Spousal Gaslighting

Spousal Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a type of psychological manipulation used to gain power and control over another person. Using this technique, an abuser constantly feeds their victim false information, causing them to doubt what they know is true, especially about themselves, and weaken their self-esteem. Although it is seen often in divorce and child custody cases, it is difficult to prove in court. However, by presenting reliable evidence, victims can hold their abusers accountable.

Gaslighting works by undermining the victim's perception of reality. The abuser denies and manipulates facts and discredits their victim's experiences. Because it can be subtle, it's often difficult to recognize. It begins slowly, with the abuser breaking down the victim's trust, while increasing how much that person depends on them by

  • suggesting the victim is unreliable, forgetful, or mentally unstable
  • making the victim believe he or she can't trust themselves and must rely on the abuser to make any decisions
  • leading them to believe they can't exist outside of their relationship

There are various types of gaslighting:

  • Countering – This is when the abuser questions the victim's memory, such as “I never did that” or “That never happened” or “Are you sure about that?”
  • Withholding – Here, the abuser refuses to even listen to their victim, such as “I don't know what you're talking about.”
  • Trivializing – This happens when the abuser disregards how the victim feels, such as “You're too sensitive” or “You're too dramatic.”
  • Denial – Denial is when the abuser refuses to take responsibility for their actions, such as “I didn't do that.”
  • Diverting – This is when the abuser turns the focus of the discussion away from themselves and onto the victim, such as “That's not real. You made that up.”
  • Blaming Others– In this case, the abuser blames anything that happens on the victim, such as “If you hadn't made me angry, I wouldn't have yelled at you.”
  • Isolation – Here, the abuser keeps the victim from seeing their family and friends. “They're a bad influence on you. You don't need to see them.”
  • Questioning the victim's sanity – The abuser wants the victim to wonder if he or she really is imaging things by saying such things as, “Are you ok?” or “You didn't do that. You just think you did.”

In the case of a married couple, if the victim does decide to file for divorce, the gaslighter already has a stronghold, especially if children are involved. The abuser has the victim so mentally and emotionally weakened and dependent that he or she may question whether they can have any future without their spouse. Would they be able to raise children alone? Where would they live? How would they make it alone financially? The abuser is also expert at manipulating friends and family, co-workers, even police, social service workers, and judges into thinking the victim is not capable of co-parenting. They may employ “hot button” issues, causing them to lose control in court, giving credence to the abuser's claims.

Gaslighting is not a legal term. However, in Texas, it is considered emotional abuse, which is defined as behavior that causes mental anguish, fear, or distress. It may be difficult to prove in court, but it can be done. Here are some things victims can do:

  • Gather evidence – Keep copies or screenshots of emails, text messages, or social media posts. Emails and text messages may show the gaslighter trying to tell victims something didn't happen that they can now prove did happen or show them twisting details to confuse them. The abuser will often use social media to ramp up their game, telling all their mutual friends how forgetful and confused the victim is growing.
  • Keep a journal – The victim should keep a well-hidden journal, documenting every instance when they felt belittled, confused, or kept from friends and family, carefully noting dates and places.
  • Witnesses – The victim should create a list of friends and family who saw the abuser's behavior and how it affected the victim and would be willing to appear in court.
  • Expert witnesses – Present therapists or psychiatrists willing to discuss the concept of gaslighting and how it has affected the victim's mental health.

If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship such as gaslighting and need help, talk to a friend, family member, church leader, or counselor.