Category Archives: Control Techniques

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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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.

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.

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

Manipulative people brainwash their partners using something called ‘perspecticide’ — here are the signs it’s happening to you

Business Insider/October 15, 2017
By Lindsay Dodgson

Living with a controlling or abusive partner is confusing and draining. They blame you for things that weren’t your fault, or that you didn’t even do, and you become isolated from your friends and family in an attempt to keep the abuser happy.

The way you see the world can also completely change, because it may be dangerous for you to know the truth.

Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship,” told Business Insider the word for this is “perspecticide.”

She said the word, which basically means “the incapacity to know what you know,” was first used in the literature on the brainwashing of prisoners of war, and has also been applied to people in cults.

“In an abusive or controlling relationship, over time the dominating partner changes how the victim thinks,” Fontes said. “The abuser defines what love is. The abuser defines what it appropriate in terms of monitoring the partner. The abuser defines what is wrong with the victim, and what she needs to do to change it.”

Over time, the victim — or survivor, if that is your preferred term — loses sense of what their own ideas, goals, and thoughts were. Instead, they start taking on those of their dominating partner.

“Through perspecticide, people give up their own opinions, religious affiliations, views of friends, goals in life, etc,” Fontes said. “I am not talking about the natural mutual influencing that occurs in all intimate relationships — this is much more nefarious and one-sided.”

Someone can fall into an abuser’s trap in a number of ways, but it’s often through psychological, emotional, or physical abuse. Once the victim has been hooked and reeled in, their partner starts to bring them down with belittling comments and insults.

However, they often pause the abuse with intermittent periods of kindness and warmth. This means the victim is trauma-bonded to their partner, constantly trying to make them happy, because they believe they deserve to be punished if they don’t.

Victims become prisoners in their own lives.
The controlling partner might cut off resources like money and transportation, practically keeping the victim a prisoner. By living in fear, the victim changes how they view themselves and the world.

Fontes recalled several stories of people who had been controlled by their partners. All her examples were from women who were being abused, but it’s important to note that emotional, psychological, and physical abuse can happen to anyone.

One man convinced his wife she could not have her own toothbrush, because married couples share these things. He also never let her have any privacy — she wasn’t even allowed to close the door when she was using the bathroom.

Another husband slept all day so he could keep his wife up at night. He deliberately didn’t let her sleep, controlled what she ate, and hid her medication, which all made her physically weak. Eventually, she even forgot her age because everything down to the way she walked was managed by someone else.

Other stories involved a woman who believed her partner could read her mind, when really he was spying on her with cameras in her house and trackers in her belongings. Another man actually told his wife he had inserted a microphone into her fillings to monitor where she went all day.

“He was actually monitoring her through other routes, but she believed what he said — she had no other explanation for why he knew everything about her days,” Fontes said. “Of course, anyone who she told this to thought she was crazy. This isolated her further.”

For the victim, their life is overwhelmed with wondering how to appease their controlling partner. Fontes said they may even experience physical signs of stress over time such as changes to eating and sleeping, head or back aches, and digestive problems, because they are too worried about their partner’s wrath.

“A person who is being coercively controlled — even without physical violence — does not feel free to live their own life on their own terms,” she said.

If you think you might be a victim of abuse of any kind, you can talk to your GP in confidence, or contact organisations such as Women’s Aid and Victim Support.

​​

What’s ‘Love Bombing’ And How To Tell If You’ve Been A Victim Of It

From showering you with gifts to messaging you non-stop throughout the day, we delve into the worrying behaviours of a ‘love bomber’, who might have convinced you they’re ‘the one’.
Elle/August 2, 2017
By Katie O’Malle
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A bunch of flowers delivered to your office. A surprise romantic getaway to a secluded countryside cottage for the weekend. A thoughtful phone call when you least expect it. All the signs of the beginning a of loving, caring relationship, right?

Well, perhaps not. In fact, they might be signposts for the opposite, or what is commonly known as ‘love bombing’.

According to Dale Archer, a psychiatrist and author, ‘love bombing’ occurs when people are showered with over-the-top displays of attention and affection. And, we’re not just talking romantic gestures and the occasional home-cooked meal, but romantic conversations, talks of the ‘future’ together, and constant contact via social media, phone calls and messages. The difference between a solid loving relationship and one that is subject to ‘love bombing’ is what happens next…

More often than not, ‘love bombing’ is when these displays of ‘affection’ are grandiose and really over the top, leading people to quickly think they might have found their ‘soul mate’ or ‘the one’. However, they soon find the loving, caring, affection, and understanding behaviour from their partner flips, resulting in unreasonable, controlling and manipulative traits.

What is ‘love bombing’?

In essence, ‘love bombing’ is a form of conditioning tool (otherwise known as a form of abuse), whereby one person in the relationship drowns the other in displays of ‘love’ to maintain power and control.

‘Healthy relationships build slowly, and are based on a series of actions, not a flood of words,’ Archer writes for a blog post titled ‘The Manipulative Partner’s Most Devious Tactic’ for Psychology Today.

The term is widely believed to have been first used by the Unification Church of the United States in the 1970s, whose cult leaders used love as a form of ammunition ‘to con followers into committing mass suicide and murder’, according to Archer.

‘Pimps and gang leaders use ‘love bombing’ to encourage loyalty and obedience as well,’ he writes.

How does it work?

First things first, all relationships are different and just because a partner showers you with love and affection does not mean they’re narcissistic or have psychopathic tendencies that might lead to ‘love bombing’. Some people genuinely are very loving and thoughtful and these sorts of gestures continue long into the relationship with no catch.

However, those who use ‘love bombing’ as a form of control often reinforce their love for their victim by showering them with affection when they act in a certain way that pleases the abuser, and later they will punish that person for behaving in a way that the abuser doesn’t like.

For example, an abuser will post an adorable snap of the two of you at dinner to Facebook, for all to see, with an equally mushy caption about how much you mean to him and how happy he is to be spending the evening with a gorgeous creature like you. The same person, though, when you head out for a dinner without him or go to a club with your friends, will call you ten times and accuse you of cheating/abandoning/not caring enough about him.

”Love bombing’ works because humans have a natural need to feel good about who we are, and often we can’t fill this need on our own,’ writes Archer.

How do you spot ‘love-bombing’?

Getting butterflies, falling head-over-heels, and feeling like you’re falling madly in love with a new boyfriend/girlfriend is very normal in the early months of a relationship.

But, according to Archer, potential love bombing victims often find themselves trapped into having constant contact with a partner, which ultimately convinces them the intensity of the communication is a sign of success and love.

‘If extravagant displays of affection continue indefinitely, if actions match words, and there is no devaluation phase, then it’s probably not “love bombing”,’ adds Archer.

‘On the other hand, if there’s an abrupt shift in the type of attention, from affectionate and loving to controlling and angry, with the pursuing partner making unreasonable demands, that’s a red flag.’

Who is vulnerable?

Joe Pierre, a Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, explained in Psychology Today that narcissists (aka common ‘love bombers’) are attractive because they display behaviours such as self-sufficiency, confidence, and ambition. Meanwhile, Deborah Ward, author of the book Overcoming Low Self-Esteem with Mindfulness suggests in a different post for the publication that victims are attracted to partners who remind them of their parents.

Quite often, people who have experienced family trauma or turmoil might choose relationships with individuals who show similar traits to their family members, as a way of filling the void or in an attempt to fix what was ‘damaged’. However, this tendency isn’t to be taken as a sign of weakness necessarily, but of potential empathy, argues psychologist Perpetua Neo.

‘People think often if you are attracted to a narcissist, you tend to be someone quite weak and very passive in your life… but they tend to be very high achieving women,’ Neo told Business Insider.

‘A very common trait I see in my clients is they’re over-empathetic… but you stop empathising with yourself, because you explain everything away for other people,’ she adds.

How do you avoid being ‘love bombed’?

When the ‘love bombing’ turns into making a victim feel unappreciated, guilty or devalued, they often strive to get their relationship back to the ‘good old days’, when their partner would shower them with affection and surprises. However, Neo argues that those former positive behaviours were illusory.

‘They “love bomb” and then they devalue you, so you’re always on high alert, and you never want to do anything wrong.

‘Because of that your standards are lowering, your boundaries are getting pinched upon, and you lose your sense of self,’ she adds.

The best thing to do with a new relationship is to take things slow, keep perspective and remind yourself of boundaries so not to feel trapped in a ‘love bombed’ relationship.

Archer urges people to remember the advice: ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.’

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‘It’s like being in a cult for one’: Read 14 tactics used by coercive controllers

East Anglican Daily Times/March 7, 2017
By Gemma Mitchell

Experts in the field of domestic abuse gathered in Suffolk to explore the intricacies of a crime that is “invisible in plain sight”.
A sold-out audience filled the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds on Monday, March 6 for the third Conference on Coercive Control, with presentations from a line-up of celebrated professionals.

Keynote speaker was American university lecturer and author Lisa Aronson Fontes, who described a manipulative relationship as “like being in a cult of one”.

Dr Fontes said dangerous romances often started out happy, with abusers using methods that seem loving, such as constant texting or not wanting to be around anyone else.

She added: “It looks like the care that many women crave, then over time that warm beam gets narrower and narrower and she wants to get that back and she feels like it’s her fault she doesn’t have it.
“Her life is then spent looking for ways of getting into that light again.”

One form of abuse that survivors often feel unable to talk about, Dr Fontes said, is sexual coercion, violence and degradation. This includes revenge porn, sex on demand and forced prostitution.

“Coercive control feels like being trapped in a cage and you can’t get out and you don’t know where to turn,” Dr Fontes added.

Professor Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and lecturer, praised the criminalisation of coercive control – calling it a “revolutionary moment in our women’s movement”.
According to Mr Stark, around 25% of women in abuse relationships are never assaulted, and in some cases it is “low level” harm which police may not take seriously, such as biting, pushing and shoving.

This is where the new law, which was passed in England and Wales in 2015, can come into play.

It carries a maximum prison term of five years for perpetrators who repeatedly subject spouses, partners and other family members to serious psychological, social, financial and emotional torment.

Mr Stark deems coercive control a “liberty crime” that turns victims into “slaves in their own homes”.

He added: “When you smell the suppression of freedom the stench of injustice reeks through society like a great wind.”

Dr Jane Monckton-Smith, an expert in domestic homicide and stalking, told the conference abusers often used coercive control because they were experiencing “separation anxiety” – a fear of losing someone.

She said: “They do not want to be separated from this person that they control because that person is absolutely fundamental to the way they feel about their life.”

It is this trait that can lead to a domestic murder, Dr Monckton-Smith said.

She added: “Some killers say to me once they kill someone it’s like a relief, they don’t have to worry about owning her anymore because she’s gone.”

Organiser Min Grob said she was “ecstatic” about how well received the Conference on Coercive Control had been since she launched it last year.

She added: “What I wanted to do is have coercive control pitched at a level that anyone can get more knowledge or understanding, from frontline workers, professionals and people in relationships or those who know someone who is being coercively controlled.

“It is a day of learning because coercive control is invisible in plain sight and even if you don’t realise it we all know someone in our family that could be being coercively controlled.”

Ms Grob, who has experienced domestic abuse in the past, said putting on an event like this made her feel “safer”.
Here are 14 ways coercive control can exist in an intimate relationship:

– Controlling access to a phone and social media

– Enforcing a certain diet

– Prohibiting or limiting contact with friends, family and health services

– Monitoring and controlling a person’s time or movement

– Regulating what clothes, make up, hairstyle is worn

– Continual belittlement, telling someone they are worthless

– Harming or threatening children

– Jealous accusations

– Constant phone calls, texting and emails

– Controlling access to money and transport

– Forcing sex

– Name calling

– Refusing contraception

– Preventing a person from working and sleeping

With Coercive Control, the Abuse Is Psychological

The New York Times/July 7, 2016
By Abby Ellin

Lisa Fontes’s ex-boyfriend never punched her, or pulled her hair. But he hacked into her computer, and installed a spy cam in her bedroom, and subtly distanced her from her friends and family.

Still, she didn’t think she was a victim of domestic abuse. “I had no way to understand this relationship except it was a bad relationship,” said Dr. Fontes, 54, who teaches adult education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

It was only after doing research on emotional abuse that she discovered a name for what she experienced: Coercive control, a pattern of behavior that some people — usually but not always men — employ to dominate their partners. Coercive control describes an ongoing and multi-pronged strategy, with tactics that include manipulation, humiliation, isolation, financial abuse, stalking, gas lighting and sometimes physical or sexual abuse.

“The number of abusive behaviors don’t matter so much as the degree,” said Dr. Fontes, the author of “Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.” “One woman told me her husband didn’t want her to sleep on her back. She had to pack the shopping cart a certain way, wear her clothes a certain way, wash herself in the shower in a certain order.”

While the term “coercive control” isn’t widely known in the United States, the concept of nonphysical forms of mistreatment as a kind of domestic abuse is gaining recognition. In May, the hashtag #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou took off on Twitter, with users sharing their own stories.

Last December, England and Wales expanded the definition of domestic abuse to include “coercive and controlling behavior in an intimate or family relationship,” making it a criminal offense carrying a maximum sentence of five years. To date, at least four men have been sentenced under the new law.

“In this approach, many acts that had been treated as low-level misdemeanors or not treated as offenses at all are considered as part of a single course of serious criminal conduct,” said Evan Stark, a forensic social worker and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, whose work helped shaped the new law in England and Wales.

Dr. Stark, the author of “Coercive Control,” noted that the English law pertains to a course of conduct over time. American law still does not address coercive control; it deals only with episodes of assault, and mainly protects women who have been subjected to physical attacks. But in about 20 percent of domestic violence cases there is no bodily harm, he said.

Coercive control often escalates to spousal physical violence, as a 2010 study in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence found. “Control is really the issue,” said Connie Beck, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. “If you can control a person’s basic liberties verbally — where they go, who they see, what they do — you do not necessarily have to hit them regularly, but if a person is not complying, then often physical abuse escalates.”

To a victim of coercive control, a threat might be misinterpreted as love, especially in the early stages of a relationship, or when one is feeling especially vulnerable.

Dr. Fontes, for example, was in her 40s and newly divorced when she met her ex-boyfriend. He was charming and adoring, and though he was a little obsessive, she overlooked it. Never mind that she has a PhD. in counseling psychology, and specializes in child abuse and violence against women.

“For a person looking for love and romance, it can feel wonderful that someone wants to monopolize your time,” she admitted.

For Rachel G., 46, a mother of three who lives outside Boston (she didn’t want her full name used to protect her privacy), the manipulation was all-consuming. Her ex-husband made them share a toothbrush, and wouldn’t let her shut the bathroom door — ever. He set up cameras around the house, and fastened a GPS in her car to track her movements. Sometimes he would show up at her work unannounced, “always framed as him needing to know where I was in case the kids needed me, or because he missed me and wanted to see me, but it was just his way of regulating my behavior.”

She was miserable, but stuck it out for 18 years. It never occurred to her to leave: She had three children, and “he had convinced me that I would be unhappy anywhere,” said Ms. G., who does fund-raising for a nonprofit. “I wasn’t only a bad wife — in every respect — but I was a negligent mother, or an overbearing mother, I was unsupportive of him, I was a bad cook, I prioritized work over family, my family liked him better than me, our friends liked him better than me. The worse I felt about myself and doubted myself and internalized his view of me and the way the world should work, the more submissive and accommodating I became.”

In the end, it was he, not she, who filed for divorce, after catching her in an extramarital affair. She is not proud of her actions, but she is grateful it got her out of the relationship. “I would never have left if he hadn’t filed,” she said. “I was afraid.” Since then, she has been trying to re-establish connections with family members and friends.

Dr. Fontes ultimately left her partner after four years. The decision came after she spent two weeks away from him, and realized how diminished she had become. “There were repeated telephone calls and emails every day, but it was such a relief to wake up and go to sleep without having to check in with this other person,” she said. “I recovered a sense of who I was as a separate person, my own opinions, my own perspective.”