Photo: Everett Collection
Looking back, teaching assistant Emily* wondered if she had ignored the red flags. Right before the wedding, her then-fiance played an audio clip of her in conversation with a man, and accused her of being unfaithful. He claimed to have received the clip in his inbox. “What were you thinking? Do you love someone else?” he asked her. She was confused. The words were definitely hers, but the other voice sounded strange. It didn’t match up – she could not recall having had such a conversation with anyone else. Yet her fiance insisted she had.
Could he have secretly recorded separate conversations, spliced them apart, and stitched them together to set her up? Emily wondered. It sounded ludicrous, and hardly fitted in with the caring and considerate man she thought him to be. Bewildered, she pressed him about who had sent the clip, but he was evasive, telling her that he didn’t want to drag out the issue any further. “Maybe I was blindly in love, but I couldn’t believe he would fabricate a clip or have bad intentions,” she said. So she cast her doubts aside, and assured him that there was no one else in the picture. She even stopped seeing her male friends in an effort to placate him. It was only years later, after they had separated, that her ex-husband finally admitted that he had indeed fabricated the clip. He tried to justify this by saying he had done so because he needed proof that she loved him.
Emily had been gaslighted. “I thought he loved me so much, and was merely being overprotective. So it was okay to sacrifice a few things for a happy relationship,” she says.
In engineer Lisa’s* case, her husband would make her second-guess herself and the way she was raising their young daughter. His tone would be disapproving when he passed remarks about how similar the child was to Lisa. Whenever she questioned his tone, he would simply fall silent. “Because he gave no reason for saying what he said, it led me to question if I was a lousy mum.”
Lisa, too, had been gaslighted by her husband. “Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse, often used to control and intimidate someone,” explains Adisti Jalani, acting principal social worker at Pave, a centre that specialises in dealing with family violence. “It decreases someone’s self-esteem and self-confidence so that they eventually become so insecure, they’re unable to trust their own judgment and are unable to make decisions.”
The term takes its name from the film Gaslight, a 1944 classic about a woman whose husband manipulates her into thinking she’s losing the plot. It’s a tactic that allows the perpetrator to gain the upper hand. “The victim will eventually become so unsure of their reality that they become completely dependent on their abuser. The abuser will seem to the victim to be the only one who has clarity of mind, and who knows what’s going on,” says Adisti.
In more recent pop culture, the hit novel The Girl on the Train also took on the subject of gaslighting: in it, a woman’s ex-husband takes advantage of her alcoholism to dupe her.
“He framed situations to make me think I was at fault”
Gaslighting often starts out with one-off incidents, which slowly develop into a more sinister pattern, as was the case for Lisa. She began to notice that when she raised certain issues, her husband would brush them aside. Whenever she brought them up again, pressing for an answer, he would insist she had never spoken to him about them previously. Every time he did that, it left her completely bewildered, and questioning her own memory.
Another tack he was fond of using was the silent treatment. Whenever they had an argument, he would lapse into silence. When she raised her voice in frustration, he would turn on her and say: “Look at your behaviour, you’re insane. There’s no issue, and you’re the only one who’s blowing it up.” Eventually, she began to believe she might be the one with the problem. “He would do this in front of even my family and friends, so that they would think that I was the fire-starter. After a while, when I saw the way they looked at me, I would think I was the crazy one,” she says. It’s a typical consequence of gaslighting, says Adisti. “The victim may feel that something is wrong but find it extremely difficult to work out what it is. They may also wonder if they are being oversensitive in the way they react.”
For Emily, her sense of reality got so warped that even when her husband began physically abusing her, she questioned whether she was overreacting. “He would hit me or kick me when he was drunk, but whenever I brought up the issue, he would argue that he hadn’t hurt me per se, and only wanted what was best for me”, she says. Even worse, he would cook her breakfast in the morning and act like nothing was wrong. “I started to think that maybe I had been dumb, which caused him to act out.”
Emily’s husband also began isolating her from her family – irrationally telling her that her aunt and sister were bad influences who were interfering with their happiness. Whenever she wanted to talk to her sister, she had to hide it from him. “At first, I willingly sacrificed everything for the sake of his love, but it reached a point where I regretted being in a position in which I could not even talk freely with my relatives and friends. Without being able to discuss the situation with anyone, I couldn’t tell if my feelings were justified, or if I was overreacting – as he always said I was.”
“I’m no longer the person I used to be”
For both women, their gaslighting husbands destroyed their confidence. “I thought I knew myself – but when you think one thing of yourself, and someone you love thinks another, you begin to doubt yourself. That’s the worst part – when you start doubting your inner voice, you start to lose control of who you are,” Lisa adds.
She recalls her ex-husband humiliating her by blaming his extramarital affairs on her. “He would say I was old, and that no man would want me,” she says. She believed him. His words haunt her to this day, and even though a couple of years have passed since the divorce, she still wonders if she’s good enough, and if she will find love again.
Similarly, Emily has found that she has changed. Thinking back about who she was before the relationship and who she is now, she has noticed significant differences in how she thinks, feels and acts. Once talkative, outgoing, and close to her family, she lost 10kg and withdrew into her shell over the course of her four-year marriage. “I would screen questions in my mind, contemplating what I could share with him and what I could not,” she says. It’s taking time, but she’s still trying to rebuild her confidence.
“I decided I had to get out”
For Emily, the final straw was in July last year. Following a heated row with her husband over yet another irrational accusation of cheating, she decided to walk out on her marriage. Something in her had snapped. “It was complete rubbish. At that moment, I realised that I had sacrificed so much for this man, but he constantly accused me of having affairs. I had given 100 per cent to making this marriage work, but I knew nothing was going to change.” Her mind made up, she left their marital home, initiated the divorce proceedings, and took out a personal protection order against him. “I didn’t want to have to walk on eggshells any longer,” she adds.
“I trusted the wrong person and loved him. That was the only mistake I made,” she says. But she is relieved to have closed that chapter in her life. It’s been a year since she left the relationship, and she’s rebuilding her life.
In Lisa’s case, she decided she’d had enough of her husband when he started bringing girlfriends back to the family home. Even though he had systematically destroyed her self confidence, she knew that things had to change. “He’s a good father, but not a role model,” says Lisa, who has chosen to continue a civil relationship with her ex-husband for the sake of her child.
Since leaving her gaslighting husband, Lisa has learnt to be a lot more self-reliant. “I’ve since realised I can’t depend on anyone,” she says. “If someone you love makes you doubt yourself [the way my ex-husband did], that’s something to think about. Sit down and ask yourself if this is what you want. Is this how you envisioned your life turning out when you were a kid? If not, you need to do something about it.”
*Names have been changed.
“Talk to people you trust, or seek professional support. It will help you make sense of what is happening,” says Adisti. That way, you’ll be able to make informed decisions about how to stay safe. If you’re a victim of domestic and family violence, you can call Pave (6555-0390) to seek support, and the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware, 1800-774-5935) to make an appointment at its free legal clinic.
This story was first published in the September 2017 issue of Her World magazine.