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The hidden abuse that can hurt your mental health: Gaslighting

Nearly half the women and men in the U.S. say they've endured psychological aggression from intimate partners.

Domestic abuse is a leading problem in American homes and it can take many different forms. When the abuse leaves no physical marks, outsiders may not recognize when all is not well and the abused person can find it challenging to translate what’s happening.

“Gaslighting” — a term that became popular after the 1944 movie “Gaslight,” in which a husband slowly makes his wife think she’s going crazy through a long game of deceptions — is an insidious form of psychological abuse. It’s an intricate web of lies woven to break down one partner’s sense of self-worth and perception of what is real.

“When you're black and blue, you can point to the bruises and you can say ‘This happened to me,’” Dr. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, told TODAY. “But when somebody is undermining your reality and you simply have this feeling that there's something wrong … women moreso than men, but men too, tend to point their fingers at themselves and say, ‘I did something wrong.’”

Nearly half of all women and men in the U.S. said they’ve been subjected to psychological aggression by an intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the person trying to control the partner through psychological tricks, the goal is often to make that partner feel completely dependent. By instigating this deep self-doubt and playing the role of the only one who knows what’s right, abusers can wear down their partners and gain control.

“People become hopeless, they give up on themselves,” said Stern, who wrote the book “The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.”

“They're so busy defending themselves over time, and then they're so busy agreeing with the gaslighter, that they begin to think, ‘He's right.’”

At its more extreme, gaslighting can be a carefully calculated plan to slowly isolate the person and erode trust in anyone else. The perpetrator may sow seeds of suspicion about close friends and family and plant the idea that the partner doesn’t know how to do anything right.

Stern believes women are more often the victims of gaslighting because they learn to focus on others and see things from their points of view, as well as prioritize other people’s feelings over their own.

Not all gaslighting is intentional abuse, however; sometimes it’s learned behavior. But it is always manipulative. More subtle forms or isolated incidents can happen when people want to sway situations in their favor. When one person expresses concern over an issue or a desire to change something, the partner who wants to control that moment might brush it off and respond with something like, “You don’t really mean what you’re saying.”

“People are not born gaslighters … it's social learning,” Stern said. “[Maybe] you grew up in an environment where the people around you used gaslighting or psychological manipulation to control the moment … or somebody treated you like that or you somehow stumbled on it and it worked.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline describes gaslighting as a form of domestic abuse that can build up over time.

“The abusive partner’s actions may seem like just a harmless misunderstanding at first,” the organization said on their site. “Over time, however, these abusive behaviors continue, and a victim can become confused, anxious, isolated and depressed.”

The typical signs of gaslighting, according to the hotline, are when the abusive partner:

  • Refuses to listen or pretends not to understand
  • Challenges the partner’s memory or accuses them of being wrong
  • Changes the subject or suggests the partner is imagining things
  • Trivializes the feelings of the partner
  • Pretends to forget what happened or denies that anything happened at all

Victims of gaslighting should remember there are ways out of these situations and, when it’s not long-term abuse, options to improve the relationship, Stern said. Try these steps to start turning things around:

  • Write down incidents that felt manipulative
  • Talk to the person doing the gaslighting, staying aware of the tactics
  • Know the emotional triggers the partner uses
  • Assess whether the relationship can be saved, if the person stops gaslighting

“Another way to free yourself of gaslighting is to begin to move from negative self-talk to positive self-talk,” Stern added, “and make yourself do it, because it won't come naturally.”