Marriage By Gaslight
“I thought you told me we didn’t have enough money for vacation this year. I see you got a bonus from work but used it to buy a new camera,” said Jane.
“What?” Joe blinked several times. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re crazy.”
Jane dropped the issue, half-doubting herself. The camera was bought anyway.
Just what was going on in this exchange?
In marriage counseling, therapists talk about “gas lighting.” The term comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight. In it, Ingrid Bergman stars as a woman who is made crazy for a time by her husband’s intention to make her question reality at every turn. He searches for hidden treasure in the attic with gas lights, for example. The wife often notices that gas lights in the house are flickering, and the husband denies it, always acting as though she is crazy.
So, gas lighting involves deception, insults or abuse, paired with the forceful denial of such. But it goes further. It makes the one questioning the deceiver or abuser doubt herself. I say “herself” because often the dynamic is between husband and wife. But it can also be between a parent and a child, or siblings, or boss and employer. Women can perpetrate as well as men, but the one being manipulated into self-doubt is often a woman. Society brainwashes women, via stereotypes, into doubting our own perceptions and emotional stability.
I recently read an article by a man who was once a gaslighter, entitled, “A Message to Women From a Man: You Are Not ‘Crazy.’” He lists the things gaslighters (who can also be women) say to women who complain of feeling hurt, angry or frustrated with them.
“You’re so emotional.”
“You’re too sensitive.”
“Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out!”
“I was just joking. Don’t you have a sense of humor?”
It might also be just a facial expression—squinting at you like you are nuts. Well-rehearsed body language that is all about putting you in your place for truth-telling. Or a verbal sleight of hand that makes you question your memory.
Another way of thinking of gas lighting is emotional manipulation, says the author. It’s a play on “the idea that women need only the slightest provocation to unleash their (crazy) emotions. It’s patently false and unfair.”
What is the key to getting out of a gaslighting situation? Learning to trust your own perceptions and stick by them no matter what. Refusing to second-guess yourself. It might also mean getting out of a certain relationship entirely or putting boundaries on it. Let’s revisit the first scene:
“What? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Joe blinked several times. “You’re crazy!”
Looking him in the eye, Jane said, “I think you do know. You told me we didn’t have the money, but we did, and now the money is gone. We need to talk about this.”
And, perhaps, to make an appointment to see a marriage or family counselor who is sensitive to feminist issues. Or to see a lawyer if the gaslighter’s defenses are so rigid that change that change is unlikely and the oppression unrelenting. Or, as needed, to call a domestic abuse hotline and find a women’s shelter. Sometimes women cannot afford to truth-tell.
Bergman gets the last laugh in Gas Light, by the way, once a detective investigates and validates her perception about the gas lights. I hope this post is enough validation for you to be loyal to your own feelings and perceptions, whether you are a wife dealing with a controlling husband, a grown daughter still feeling manipulated by your mother, or an employee of a gas-lighting boss.
You are not crazy, and you deserve better.