Am I crazy? It’s a question anyone being gaslighted will ask themselves. Imagine asking yourself that same question day after day—this repetitive pattern is exactly the goal of the gaslighter. “Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse or coercive control where the perpetrator works to convince the victim that he or she is going crazy,” explains Dr Stephanie Sarkis, a psychotherapist and the author of Gaslighting: Recognise Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—And Break Free. “The gaslighter does this to isolate the victim from his or her family and friends, and to force the victim to rely on the gaslighter’s version of ‘reality’.”
In recent weeks, actor Evan Rachel Wood and singer FKA Twigs have both spoken publicly about being in abusive relationships. Wood—who previously spoke of being a victim of abuse and gaslighting—has accused her ex-partner Marilyn Manson of grooming and abuse. Their relationship began in 2007, when Wood was 19 and Manson 38. They were engaged before calling it off. Manson has denied all claims. Twigs is suing her ex-partner, the Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf, for alleged sexual battery, assault and the infliction of emotional distress.
Following the rise of the Me Too movement in October 2017, women speaking out about emotional and physical abuse at the hands of men has increased tenfold. Women were never silent—they were silenced. Or worse: they were made to believe that their version of reality wasn’t true. “Since coercive control was criminalised in December 2015 in the UK, there has been an increased understanding that it is at the heart of domestic abuse,” explains Teresa Parker, head of media relations and communications at Women’s Aid. “There may be no physical violence but coercive control creates invisible chains and a sense of fear that can take over your life. However, despite being criminalised, the rate of prosecutions is low and professional understanding is not consistent.” According to ONS statistics, 584 defendants were prosecuted, and 293 offenders convicted of, and sentenced for, controlling or coercive behaviour in England and Wales in the year ending December 2019. According to Women’s Aid’s Annual Audit report (2021), Parker points out, almost 90 per cent of women residents in responding refuge services in England had suffered psychological abuse.
While gaslighting within intimate relationships has become a crime under coercive control legislation—and the term was listed among Oxford Dictionaries’ “words of the year” in 2018 as awareness grew—there is still a long way to go in terms of recognising this form of abuse, and understanding its insidious effects. Below, British Vogue takes a closer look at what qualifies as gaslighting, and how to spot it.
How can you spot the signs of gaslighting in your own relationship?
“In the beginning of the relationship, the gaslighter comes on very strong, and may ask you to move in with them within the first few dates,” explains Dr Sarkis. “This is called ‘lovebombing’. You are put on a pedestal or idealised, and it can feel really good. But once the gaslighter knows they have you locked into a relationship, you are then devalued, and the abuse begins. Victims feel that they must have done something to cause the gaslighter to turn on them. They are also told by the gaslighter that it is their fault.”
It can extend to the gaslighter “pitting you against your friends and family, telling you that they are ‘bad influences’,” says Dr Sarkis. “The gaslighter may lie to you and tell you that a beloved family member spoke poorly about you. The gaslighter does this so he or she can isolate you from the people that provide you with support.” And the abuse can have a “slow ramp-up”, she explains, going from critical comments to eventually cutting the victim off from their support systems. “Starting with comments about appearance, comparing the victim to exes, hiding the victim’s belongings and then telling the victim that they are irresponsible, and pushing the victim to quit their job in order to emotionally and financially isolate the victim.”
Sarkis continues: “The gaslighter may chronically cheat, but will constantly accuse the victim of cheating (this is called ‘projection’). If the victim confronts the gaslighter about their behaviour, the gaslighter will quickly divert the discussion through blaming the victim, and may ‘stonewall’ or ignore the victim as ‘punishment’.”
Take note: “Many times the increase of emotional abuse is so slow and insidious that victims are not aware of how destructive the relationship has become,” says Dr Sarkis, “and many blame themselves, as that is what the gaslighter wants the victim to believe.”
Why do I feel like I’m crazy?
People in emotionally abusive relationships often talk of “feeling crazy” because that’s one of the gaslighter’s modus operandi: to make their victim feel that they are crazy. “It is difficult to process how someone who ‘lovebombed’ them in the beginning of the relationship can now treat them so poorly,” says Dr Sarkis. “The gaslighter will tell you that what you saw and heard never happened. The gaslighter will lie to you and tell you that your family and friends think you are crazy. You are constantly told by the gaslighter that you cannot trust your own judgement.”
What types of strategies can someone use to end the abuse?
“Keep a record of your experiences, and if you can, try to stay connected with friends and family who know what is going on—part of abuse is often being isolated from family and friends—and speak to an expert domestic abuse support worker,” advises Parker. “You can do this through the Women’s Aid Live Chat service or by emailing our team at [email protected].”
You also need to “put as much distance between you and the gaslighter as you can,” says Dr Sarkis. “This means cutting off all contact, including blocking phone numbers, emails, and social media accounts. The gaslighter may try to ‘hoover’ you back into the relationship because he or she needs narcissistic ‘supply’. They will promise you things will be better if you return. But beware, these types of relationships continue to degrade, and can escalate into life-threatening physical violence,” she says. Additionally, seek legal advice if you have children with a gaslighter, and seek therapy for your own mental health, too.
“The chances are high that you may know someone who is experiencing abuse behind closed doors, it may be your friend, sister or colleague”
Can a gaslighter change?
You could be forgiven for thinking that the gaslighter you’ve found yourself in a relationship with is unaware of their behaviour. “Some gaslighters learned maladaptive behaviours from manipulative or narcissistic parents,” explains Dr Sarkis. “If a gaslighter is able to admit their behaviour and seek counselling, there is a possibility that they may learn healthy relationship behaviours. However, there are some gaslighters, such as narcissists, that have ‘ego-syntonic’ personalities. This means that they think everyone else has a problem, and they are fine. This type of gaslighter rarely seeks help in therapy, and continues with their maladaptive behaviour. Regardless of how the person came to be a gaslighter, the behaviour is abusive and should never be tolerated.”
How to help someone you fear is being gaslighted
Watching a friend stay in an abusive relationship is never easy, and trying to help them leave it is also fraught with difficulty. Such relationships are more commonplace than we realise. “The chances are high that you may know someone who is experiencing abuse behind closed doors, it may be your friend, sister or colleague,” says Parker. “Listen and try to understand, and take care not to blame them. Give them time to talk, but don’t push for too much detail, let the conversation happen at their pace. Acknowledge that it is a frightening and difficult situation. It is important to support your friend or family member to make their own decisions, and don’t tell them to leave the relationship as they may not be ready to do that, and it may not be safe… provide support and give them information about gaslighting and emotional abuse. Let your loved one know that you support them, and you will do whatever you can safely do to get them to a healthier place physically and emotionally.”
This story originally appeared on British Vogue.