Gaslighting is a term sometimes used by mental health professionals to describe emotional manipulation designed to confuse people to believing that their reactions to inappropriate comments or behavior are unfounded, excessive, or way off base. The term is derived from the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which the main character resorted to such behavior to control his wife.
As portrayed in the movie, gaslighting is most commonly perpetrated by men against women, which serves to perpetuate the cultural stereotype of women (not merely blondes in the pervasive blonde jokes) as “crazy.” Essentially, the man deflects the woman’s upset in reaction to a hurtful or disturbing remark or action on his part by discounting her feelings and/or demeaning her.
For example, the guy may show up very late without an explanation or apology or might make a disparaging comment about his wife’s weight. If the woman/partner expresses some form of displeasure, the man retorts with a diversion or barb such as:
- a denial of his offensive behavior, e.g. “I was just joking; I didn’t mean anything by it.”
- “You’re so sensitive, emotional, dramatic, irrational, defensive, “ etc.
- a similar discounting statement, e.g. “Calm down; relax; don’t be so touchy; don’t freak out; don’t have a hissy fit!”
Besides the man exonerating or minimizing the influence of his own behavior, his put-down retorts, whether intended or offered unconsciously, result in the woman questioning (second-guessing) her reaction. When the guy engages in a pattern of gaslighting, characteristic of verbal abuse, the victimized woman’s self-esteem erodes. That most often occurs in “one-up, one-down relationships,” whereby the man is domineering and grandiose, while the woman behaves submissively.
Unfortunately, gaslighting has become so normalized or epidemic that many women have become conditioned to quickly disregard or rationalize the guy’s inappropriate behavior/remarks, or even apologize for their own reactions.
The antidote for women is to legitimize their reactions to emotional manipulation and to respond assertively when affronted. If the man then escalates, in worst case scenarios by becoming physically abusive, therapeutic intervention or separation is in order.
Men need to develop awareness of their hurtful, often insidious, gaslighting behavior and gradually learn to replace it with empathic, supportive, affirming communication. Constructive conflict resolution is another acquired skill that accompanies effective communication. Psychotherapy and substantive seminars on relationships provide healing and training in unlearning destructive statements and practicing positive/sanguine ones.