship as a whole instead of the specific issue at hand. In a normal relationship where incompatibility is an issue, the idea that two people are simply “too different” may be true, but in the context of an abusive relationship, these are gaslighting phrases meant to divert you from the reality of the horrific abuse and onto the milder myth of incompatibility.

The truth is, no one is “compatible” with an abuser, and in a gaslighting power dynamic such as this, the problem is not the fact that you two don’t “get along.” It’s the fact that one partner is abusing his or her power to distort your reality.

Healing from Gaslighting

Healing from gaslighting can take time and support. It requires distance and space from the abuser in order to reconnect to your reality and get grounded in what you actually felt and experienced. Here are some tips on how to get started:

Make ‘redirecting’ anchoring statements when you find yourself romanticizing your abuser or dismissing an abusive incident. The good news is, repetition can go the other way: we can repeat the truth until we finally believe in it, and ourselves again. Creating “anchoring statements” that help redirect you to the reality of the abuse are especially helpful when you find yourself doubting what you experienced and minimizing what you felt.

Keep a list of general statements or a record of incidents of abuse that you can refer to in times of self-doubt. These can include documentation of the abuse (journal entries, text messages, voicemails, photographs, videotapes) or affirmations that remind you of what you experienced and why it wasn’t acceptable. This will help ground you back into your own reality and rewire your thinking so that you are no longer focused on the falsehoods fed to you by the abuser.

Seek self-validation and let go of your need to gain validation from the abuser. Abusive people are far too invested in their own agendas to ever validate your reality or confirm incidents of abuse. That is why it is important to establish No Contact or Low Contact (a minimum amount of contact in cases of co-parenting) with the abuser so you can get the necessary distance from your abuser to regroup and reemerge from the warped world created by this toxic person.

Consult trusted outsiders to do some much needed ‘reality testing.’ In the movie Gaslight, it is only when an inspector confirms that the gas lights are indeed flickering to the gaslighted wife, Paula, that she realizes that she was right all along. Find a mental health professional who is trauma-informed, knowledgeable about malignant narcissism and understands the dynamics of covert violence. Describe what you felt, heard and witnessed exactly how you experienced it rather than telling the story through your abuser’s narrative. Regaining your voice in a setting where you can be validated and listened to is essential to the healing journey. Some survivors may also benefit from telling their stories to other survivors, who know what it is like to be gaslighted and can resonate with their experiences.

Write your story and bring it into the context of longer-term behavioral patterns. Journaling can be an excellent way to track your progress and narrate your reality. Keep a journal of incidents that occurred and how they made you feel. Separate the reality of your experiences from the claims of your abuser. For example, a journal entry may look like the following:

“Tom called me a really terrible name today, even though I had asked him multiple times to stop calling me that. It made me feel so degraded and small when he did it again without any apologies. When I called him out, he insisted I was being hypersensitive. But the reality is, I’ve asked him many times to stop and he’s disrespected my wishes. He continues to violate me and disregards my feelings. It seems my feelings don’t matter to him at all.”

This narrates the experience without ‘giving in’ to the gaslighting attempts of the abuser. It reframes the experience to recall the victim’s feelings during the interactions and to address what rights were violated. It also includes mention of a pattern of behavior – ‘Tom,’ as the victim notes, has a habit of disrespecting her wishes even though she has addressed the fact that name-calling makes her uncomfortable. The victim of gaslighting is then able to draw a conclusion based on a pattern of behavior that she sees reoccurring, rather than dismissing it as an isolated incident.  This helps her to relieve some of the self-blame and cognitive dissonance as she reaffirms her reality and begins to trust herself again.

A Note About Gaslighting on a Societal Level

Gaslighting can also take place in contexts outside of intimate relationships. It can occur in the workplace, in family units, in schools, in politics, in cults and in society as a whole. Society often gaslights women, for example, by depicting them as “overemotional,” “unhinged” or “crazy” when they dare to be anything less than demure and submissive or when they ‘dare’ to be enraged about the way they’re being treated.

Society also routinely gaslights survivors of abuse or assault by interrogating them about their behavior and minimizing the impact of what they experienced. Politicians, lawmakers and court systems can dismiss the impact of emotional abuse by allowing it to fall under the convenient umbrella of “nonviolence” while setting the perpetrators free to commit more crimes that will never be prosecuted under a court of law.

Those who benefit from an enormous amount of privilege can condemn those more marginalized when they speak out about social injustices like racism, sexism and ableism because it threatens their positions of power and control. They may call those who fight for justice “divisive” or “hateful” simply because they’re calling out bigotry, prejudice or unjust laws. Institutions may “gaslight” disadvantaged populations any time they wish to maintain that power by shifting the focus onto the behavior of marginalized people rather than examining what they can do to better support these populations.

There are many ways and contexts where we experience gaslighting and it is not just restricted to an abusive relationship. It is up to us as individuals and as a larger society to tackle gaslighting when we see it. Whether it is done with malicious intent or unwitting naiveté, gaslighting bears dangerous consequences when it goes unchallenged. Gaslighting has the power to shape and rewrite our reality. It’s about time we take back the narrative and hold fast to the truth – unapologetically owning our stories as we do so.

Shahida Arabi is the author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse.

To learn more about gaslighting and covert emotional abuse, be sure to also check out:

In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing With Manipulative People by Dr. George Simon

The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Dr. Robin Stern

The Sociopath Next Door by Dr. Martha Stout

Psychopath Free by Jackson MacKenzie

Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist by Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Works Cited

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Carnes, P. (2015). Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships. Health Communications, Incorporated.
Dreyfuss, E. (2017, June 03). Want to Make a Lie Seem True? Say It Again. And Again. And Again. Retrieved November 7, 2017.
Durvasula, R. (2015). Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist. New York: Post Hill press.
Geraci, L., & Rajaram, S. (2006). The illusory truth effect: The distinctiveness effect in explicit and implicit memory. Distinctiveness and Memory, 210-234.
Hasher, L., Goldstein, D., & Toppino, T. (1977). Frequency and the conference of referential validity. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 16(1), 107-112. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(77)80012-1
Leve, A. (2016, March 16). How to survive gaslighting: When manipulation erases your reality. Retrieved here November 5, 2017.
Sarkis, S. (2017, January 30). Are gaslighters aware of what they do? Retrieved here November 7, 2017.
Simon, G. (2017, August 26). Gaslighting Victims Question Their Sanity. Retrieved here November 5, 2017.
Staik, A. (2017). Narcissistic Abuse and the Symptoms of Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 26, 2018.
Stern, R. (2007). The gaslight effect: How to spot and survive the hidden manipulations other people use to control your life. Morgan Road Books.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. NY, NY: Penguin Books.
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving: A guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. Lafayette, CA: Azure Coyote.
Warshaw, C., Lyon, E., Bland, P. J., Phillips, H., & Hooper, M. (2014). Mental Health and Substance Use Coercion Surveys. Report from the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health. Retrieved here November 5, 2017.
Wolford-Clevenger, C., & Smith, P. N. (2017). The conditional indirect effects of suicide attempt history and psychiatric symptoms on the association between intimate partner violence and suicide ideation. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 46-51. Retrieved here.

Victims’ rights toughened by Domestic Violence Act

Law Society Gazette, Ireland/February 26, 2019

The Domestic Violence Act 2018 was commenced in January. It amends and consolidates the law on domestic violence and is one of the most significant family law statutes introduced in the past 20 years.

Great credit is due to members of the Law Society’s Child and Family Law Committee who, for the past 20 years, have been advocating for reform of the domestic violence laws.

In particular, Joan O’Mahony, Noeline Blackwell and Cormac Ó Culáin, due to their submissions and work on this act, have made an immense contribution to this legislation.

More prescriptive

In determining applications under this act, the court must have regard to all the factors or circumstances that it considers may have a bearing on the application, including, where relevant, a non-exhaustive list of 17 factors or circumstances, which are set out in section 5(2) of the act.

The court must give reasons for its decision to grant or refuse an application or, if applicable, give reasons for its decision to make the specified order subject to exceptions or conditions, and to vary any exceptions or conditions (section 17).

Where the court forms the opinion that there are reasonable grounds to make the appropriate order, the language of the act states that the court ‘shall’ make the appropriate order, whereas, in the 1996 act, the court ‘may’ make the order.

The Courts Service is now obliged to provide each applicant with information on, and contact details for, support services for victims of domestic violence (section 28).

In (criminal) proceedings relating to a breach of an order under the act, the judge ‘shall’ exclude from the court during those proceedings all persons, except officers of the court, persons directly concerned with those proceedings, bona fide representatives of the press, and such other persons (if any) as the judge may in his or her discretion permit to remain (section 34).

In the same proceedings, a new offence in relation to publication of information about the parties to enable their identification is created by section 36 of the act, and the penalties are set out in section 37.

Emergency barring orders

The court can make an emergency barring order to direct a respondent to either leave a place or to prevent them from entering a place where the applicant or a dependant resides.

The granting of an emergency barring order may prohibit the respondent using or threatening the use of violence against, molesting or putting in fear, attending at, or in the vicinity of, or watching or besetting a place where the applicant or a dependent person resides, and following or communicating (including electronically) with the applicant or a dependent person.

A person may apply for an emergency barring order where:

a)   The applicant is not the spouse or civil partner of the respondent and has lived in an intimate and committed relationship with the respondent prior to the application (note: no mandatory minimum period of residence is required), or

b)  The applicant is the parent of an adult respondent, and

c)   The applicant has no legal or beneficial interest in the dwelling, or an interest that is less than the legal and beneficial interest of the respondent, and

d)  There are reasonable grounds to believe that there is an immediate risk of significant harm to the applicant or a dependant.

An emergency barring order may be made ex parte and will remain in force for a period not exceeding eight working days (whether ex parte or on notice).

Where an emergency barring order has been made against a respondent, no further emergency barring order shall be made against the respondent on application by, or on behalf of, the same applicant unless a period of at least one month has elapsed since the expiration of the last day of the period specified in the first-mentioned order, unless the court is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances that justify the making of a further order.

Changes to orders

Safety orders – the requirement for a couple to be living together in an intimate relationship has been removed (and, consequently, a protection order). Now, under the 2018 act, the parties simply have to have been in an intimate relationship at the time of the application, with no reference to living together – section 6(1)(a)(iii).

Barring orders – the requirement for a couple to have been living together six out of the previous nine months in an intimate relationship has been removed as one of the prerequisites to an application for a barring order (and, consequently, an interim barring order).

Now the parties must have simply lived together in an intimate relationship prior to the application, with no reference to a minimum time period – section 7(1)(c).

There is now additional relief prohibiting following or communicating with the applicant or dependant. In addition to the usual reliefs granted for barring, safety, interim barring, and protection orders (and the new emergency barring order), the court can now, as part of these orders, prohibit the respondent from “following or communicating (including by electronic means) with the applicant or the dependent person”.

Any information sworn as part of an application for an interim barring order must now state whether the property from which it is sought to bar the respondent on an interim basis is also a place of business of the respondent, or includes or abuts a place of business of the respondent.

The formalities in relation to providing a note of evidence, and the information or affidavit sworn in ex parte applications for interim barring orders, now apply in an equivalent manner as applicable to ex parte applications for protection orders – section 10(9).

Voice of the child

The court may seek the views of children where a safety or barring order is sought on behalf of a child. The court may appoint an expert to assist it in ascertaining the views of the child (section 27).

Special sitting of the District Court

A member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of sergeant may request the Courts Service to arrange (a) a special sitting of the District Court to facilitate the making and determination of an application for an interim barring order, an emergency barring order, or a protection order, and (b) an application for a safety order or a barring order where necessary to facilitate the making of interim barring orders, emergency barring orders, or protection orders (see section 24).

Coercive control

Section 39 defines the new criminal offence of coercive control as knowingly and persistently engaging in behaviour that is controlling or coercive, that has a serious effect on a spouse or a person who is, or was, in an intimate relationship with the alleged offender, and that a reasonable person would consider likely to have a serious effect on a relevant person.

The penalty on summary conviction is a Class A fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both, while the maximum tariff on conviction on indictment is a fine or imprisonment for up to five years, or both.

Other changes

  • An offence of forced marriage (section 38).
  • A protection against cross-examination conducted in person by the applicant or respondent of the other party or a dependant (section 16).
  • The court can direct that an order be served personally by a member of An Garda Síochána (section 18).
  • Applicants for domestic violence orders and those alleging breach of orders may give evidence by live television link, both in civil cases and in criminal cases, for breaches of orders with the leave of the court. Those under 18 may give evidence in this manner unless the court sees good reason to the contrary (section 25).
  • The applicant can be accompanied to court by a person of his or her choosing to provide support during a civil hearing (section 26).
  • The court can recommend, when making an order under the act, that the respondent engage with services, such as programmes aimed at perpetrators of domestic violence, addiction or counselling services. The court may also consider, when hearing the application in question, the engagement of the respondent with any such programme or service, and may also consider the applicant’s view of the effect of such engagement on the respondent (section 29).
  • Where a violent or sexual offence is committed by a person against his or her spouse, civil partner or person with whom he or she is in an intimate relationship, that fact shall be an aggravating factor at sentencing (section 40).
  • Marriage exemptions permitting those under 18 to marry have been repealed (section 45(1)).
  • Transitional and continuation arrangements have been put in place to ensure a smooth transition.

The changes in the act will, first of all, strengthen the rights for victims of domestic violence and will, secondly, assist in enabling Ireland to ratify the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention).

Why you should be aware of something called the ‘drama triangle’ — a manipulative tactic narcissists use to keep you on your toes

The Insider/October 17, 2018

By Lindsay Dodgson

One of a narcissist’s favourite games is creating havoc for others. They get a kick out of seeing other people struggle, while they can sit back and revel in the destruction and feel superior. They want to control and manipulate other people to get this sense of supremacy, whether it’s at work, in a romantic relationship, or within a family.

Narcissists simultaneously loathe others and crave their attention. How much attention they want depends on what type of narcissist they are: exhibitionist, closet, or toxic. But generally, if the spotlight is on them, they feel like they are winning.

The attention doesn’t have to be positive. One tactic they use is to keep their victims on their toes. They do this by lying about the past, and manipulating someone’s present so they feel like they are going crazy. They also switch between being calm and placid to being fierce and terrifying in an instant — a bit like Jekyll and Hyde.

In psychology there is something called the “drama triangle.” It was developed by Stephen Karpman in the 60s, and it describes how people can play three roles: the victim, persecutor, and rescuer.

With a narcissist, they may flip between these three roles quickly and suddenly, meaning their victim never knows what to expect.

“You’re always walking on eggshells, [so] you never know how to respond,” Perpetua Neo, a psychologist who runs Detox Your Heart, told INSIDER. “So let’s say they are playing the victim, and you’re responding with empathy — they will flip to persecutor. So you know there’s no way you can win, even if you’re not playing to win, or you’re not even playing.”

One minute everything could be going fine, the next the victim might be on the receiving end of fierce narcissistic rage. But rather than trusting their gut that they did nothing wrong, they tend to try and explain away the narcissist’s behaviour by blaming themselves.

This is often a result of the “love bombing” that happened at the beginning of the relationship. It’s a manipulative tactic abusers use to suck in their targets where they shower them with affection, compliments, and gifts, and then they take it all away. The victim is left wondering what they did wrong, and focuses the blame internally.

“The problem is nobody is 100% bad, and a narcissist is great at pretending to be good,” said Neo. “Be very aware of the drama triangle where they flip between being saviour, ‘I’m going to save you,’ persecutor, ‘you are so stupid, you’re worthless, nobody’s ever going to love you,’ and the victim, ‘how could you abandon me, I need you to support me, without you I’m dead.'”

It’s a toxic mixture of guilt-tripping, verbal abuse, and intermittent affection. The human brain will tend to focus on the good, and try and blank out all the bad. This means victims will often explain away a lot of the shouting, violence, and betrayal because of the times where the narcissist was nice to them. But this is a mindset you have to break away from, Neo said.

“Know they are going to tug at your heart strings,” she said. “These are all manipulations. Be very aware that all the good times you had with them that made you convinced of their potential was probably all a lie.”

This Is How Physical Abusers Manipulate Their Targets

“I had no reason to feel compassionate as I looked at him in jail that day.”

Tonic/May 9, 2018

By Elizabeth Brico

I’m sitting in a dim room on one side of a stretch of double-paned glass, clutching a corded phone to my ear. My boyfriend sits on the other side of the glass in a baggy red jumpsuit. I’m flanked on both sides by other women who sit on low, round stools, talking to other men behind glass. My boyfriend nods toward one of the guys. He looks bigger and meaner than my boyfriend, who is thin and huddled behind the glass. He presses his lips to the mouthpiece. “That guy wants to kill me,” he whispers. “I have to get out of here.” His blue eyes are wide, pleading.

I was 17 at the time. I had to use an 18-year-old friend’s ID to get into the jail. Sitting there across from him, I wasn’t sure why I risked my own freedom to visit that man. He spent three days beating me and biting me in a motel, where he held me against my will. For three days, he told me if I didn’t give him money for more nights, he would tie me to a tree in a forest and leave me there until my black eye healed. Before that, he strangled me until I lost consciousness. Before that, he pushed me.

So I had no reason to feel compassion toward him as I looked at him in jail that day. When I came to visit, I wasn’t sure if it was to help him or say goodbye. When I left, I was even less sure. After that, each time he called—and each time I accepted the call—my will to send to him to prison dwindled. Finally, in response to his pleas, I made my own call to the prosecutor and told her I couldn’t remember what happened, and I wouldn’t testify in court.

It would happen again, in the years to come. I—or a worried neighbor—would call the police. My boyfriend would go to jail on assault charges. Then he’d call, ask me to visit, or just beg me to keep accepting his calls. As the phone calls progressed, my desire to testify against him diminished until I finally recanted, and he walked free.

Research from the George Washington University School of Law found that as many as 80 percent of domestic violence survivors recant their testimonies. A lot of people assume the underlying cause of this phenomenon is fear, an obvious factor in abusive relationships. “When you’re in a relationship with someone who has you under siege, they’ve essentially taken you hostage and you’re afraid not to cooperate,” says Julie Owens, a domestic violence survivor who consults for the Department of Justice and has almost 30 years of experience helping people fight domestic violence. I was constantly on alert and frightened around my boyfriend. But it wasn’t the sole driving factor behind my decision to recant.

A 2011 study conducted by researcher Amy Bonomi and her colleagues identified a five-part manipulation used by abusers to get their victims to recant. I had a hard time reading Bonomi’s study, not only because it described a humiliating interplay that I personally experienced, but also because the study was performed by listening in on calls placed from the same facility as the one where my abuser was jailed—and during the same time period as at least one of his jail stints. They listened to calls between 17 couples—incarcerated male abusers and their female partners, who were set to testify against them in court. Their names were not provided in the study. I may never know whether mine was one of the voices on the call but the pattern the researchers uncovered was all too familiar.

The five stages look like this: First, the couple discusses the abuse event. The victim is typically angry and resolves to stand up for herself. In the second stage, the perpetrator minimizes the abuse. In my personal experience, my partner usually blamed me for provoking him or said that it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t gotten high—he just needed treatment. The second stage also often includes mention of some kind of hardship the abuser is facing (the scary guy who supposedly wanted to kill my boyfriend, for example). In the third stage, the couple bonds over the good times—riding bikes together, or their favorite movie, for example. In the fourth stage, having elicited her sympathy and softened her resolve, he asks her to recant. She agrees the way I always agreed. During the fifth stage, they make a plan as to how to effectively go about it, and bond over a shared enemy, like the rude prosecutor or the overly punitive state.

It’s a disturbing study, illustrating how various abusers across different races and economic classes use the same tactics to get themselves off the hook for assault. What the research doesn’t show is what happens next. In my version, I recanted my testimony again and again, until I didn’t. After four years of abuse, it finally clicked inside of me that he wasn’t ever going to stop. There was nothing I could do to make him respect me, and if he didn’t respect me, he had no motivation to discontinue behaviors that worked for him.

My testimony didn’t get him charged with a violent crime; I’d recanted too many times to be able to act as a credible sole witness. Instead he was booked for violation of a no-contact order and witness tampering—a charge that was proven through those recorded jail calls. My testimony, coupled with the amount of evidence I turned over to the police—which included records of more than 800 calls from jail (only a small fraction of which I answered) and an enormous pile of letters—was enough to get him a conviction and five year prison sentence.

A lot of survivors recant for reasons ranging from fear to sympathy to sexism. Our court system, much like our society, is often predisposed against abuse testimony, especially when it comes from women. Getting better justice for domestic violence survivors is “all about getting courts and the legal system to actually treat women like equal human beings and treating violence against women and children as the crime that it is,” says Joan Meier, a domestic violence law expert and professor of law at George Washington University. “We have a lot of acceptance of male violence against women and children [as normal].”

Essentially, if we want domestic violence survivors—male or female—to feel empowered to testify, we need to make them feel safe in sharing their story in the first place. That means no more victim-blaming; no more asking if she did something to make the abuser angry, or how much she had to drink that night. There also needs to be psychological support available during every step of the process. If we can help survivors recognize the manipulation while it’s taking place, we can help them build defenses against it.

It won’t take away the fear, or the very real dangers of testifying against an abuser who will eventually be free again, but it can help a person realize that the relationship is dangerous. Finally understanding that was the only thing that broke my own pattern.

Rob Porter allegations detail common traits of domestic abuse, experts say

NBC News/February 9, 2018

By Elizabeth Chuck

The White House staff secretary who resigned following allegations of domestic abuse has put a spotlight on “incredibly common” patterns of violence against partners, experts say.

The allegations surfaced Tuesday against Rob Porter, an influential senior aide in the Trump administration, from two ex-wives: Jennifer Willoughby and Colbie Holderness. Both told DailyMail.com that Porter was verbally and physically abusive, with the abuse beginning on their honeymoons. They confirmed their account of their allegations to NBC News.

Porter has denied the allegations as “simply false” and “outrageous.”

“I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign,” Porter said. Some in the White House were quick to jump to his defense.

Regardless, experts say the case brings attention to how misunderstood domestic violence is, and shows how hard it is for women to speak out against a spouse.

While domestic violence can begin at any point in a relationship, it’s a “very common story that it’s only after the couple are married that the violence, or certainly the more severe physical violence, begins,” said Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy at Futures Without Violence, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending violence against women and children. She added that sometimes the abuser has been emotionally controlling or verbally abusive before then.

“There’s no one trajectory of violence, but that is not uncommon at all,” Stewart said.

Victims also feel less inclined to leave once they’re in a long-term, committed relationship, said Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“You’re not as likely to walk away because you’re already invested. You’re on your honeymoon,” Southworth said.

Porter’s ex-wives have not alleged abusive behavior prior to their honeymoons. In a blog post, Willoughby said Porter cursed at her on their honeymoon and a month later “physically prevented me from leaving the house.” She also described Porter allegedly punching glass in front of her and yanking her out of the shower to yell at her, all the while presenting a wholesome public persona.

“Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out. But in my home, the abuse was insidious. The threats were personal. The terror was real. And yet I stayed,” she wrote.

The experts say a dual personae is often seen in abusers, and makes the victim less believable when she comes forward.

“That’s incredibly common and, sadly, why abusers often get away with it for so long,” Stewart said. “It’s one of the things that women who are victims struggle with the most. They’re often just not believed. So often, people say, why doesn’t she just leave or try to get help? She often does. But people don’t believe her.”

Domestic violence is alarmingly common: One in four women will experience severe physical violence from a partner at some point in her lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. But experts fear it’s misunderstood.

“I do think that we struggle with the perception that we solved domestic violence, that this is a problem of the past, or that certain groups of people struggle with it, and that’s not true at all,” Stewart said.

In reality, according to Southworth of National Network to End Domestic Violence, “It cuts across every education and income level, race, class — you name it.”

Domestic violence isn’t only physical, although many people, including victims themselves, mistakenly believe it to be, Southworth said. Victims often dismiss other abusive tactics, such as a husband forbidding his wife from seeing her family or friends, that predicate any physical violence.

“There are other subtle things happening, and because they’re so subtle, they’re not so obvious,” she said.

And domestic abuse isn’t an anger problem, even though it sometimes appears like one.

“Instead, it’s this deep-ingrained belief that ‘I’m entitled to do this to you because I own you,'” Southworth said.

‘He wasn’t happy until he had me all to himself’

BBC News/January 17, 2018

When two women wrote about how they had been “gaslighted” – made to question their sanity by an abusive partner – many readers, male and female, got in touch to share similar experiences. Here, three of them explain how they were left feeling utterly isolated.

I moved from southern England to a small Scottish village to be with the love of my life, a handsome and charming man who made me feel more alive and special than I ever thought possible.

Just before I moved, a friend said he thought my boyfriend wouldn’t be happy until he had me living in the middle of nowhere, far away from anyone and all to himself. At the time I laughed it off but it turned out it couldn’t have been more true.

At first he was completely attentive. He worked away as a lorry driver but he called every morning, throughout the day and last thing at night. I thought this was really nice of him but I started to notice he was really ratty if I missed a call because I was in the bathroom or in a shop. He became more and more short-tempered when I told him I had begun to make friends, causing us to have arguments on the phone.

One day, after he had left for work, a woman from the village asked if I would like to go round to her house for some wine. I had a really nice evening. When I got home, my mobile had several missed calls and many text messages. I had left it behind and not thought about it. The text messages started off asking why I wasn’t answering the phone, and descended into calling me all sorts of horrible names, accusing me of being out with other men and so on. I couldn’t believe what I was reading – this had come out of nowhere. I sent him a text explaining where I had been. He immediately called and shouted at me for 10 minutes, not letting me speak.

These arguments would make me feel terrible and he would blame me for not being able to concentrate or sleep because he was worrying about me, and therefore a danger on the road. But then he would send lavish flowers and I would feel grateful he wasn’t angry with me any longer. I lived in a constant state of confusion and worry, never knowing what I had done to make him angry, and worried in case he had an accident.

Another time, when he was home, I was walking up the lane to our house when the farmer who owned the land stopped by. We leaned over the farm gate and had a long chat, looking out at the beautiful view. When I went into the house my boyfriend was sitting in a chair, staring at me. He kept denying there was something wrong, but he wouldn’t speak to me and kept glaring. Eventually he said he knew what had been going on all this time – I was making a fool of him and having an affair with the farmer! I couldn’t believe my ears, but he wouldn’t listen to me.

I soon stopped visiting my friends in the village. I didn’t dare go out in the evenings because he would call the house phone to check where I was. He didn’t like me going out to work either, so I was pretty much stuck at home in the middle of nowhere. In some ways it was a relief because I didn’t have to pretend to people that all was well.

I spent the next nine years walking on eggshells, never knowing if I was doing the right thing or the wrong thing in his eyes. His ultimate punishment was to attempt suicide. He did this more than once after an argument, which completely destroyed my confidence in myself. I was a confident, independent person when we met, and by the time he eventually left me I was a shell.

He would also try to make me think I had gone mad by claiming I had said things that I knew I hadn’t.

Silly things, like I’d make spaghetti Bolognese and he’d accuse me of adding carrots just to upset him, even though I followed the same recipe every time. Or he would say I hadn’t cleaned a room when I had, and would clean it all over again.

Taken individually, those incidents seem stupid and trivial but he would be so convincing that I would start to question myself. I actually thought there was something wrong with my memory.

I couldn’t argue any more. I couldn’t get my brain to think of a good response because his arguments were completely irrational. It was easier to just agree. I became a quiet, dull person – a shadow of my former self.

What is gaslighting?

  • The term comes from a 1938 stage play Gas Light in which a husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane – when he dims the gas lights, he insists she’s imagining it
  • It is one tactic of coercive and controlling behaviour that aims to make a victim doubt themselves, their perception of events and even their own sanity, with devastating consequences, says Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid
  • Techniques include calling into question the victim’s memory of an incident, trivialising a victim’s thoughts or feelings, accusing the victim of lying or making things up, denying things like promises that have been made, and mocking the victim for their “misconceptions”
  • Some of the signs to watch out for include: feeling confused, continually apologising to your partner, having trouble making simple decisions, and withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to make excuses for your partner
  • Am I in an abusive relationship?

I didn’t really look like myself either – he didn’t like me going to get a haircut because I had a male hairdresser, so I started cutting my own hair. I stopped wearing make-up or high heels. If I wore nice clothes, I was “dressing up” for somebody. I had to think about everything I did.

Before, I was confident, I was always happy, always laughing. If I laughed at something on TV, he would get angry – he thought I was laughing at him.

I trained myself not to be happy. Friends of mine have said, “How on Earth do you do that?” But it’s the only way to cope. If you don’t let yourself be happy, you can’t get too hurt or upset by what’s happening to you. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, looking back.

I made two failed attempts to leave. But mostly I felt like I’d made my bed with this person, and I had given up too much to be with him. I hoped it would all turn around and it would be OK – but it never was. It’s a bit like a dog that isn’t treated well – it stays loyal to the person that feeds him.

The day he told me we were splitting up I thought I had won the lottery but a few months later, he decided he wanted to get back together. When I refused, he tried to lure me back to the house. That was really quite scary. He was on a mission – if he couldn’t have me, then nobody could. I was afraid he was going to kill us both.

I spent about three years hiding from him, constantly moving house. I completely disappeared.

What I didn’t realise was that it would take years for me to get back to being myself and repair the damage he did to me.

I will never forgive him and I’m telling my story so that hopefully it might help somebody else.

Caroline, UK

How to Know If You’re a Victim of Gaslighting

Spot the behavior, and the side effects, and begin recovery.

Psychology Today/January 13, 2018

By Darlene Lancer, JD,MFT

Gaslighting is a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. Like all abuse, it based on the need for power, control, or concealment. Some people occasionally lie or use denial to avoid taking responsibility. They may forget or remember conversations and events differently than you do, or they may have no recollection—say, due to a blackout if they were drinking. These situations are sometimes called “gaslighting,” but the term actually refers to a deliberate pattern of manipulation calculated to make the victim trust the perpetrator and doubt his or her own perceptions or sanity, similar to brainwashing. (See “How to Spot Manipulation.”)

The term derives from the play and later film Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Bergman plays a sensitive, trusting wife struggling to preserve her identity in an abusive marriage to Boyer, who tries to convince her that she’s ill in order to keep her from learning the truth.

Gaslighting Behavior

As in the movie, the perpetrator often acts concerned and kind to dispel any suspicions. Someone capable of persistent lying and manipulation is also quite capable of being charming and seductive. Often the relationship begins that way. When gaslighting starts, you might even feel guilty for doubting the person whom you’ve come to trust. To further play with your mind, an abuser might offer evidence to show that you’re wrong or question your memory or senses. More justifications and explanations, including expressions of love and flattery, are concocted to confuse you and reason away any discrepancies in the liar’s story. You get temporary reassurance, and increasingly, you doubt your own senses, ignore your gut, and become more confused.

The person gaslighting you might act hurt and indignant or play the victim when challenged or questioned. Covert manipulation can easily turn into overt abuse with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy, or abusive. Abuse might escalate to anger and intimidation with punishment, threats, or bullying if you don’t accept the false version of reality.

Gaslighting can take place in the workplace or in any relationship. Generally, it concerns control, infidelity, or money. A typical scenario is when an intimate partner lies to conceal a relationship with someone else. In other cases, it may be to conceal gambling debts or stock or investment losses. The manipulator is often a narcissist, addict, or a sociopath, particularly if gaslighting is premeditated or used to cover up a crime. In one case, a sociopath was stealing from his girlfriend whose apartment he shared. She gave him money each month to pay the landlord, but he kept it. He hacked into her credit cards and bank accounts, but was so devious that to induce her trust he bought her gifts with her money and pretended to help her find the hacker. It was only when the landlord eventually informed her that she was way behind in the rent that she discovered her boyfriend’s treachery.

When the motive is purely control, a spouse might use shame to undermine his or her partner’s confidence, loyalty, or intelligence. A wife might attack her husband’s manhood and manipulate him by calling him weak or spineless. A husband might undermine his wife’s self-esteem by criticizing her looks or competence professionally or as a mother. To further isolate the victim and gain greater control, a typical tactic is either to claim that friends or relatives agree with the manipulator or to disparage them so that that they cannot be trusted A similar strategy is to undermine the partner’s relationships with friends and relatives by accusing him or her of disloyalty.

Effects of Gaslighting

Gaslighting can be very insidious the longer it occurs. Initially, you may not realize you’re being affected by it, but gradually you lose trust in your own instincts and perceptions. It can be very damaging, particularly in a relationship built on trust and love. Love and attachment are strong incentives to believe the lies and manipulation. We use denial, because we rather believe the lie than the truth, which might precipitate a painful breakup.

Gaslighting can damage our self-confidence and self-esteem, our trust in ourselves and reality, and our openness to love again. If it involves verbal abuse, we may believe the truth of the abuser’s criticisms and continue to blame and judge ourselves, even after the relationship is over. Many abusers put down and intimidate their partners to make them dependent so they won’t leave. Examples are: “You’ll never find anyone as good as me,” “The grass isn’t greener,” or “No one else would put up with you.”

Recovery from a breakup or divorce can be more difficult when we’ve been in denial about problems in the relationship. Denial often continues even after the truth comes out. In the story described above, the woman got engaged to her boyfriend—even after she found out what he’d done. It takes time for us to reinterpret our experience in light of all the facts once they become known. It can be quite confusing, because we may love the charmer, but hate the abuser. This is especially true if all the bad behavior was out of sight, and memories of the relationship were mostly positive. We lose not only the relationship and person we loved and/or shared a life with, but also trust in ourselves and future relationships. Even if we don’t leave, the relationship is forever changed. In some cases when both partners are motivated to stay and work together in conjoint therapy, the relationship can be strengthened and the past forgiven.

Recovery from Gaslighting

Learn to identify the perpetrator’s behavior patterns. Realize that they’re due to his or her insecurity and shame, not yours. Get help. It’s critical that you have a strong support system to validate your reality in order to combat gaslighting. Isolation makes the problem worse and relinquishes your power to the abuser. Join Codependents Anonymous and seek counseling.

After you acknowledge what’s going on, you’ll be more able to detach and stop believing or reacting to falsehoods, even though you may want to. You’ll also realize that the gaslighting is occurring due to your partner’s serious characterlogical problems. It does not reflect on you, nor can you change someone else. For an abuser to change, it takes willingness and effort by both partners.  Sometimes when one person changes, the other also does so in response. However, if he or she is an addict or has a personality disorder, change is difficult. To assess your relationship and effectively confront unwanted behavior, get Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People.

Once victims come out of denial, it’s common for them to mentally want to redo the past. They’re often self-critical for not having trusted themselves or stood up to the abuse. Don’t do this! Instead of perpetuating self-abuse, learn how to stop self-criticism and Raise Your Self-Esteem. You also need to learn How to Be Assertive and Set Boundaries to stop abuse.

Cheating and manipulation: Confessions of a gaslighter

BBC News/January 11, 2018

By Megha Mohan

Greg, a Canadian lawyer, is 28 but he’s already had 11 serious relationships. He says each of those relationships ended with infidelity, on his part, and severe self-doubt on the part of the women. He is a self-confessed “gaslighter”.

“Looking back it’s clear that I was gaslighting the women and slowly making them second-guess their version of reality,” he says.

He’s speaking out now to give insight into the mind of a gaslighter, and to warn women of the tell-tale signs.

Gaslighting has been described as psychological abuse where false information is deliberately presented to the victim – the purpose being to make the victim question their own memory and perception of events.

Greg learned that he was a gaslighter recently, while in therapy.

He pinpoints the start of his behaviour to a relationship when he was a 21-year-old law undergraduate.

Paula was four years older and completing a master’s degree. Greg describes the relationship as “romantic but unsteady”. He soon began sexual encounters with other women behind her back.

But Paula was an intelligent woman and soon picked up that Greg was being unfaithful to her. Greg says that in order to continue cheating, while still maintaining their relationship, he had to “alter her reality”.

He began identifying “techniques and pathways” in which he could manipulate Paula – laying the groundwork in order to make the lies that would come later more believable.

“Paula was extremely intelligent, but I was aware that I was leaving traces of infidelity in the digital world, on social media,” says Greg.

He said he made jokes over a period of time pointing to her “obsession” with social media, making her feel that she was suspicious in an unhealthy, even “crazy” way.

“I deliberately used demeaning language to make her lose confidence in her reading of the situation, of my infidelity. She was ‘paranoid’, she was ‘crazy’, she was ‘full of drama’.

“I’d say this all as jokes. But they would build over time, and she then started to believe.”

The desired effect was achieved. Paula, who had suspected his infidelity, began to wonder aloud if perhaps she had been wrong to doubt him, if her judgement had left her. While she still had her doubts, Greg says she had started to question herself and apologised for suspecting him, vowing to spend less time on social media.

“Gaslighting as a term has been overused,” says Dr George Simon, psychologist and author of international bestseller In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People.

“Gaslighting is when you know in your gut that you have a situation read right, but the other person is trying to convince you that you have read it all wrong. If this happens over a period of time one’s sense of reality slowly erodes. There is a scale to gaslighting, from lying and exaggerating to controlling and domination. Greg was on the less extreme part of the scale but definitely on it.”

Another tactic Greg used was to discredit other women. Some were women Paula had never met – the women he was cheating on her with. Others were Paula’s own friends.

“I’d construct narratives where these other women, the ones who could reveal my behaviour, were women who couldn’t be trusted, where they were liars.

“And despite Paula’s better judgement, despite saying she was a feminist, she would then trust me and take a dislike to women whose version she would now no longer believe, even if she did meet them and found out they weren’t these terrible human beings I made them out to be.

“I was isolating her from those who would tell her the truth.”

After Paula, Greg embarked on a series of other relationships. He says that the women came from a variety of backgrounds and had different personalities. The pattern continued.

“There are two traits that people – and we must say people as men are also vulnerable – who are prone to being gaslighted share,” says George Simon.

“One is conscientiousness. People who have a conscience, people who generally do the right thing and are trusting, because they are trustworthy in nature.

“The other is agreeableness. You want to treat people well and get along. You don’t want to unnecessarily rock the boat in your relationships.”

For Greg, there was a third quality that the women he gaslighted all shared. They were all intelligent and successful. Intriguingly, he says this was a key factor in how receptive they were to being gaslighted.

“I’ve dated a doctor, an engineer, a well-known social media personality.

“From my experience it’s not true that it is vulnerable or insecure women who are susceptible to gaslighting. These were successful women but that came with a perception of what they thought a ‘successful’ relationship should look like and they shared that. They gave me a blueprint to what they were looking for in a man.”

The women, he says, approached relationships like they did their careers. With a checklist of qualities, often from relationships depicted in films, and high expectations.

They wanted stimulating conversation peppered with attentive charm and humour. They were also looking for men who could match them in their success – men with impressive careers who also owned property and had financial security.

This kind of checklist narrowed the field of suitable men considerably, he says, and made it easier to play to their desires.

“When you are gaslighting, you see the narrative that the other person wants the relationship to follow and you then go about setting how that fits in with what you want. As a result, you do little things over an extended period of time that increases the likelihood that the partner will accept your narrative over their own.

“In my case, I have never been aggressive, violent, issued threats, or blackmailed anyone. There has literally been nothing stopping any of these partners from telling me to get lost. But none of them ever did.

“So for a long period of time I didn’t feel like the villain.”

But now, he says, he is aware of the consequences of his actions.

“These women were intelligent and I felt that if they wanted to, they could have questioned the narrative I was spinning. But now I’m aware that is a flimsy argument where love is concerned.

“I wanted the experience of multiple partners and the ego boost that came with that, so I justified my behaviour to myself for years.

“I guess, as a lawyer, I was able to explain away discrepancies in my story to girlfriends and convince myself that I wasn’t a bad guy.”

Some tactics of gaslighting, including isolating the victim from sources of support and depriving them of means needed for independence, could fall under the “Controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship” section of the Serious Crime Act of 2015, in England and Wales.

But controlling or coercive behaviour is not a crime in Canada, and the same is true in many parts of the world.

Recently Greg told a friend about his behaviour and his friend confessed that he too had been a gaslighter.

“My friend is a writer, so I guess he’s also good at constructing narratives.”

He says that if there is one piece of advice he would give women who are being gaslighted it’s to speak to a male friend about it.

“Women in friendships often tell each other what they want to hear. Or if women do have searingly honest friends, this friendship seems to come under strain when one woman enters an abusive relationship.

“For some reason women seem to accept honesty better from male friends than female friends.

“I was wary of the male friends of my ex-girlfriends. They could often see through my behaviour and good male friends don’t allow a friendship to break.”

Greg says there was no one thing that caused him to seek help to deal with his gaslighting – he just grew weary of his own behaviour.

He wouldn’t say he’s cured yet, but he hopes he’s on his way there.

George Simon says whether Greg can be cured or not depends on what type of gaslighter he is. There are two types, he says.

“Some individuals have learned these behaviours from early childhood experiences. Their manipulation rose out of some kind of personal pain and this is how they operate in the world. They developed a strategy to cope in life that was borne out of some trauma. There is hope for those individuals.

“Then there are the narcissists. The ones that have no belief in anything bigger than themselves. There’s less hope for them and any change usually involves a huge, life-changing, catastrophic reckoning that shakes them to their core.

“And that may never come.”

Greg and Paula’s names have been changed

Gaslighting: The ‘perfect’ romance that became a nightmareGaslighting: The ‘perfect’ romance that became a nightmare

BBC News/November 29, 2017

Nicole spent years living with a charming man, but she always seemed to be doing something wrong. Eventually she began to realise that it wasn’t her that was the problem, it was him – and when she met one of his previous girlfriends, Elizabeth, everything made sense. Here Nicole tells her story, followed by Elizabeth.

Other people seem to manage it, sharing a life with someone, content and peaceful in each other’s company. But the thought of a relationship still terrifies me. Many years on, I still well up with panic at the mention of my ex’s name – that charming man who I feared and adored in equal measure.

A charming, beautiful, successful man had made me his. He was everything I could ever dream of. He was a high-flyer, his charisma was magnetic and I was entranced. When I was with the charming man doors opened for us and the best tables suddenly became available. We travelled the world for his work, staying at the best hotels and eating at the finest restaurants. He seemed to be able to charm his way through life in any language.

But I failed him.

I ruined everything: dinners, conversations, evenings out, holidays – by mentioning an ex’s name, getting my purse out in front of his friends or wanting to carry my own passport and money when we were overseas.

He could be furious for days. My inappropriate behaviour had shown him up, he didn’t know if he could continue being with someone like me, he could do so much better.

I also ruined birthdays and Christmases, simply by being “too stupid and cruel” to understand what was best for him.

He wanted me to buy him expensive presents: “It’s just £4,000, use your savings,” he would say.

“But those are life savings,” I replied. “I can’t touch them, it’s impossible. I want to make you happy but I can’t afford that.”

The charming man cried – I had let him down and nothing I did could make up for it.

He didn’t sleep much, so neither did I. I was not allowed to “ruin his night” by going to sleep before him. If I did, he woke me in the early hours, wanting to talk about our relationship and what I was doing wrong. I was exhausted. I felt like I was going through life in a blur, catching sleep whenever and wherever I could. The disabled loo at work became a refuge for a lunchtime nap.

Why didn’t I leave sooner? Well, he was charming and my family loved him. And I was at an age where life was a blur of engagements and weddings. Well-meaning relatives would tell me that I was next. The tick-tocking sound of my biological clock got louder as the weddings made way for christenings.

Besides, I adored him and this incredible man had chosen me. He was troubled and I had to help him. I knew I hurt him so I wanted to make it better.

If I went out with my friends he would lock himself in his study. His cries would echo as he curled up under his huge leather-topped desk, so I hardly ever went out without him.

He told me I was easily replaceable and showed me pictures and letters from the other women who wanted him, so I would cry and try to be a better girlfriend.

Whenever it got too much and I did try to leave, he would curl up in the foetal position in front of the door crying and screaming at me not to leave him – so I didn’t. I would sit on the floor and hold him, promising that I would work harder to make it better.
It was exhausting, but relationships are hard work and no-one is perfect.

Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship

In 2015 the Serious Crime Act – England and Wales – was changed to recognise controlling or coercive behaviour in a relationship.

Controlling behaviour: A range of acts making a person subordinate and/or dependent on their abuser. These include isolating them from sources of support, depriving them of means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour: A pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

“You will never do better than him, he’s perfect, don’t you want children?” people would say.

It got to the point, though, when I knew I couldn’t stay.

It felt as if my body and brain were breaking down with the sheer exhaustion of having to manage life with this man. I put on weight, but I couldn’t exercise because he didn’t like me to be away from him. Food became my biggest comfort.

I dreaded the thought of leaving, but was terrified at the thought of spending the rest of my life with him.

Eventually an opportunity to escape arrived, and I was able to pack up my possessions without him suspecting my real reasons. With support from my sister, I was able to drive away, and collapse in an exhausted heap on her kitchen floor.

It took therapy for me to understand that it wasn’t normal for your partner to take the bathroom door off the hinges because you had “left him” to go to the loo or have a bath.

I used to treasure my moments of solitude sitting in the bathroom with a book. When I was with him I would clock-watch, thinking about when I could next escape for a few minutes of peace behind that locked door. He soon got wise to this and my heart would sink every time I heard the screwdriver in the hinges, with him crying that he just wanted to be with me.

When I first said these things out loud I could begin to recognise that it was madness but at the time it was just my reality.

Therapy opened up a whole new world of understanding and terminology: words like “narcissist” and “gaslighting” were new to me. I had no idea abuse could look like this.

It was through therapy that I understood that I had been “gaslighted” and that my perception of the world had shifted during those years of trying to do the impossible – to satisfy a narcissist.

I finally realised that I wasn’t the cause of our problems: I had been set up to fail.

But there was still more to learn.

It was my therapist who suggested I contacted the charming man’s ex.

“Really?” I said. “But she was crazy, she attacked him.”

The therapist just nodded sagely and reminded me of all the other ways in which he had twisted reality. He was always the victim – nothing was ever his fault in the alternative reality he had created.

What is gaslighting?

  • Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and abuse that makes people question their own memory, perception, and sanity
  • The term comes from a 1938 stage play Gas Light in which a husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane – when he dims the gas lights, he insists she’s imagining it
  • There are three stages to gaslighting in a relationship: idealisation, devaluation and discard
  • In the idealisation stage the victim is whisked off their feet as the gaslighter projects an image of themselves as the perfect mate
  • The devaluation stage hits hard: the victim goes from being adored to being incapable of doing anything right, but having tasted the ideal they are desperate to put things right
  • Then comes the discard stage where the victim is dropped, ready for the next one – this often happens simultaneously with the idealisation, or grooming, of the next victimI tracked down his ex. Now living overseas, she sent an instant reply to my nervous message. It said:

“Yes, I want to talk to you, I have been waiting for you to get in touch.”

The moment that the phone connected, I felt a surge of relief: here was someone who understood. We spoke for four hours, finishing each other’s sentences. She had spoken to other women who had come before me – the charming man had never been single for long.

Hearing about their tales of depression and suicide attempts was chilling. This charming man was systematically destroying lives.

Yet on that summer day there was hope: in the background I could hear her husband mowing the lawn and children playing in the garden. That snapshot of a shared life, of a family life that had once seemed so terrifying, suddenly seemed within reach.

I hear the charming man has a new girlfriend. I want to tell her to: “Run! It’s not you, it’s him, the law has changed, what he is doing to you is illegal, you can stop him.”

But I know that for now I am just another crazy ex. She needs to approach me in her own time. For now all I can do is to live life to the full, to provide that little slice of hope on the day she finds me.

Years earlier, Elizabeth had fallen for the charismatic man. This is her story.

I was young, educated, and independent, in my first serious job. I was living in the big city, eager for love and to be loved. I was willingly swept off my feet by this handsome man, and did I mention charming? Very. Love notes and sexy weekends away – I thought I had it all, the perfect romance.

Then there was that ball. The invitation was firmly in the diary, a date not to be missed. I had ordered a new dress, booked a hair appointment. My friends were excited for me – this Cinderella really would go to the ball. Except that the date of the event suddenly changed. “It’s this weekend?” It clashed with a long-planned trip home to see my family.

“What a shame,” he said. “You must have got the dates mixed up – you don’t mind if I take another female friend do you? Just an old colleague I had a fling with once. I wouldn’t want the embarrassment of turning up without a date – after all it was your fault this mix-up happened.”

The humiliation, the lies. “That’s strange,” my girlfriends said. “Are you cross with him?”

Defending him. I blamed myself. After all, how stupid must I be to have confused those dates?

The bouquets, the lavish gifts, the shopping trips to find “suitable professional wife clothes” – we weren’t engaged, it was just an idea he dangled over me, like a prize.

The dinner dates to fancy restaurants booked on the same night I went to exercise classes with the girls. I tried to accommodate both: “Could we make it 8pm please? So I have time to shower after the class?”
“Oh sorry, another time perhaps,” he said. “I suppose it’s not that important to spend time with me.”

“I guess it’s only one class,” I thought. I didn’t go to the gym again for three years. Funny how things creep up on you.

Three years into our relationship I was sitting in a sexually transmitted infections clinic, alone and ashamed – I had an STI. “How many sexual partners have you had in the past three years?” the nurse asked. “One,” I replied. How could this have happened? There must be some mistake.

My mother said: “Has he hit you?”

“No,” I said, tears rolling down my face.

“Well darling, he has a good job, you need to sort this out – you won’t find any better you know!”

I couldn’t go back to my rented home because he’d seduced my housemate. She told me what had happened and told me to leave him, but how could I trust her? She probably just wanted what I had – after all, wasn’t it perfect?

I went on “sick” leave from work. “Taking some time out,” the GP called it, as he prescribed Prozac.

Our mutual colleagues sent me “Get well soon” cards which read: “So glad he is looking after you so well.”

He carried on as normal, the successful man at work, asking female colleagues out to dinner – “getting to know our staff” he called it.

One night, in the car parked in his driveway, I saw him with another woman. I vomited in a bush. The humiliation. “How will I show my face socially ever again?” I wondered. “How do I confront him?”

He said it was innocent, that I was being paranoid. When I had a panic attack, he told me to “Take the tablets.”

Even as I write this, years later I’m haunted by the “what ifs” – what if I’d behaved better, could we have stood a chance?

“You were the only person I have ever truly loved,” he’d say. “I would have made it work, but you just ruined it for us.”

The sound of the lawnmower in the garden where my beautiful children are playing is interrupted by a phone call from someone who understands. It’s like looking in a mirror: what’s happened to us suddenly becomes clear. The hope I can offer her gives me a sense of catharsis and healing.

We are not alone.

Both women have been given pseudonyms to protect their identity