Gaslighting & Domestic Violence

gaslighting (1)

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of abuse. It is when an abuser tells their victim that they “imagined” previous incidences of violence, or say that she is irrational, overly-emotional or simply “crazy” or minimizes or trivializes a victim’s feelings. An abuser may gaslight by:

  • Questioning the victim’s memories of events
  • Accuses her of misremembering situations
  • Denies that particular events happened
  • Minimizes violent or particular events
  • The abuser tells the victim she is imagining things.

This form of abuse makes the victim doubt herself, her mind and her boundaries. When subjected to Gaslighting victims lose self-confidence and the ability to judge reality. Victims of Gaslighting no longer trust their ability to think clearly, their perceptions of right and wrong and many lost their faith in their own “gut instinct” so they eventually become more dependent on the abuser and less likely to leave the abusive relationship.

Gaslighting is a strategy often used by abusers as a precursor to or part of domestic violence or intimate partner violence because it is so effective, subtle and can be veiled as care and concern. All the while Gaslighting increases the isolation and vulnerability of the victim, thereby increasing the abuser’s control. In 2015, Gaslighting was deemed a crime in domestic violence law in the United Kingdom, since then and more than 300 people have been charged with the offence [1]

Lauren Bruce, in her article Feministe article, gives this description

Overall, gaslighting has the gradual effect of making the victim anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception, which makes you less likely to fight back or feel confident accusing the abuser of bad faith later when he’s siphoning money off you, for example, or isolating you from your friends and family… As part of a larger system of abuse, it makes you vulnerable to accept escalations of abuse AND attribute them to your OWN failure and not the ill will of the abuser.

Paige Sweet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan reports that gaslighting is more than just a tactic used by abusers in one on one relationships.  Sweet’s research shows it is a “deeply rooted in societal structure that takes advantage of existing social inequalities”[2]. Women are more likely to experience gaslighting both in professional environments and in their personal lives due to these inequalities. “The assumption and stereotype that women are overly emotional, sensitive, irrational or fly off the handle easily is used to excuse the dismissal of their feelings and experiences” according to Sweet.

Sweet argues that social gaslighting is amplified when perpetrators take gender-based stereotypes and structural and institutional inequalities and use them against victims to manipulate their realities.  Gaslighting of populations, like women, for example, rely on the association of stereotypical femininity with irrationality. Racial gaslighting is also gaining recognition, where victims of racism are made to “feel” like they are imagining the abuse, that they are inherently biased or looking for racism where it doesn’t exist[3].  Additionally, recent research has brought a spotlight to political gaslighting where politicians downplay events, like the impact of Covid-19 or other social events, to persuade voters that effort, action or change is not necessary[4].

What are its Signs and Symptoms?

The author Robin Stern has identified some signs of Gaslighting:

  • Constantly second-guessing yourself.
  • Asking yourself “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day.
  • Often feeling confused/crazy.
  • You’re always apologizing to your partner.
  • You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
  • You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behaviour to friends and family.
  • You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
  • You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
  • You start lying to avoid the put-downs and reality twists.
  • You have trouble making simple decisions.
  • You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, and more relaxed.
  • You feel hopeless and joyless.
  • You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
  • You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner.[5][6]

For help with gaslighting abuse in Nova Scotia, considering contacting these resources; all the numbers below, and also consider downloading the myPlan app.

Emergency: 911

Non-emergency: (902)490-5020

Halifax Regional Police Victim Services: (902)490-5300

Bryony House Crisis Line: (902)422-7650

Legal Aid Family Law: (902)480-3450 or (902)420-2390

Transition House NS: 1 855 225 0220


[1] American Sociological Review2019, Vol. 84(5) 851 –875© American Sociological Association 2019