What Is Gaslighting and How Can a Divorce Attorney Help?


In an era when conversations around mental health and emotional abuse are more commonplace, the term “gaslighting” has become an increasingly prevalent part of divorce proceedings. While gaslighting can occur in many different kinds of situations – including in medical settings, at work, and in many different kinds of family relationships, gaslighting is perhaps most well-known for occurring in intimate partnerships like marriage.

The increasing awareness of gaslighting as a problem in intimate relationships can help individuals recognize when and how they are being emotionally abused, but it has also led to some confusion. If you are concerned that you are being gaslit by your spouse or if you have been accused of gaslighting your spouse, it is important that you understand what the term means and how gaslighting can impact your divorce.

A Brief History of “Gaslighting”

This past year, Merriam-Webster named “gaslighting” its Word of the Year, noting that the term saw a 1740% increase in searches on Merriam-Webster’s dictionary website in 2022. The term originates, however, in a 1938 British play called Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton about a husband who attempts to drive his wife insane. He does so, in part, by dimming the gas lights in their home, while at the same time convincing her that she is imagining the changes she perceives. Despite this early origin, the term “gaslighting” did not come into wide use until the 2010s.

Gaslighting: What It Means and How to Recognize It

Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as “a psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Gaslighting is considered a kind of emotional and psychological abuse. A person who engages in gaslighting is often seeking to gain or maintain control or power over their victim. By manipulating their victim’s sense of reality, the gaslighter can gradually and often systematically cause the victim to doubt their own memories, their own thoughts, even their own sanity. Eventually, it is possible that the victim becomes so unsure of themselves that they become dependent on the gaslighter’s perception of reality in place of their own.

Clearly, this kind of psychological manipulation can take a serious toll. In some cases, people who are subject to gaslighting may, in fact, struggle to even realize they are being manipulated because they have come to so deeply mistrust their own judgement. People whose marriages are unraveling can be particularly vulnerable to gaslighting because these behaviors can manifest when a person feels they are losing control over a romantic partner.

At the same time, some people who engage in gaslighting may fail to recognize their own pattern of destructive behavior. While some people can and do engage in a conscious and intentional plan of manipulation in order to exercise control over their partner, other people may do so without realizing it. According to Britannica, gaslighting can also be a feature of narcissistic personality disorder, in which an extreme narcissist may engage in gaslighting but is “often not fully aware of what [they are] doing or why [they are] doing it.”

Signs of Gaslighting

It is therefore critical that people come to understand gaslighting and recognize the behaviors that characterize it. Examples of gaslighting behavior can include repeatedly or regularly doing the following:

  • Trivializing a person’s feelings
  • Insisting that a person’s memory of events is wrong
  • Calling a person “crazy” or telling a person they are overreacting, exaggerating, or are being irrational, especially when challenged or called out
  • Shifting the blame for a situation or argument to the other person
  • Pretending to forget or denying things that were said or occurred
  • Telling a person that other people are gossiping about them or think they’re crazy or irrational
  • Separating a person from their friends and family

It’s important to keep in mind that gaslighting is not a one-time event, but a pattern of behavior that occurs regularly or repeatedly over an extended period of time. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting often begins gradually and may often seem harmless before escalating over time.

If you think you may be a victim of gaslighting, here are some signs in yourself to look out for:

  • You frequently second-guess yourself – your memories, your judgement, your thoughts
  • You regularly worry you are being too sensitive
  • You feel confused or out of touch reality
  • You are constantly apologizing to your partner
  • You make excuses for your partner’s behavior or find yourself withholding information from family and friends
  • You feel like you are walking on eggshells around your partner
  • You frequently have difficulty making even simple decisions

How Hedman Family Law, L.L.C. Can Help

If you are seeking a divorce and are concerned about a pattern of gaslighting behavior, it is important that you have a compassionate and experienced divorce attorney to support you. It is not uncommon for people going through a divorce to see gaslighting behaviors escalate as one spouse attempts to regain control over their partner.

At Hedman Family Law, L.L.C., we are committed to helping our clients navigate the difficult period of divorce and move forward with their lives in a positive way. If you are considering divorcing your spouse and would like to work with an experienced family law attorney who understands the emotional toll of gaslighting and other forms of domestic abuse, contact us online or call us at (503) 506-7887 to schedule a consultation.

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