The term “gas lighting” has become more widely recognised in recent years with the definition of domestic abuse having been progressively expanded. The phrase comes from a 1930s play, where the female character is driven mad by her duplicitous partner who is hell bent on psychologically controlling her to conceal his double life. He succeeds in convincing her that she had lost her grip on reality. In terms of less high-brow cultural touchstones, the vintage 2018 episode of Love Island had Rosie heralded for calling out Adam, who became inarguably enamoured by other participants yet refused to accept it – preferring to double down on the double crossing.
Gas lighting can be a systematic pattern of behaviours that result in someone doubting themselves and second guessing their sense of reality. In extreme scenarios survivors can even wonder if they have developed mental health issues and a bitter sting in the tail can be that victims begin to believe that they are “lucky” that their partners tolerate and stay with them.
The speed and efficiency with which gas lighting may impact someone can be frightening. Friends and family may start to worry that you have changed or that you have lost your sense of identity.
The mechanism by which gas lighting can take hold is sometimes referred to as “love bombing”. This is the process by which someone can be overwhelmed by loving and caring messages and actions. Maybe they are inundated with compliments and gifts. They might get the sense that they have never been so adored and are, finally, truly loved. Some can be particularly vulnerable to love bombing where they have experienced bad or uncaring relationships in the past. You can go from feeling like you are walking on water to slipping under the surface before you’ve had time to notice that the whole dynamic of the relationship has flipped.
In some circumstances, there may not even be an initial outpouring of positive feeling – in other cases, the status quo of a previously healthy relationship can become addled.
It is not always obviously even to the victim, that they have been subject to such abuse and the following are a range of examples to illustrate how wide the behaviour can be:
Being contradicted by your partner – despite knowing that what you have said is correct or in accordance with what they previously told you
Being told that you are stupid or wrong about things – despite having evidence to the contrary you may believe them since why else would they say such a thing. In these situations, the magnitude of love someone can have for their partner could be sufficient for them to agree that whatever they believe, the sky is pink. Better to agree that than risk the potential ramifications of contradicting.
There can be a clear difference between the way you are treated in private or in public. However, over time this distinction may be lost.
Starting to think everything you do is wrong.
You may be discouraged from seeing friends and family as they may begin to query your warped thinking that such behaviour is acceptable. They may not wish for you to meet their family and friends or they may be coy or vague about their relationships with others. Those in long term relationships sometimes never meet their abuser’s friends or family.
Being accused of being too sensitive, too suggestible, too absent minded, too forgetful when you have considered yourself none of these things previously
The behaviour can be subtle. A common metaphor is the boiled frog - if you place a frog in boiling water it jumps out, if you warm the water gently it doesn’t realise what is happening.
After exposure to the above, even for a short period of time, you can become convinced that you are not lovable and in a hideous Stockholm syndrome-ish twist, you can actually be grateful to your partner as they are willing to ‘put up with you’. This is a particularly alarming part of gas lighting, those subject to it can stay in relationships as they become convinced that nobody else would want them. It is a tragic paradox that the abused can bind even tighter to those subjecting them to such behaviour.