The Gaslight Effect: Is He Playing with Your Mind?
The syndrome gets its name from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a murderer (Charles Boyer) attempts to make his wife (Ingrid Bergman) doubt her sanity.Red flag No. 1: You feel as if you can never quite get your footing in your relationship. Red flag No. 2: You're constantly asking yourself, "Am I as demanding and emotional as he says I am?" Red flag No. 3: You find yourself making excuses to friends and family about his behavior. The signs may be subtle, but they mean you're being manipulated or, as psychologist Robin Stern, PhD, would say, at the wrong end of "the gaslight effect," the title of her new book. By whatever name, if your partner is emotionally controlling you, it's not healthy. Experts have some strong advice:
Recognize that it takes two. "Usually the 'gaslight-ee' idealizes the manipulator and wants his approval," Stern says. Even the most confident woman at the office may need validation as a romantic partner, which makes her willing to accept his critical view of her. To break the pattern, Stern suggests, take small steps in standing up for yourself by not engaging in silly arguments. "If he accuses you of something you know is ridiculous—being 20 minutes late when it's really only three minutes, for example—not saying anything is sometimes the best response." Another option: "Oh…my watch says three minutes…but it's so great to see you!" Or "It doesn't make sense to argue about our watches—let's order and enjoy our time together." But if the "gaslighter" continues to browbeat you for being late, you may have to walk away from the table to protect yourself.
Deflect power struggles. If a fight starts to escalate, tell him something like "I'm not comfortable with where this conversation is going—let's revisit it later," Stern suggests. Another good line for defusing a charge is: "I can't hear what you're saying when you're yelling at me."
Be a reporter. "After an argument, it can help to write in a journal about how it made you feel, or simply a script of what happened," says Stern. When you read your notes, you might realize that his version differs substantially from yours, or that you're always feeling battered or insecure, no matter what you're discussing.
Be willing to leave the relationship if you can't change the dynamic. Sometimes the gaslighter will bring up past grievances, but don't let yourself be manipulated one last time. "Make a list of all the things he has done or said that really stung," advises Susan Heitler, PhD, author of The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage. Then go back and look at the list. "Often a manipulative person will accuse others of behaviors that are actually his own," she says. "Just being aware of that will help free you to move on."