Gaslighting is a method of manipulation to gain power and make others question their own reality. Gaslighting is a form of abuse that is just as devastating as physical abuse but it is much harder to see. Gaslighting is particularly common If you are in a relationship with or married to a narcissist, but this particular tactic is not limited to narcissists. Anyone in a relationship with someone who uses gaslighting is all too familiar with the games and manipulation, but because it is so subtle, so undermining, it often goes unnoticed even by the person subjected to this devastating psychological abuse.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, emotion and psychological abuse is not uncommon in relationships:

  • 48.4% of women and 48.8% of men have experienced at least one psychologically aggressive behavior by an intimate partner.
  • 4 in 10 women and 4 in 10 men have experienced at least one form of coercive control by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • 17.9% of women have experienced a situation where an intimate partner tried to keep them from seeing family and friends.
  • 18.7% of women have experienced threats of physical harm by an intimate partner.
  • 95% of men who physically abuse their intimate partners also psychologically abuse them.
  • Women who earn 65% or more of their households’ income are more likely to be psychologically abused than women who earn less than 65% of their households’ income.

Gaslighting is a type of psychological abuse. Here are some of the most common tactics of people who gaslight others:

  1. They lie. They lie about what happened, they deny they said or did something you know they did. They lie even when you show them proof that they are lying. They will continue to do this in court pleadings, to therapists and anyone else who will listen.
  2. They constantly remind you the you are the cause of the problems without recognizing their own flaws. They are quick to remind you of everything you have ever done wrong, every mistake, every shortcoming. You are never enough, you are never good enough, never smart enough.
  3. They control you financially. They tell you (because of your numerous shortcomings they continue to point out) that that you can’t be trusted with money because you will mishandle it. So, they cut off your access to it. They will give you an allowance, of a small amount of cash each month, or a limited credit card and then demand that you account for each penny spent.
  4. You are constantly walking on eggshells. You are always worrying and hoping that your behavior will not “set them off” again. You don’t want to tell them things that happen during the day because you don’t know how they will react. You start to lie to them or omit facts to avoid their criticism. You are constantly apologizing even when there is nothing to apologize for.
  5. Your needs and desires are not important. You don’t feel you can talk to them about your needs and desires because you are afraid that they will just turn it around on you and act like they are the victim. They tell you all the time how grateful you should be that they stay with you despite all the bad things you do to irritate or anger them.
  6. They use your loved ones as a point of attack. They tell you how terrible a parent you are and undermine your authority in front of the kids. They try to turn your family and friends against you, or try to point out how stupid or useless you are.
  7. They are hypocrites. Their actions don’t match their words or they project their bad own actions or thinking onto you. Narcists falsely claim the cause of the marital problems was your infidelity, meanwhile they are spending your retirement funds on lavish vacations with their mistresses.
  8. After a bad act, they compliment you or use positive reinforcement—a calculated attempt to keep you off-kilter and cause you to think they aren’t that bad after all. They only praise you when you did something good for them, but being praised at all us such an unusual occurrence that you give it much more weight than it deserves, as if you are in a desert and the narcissist hands you a thimble full of water but you feel like you found a pool.
  9. Align people against you or isolate you from emotional or financial support. The narcissist will tell others that you lie about everything, and that you have mental health issues or substance abuse problems. They will then tell you that your family and friends are the ones questioning your mental health. This behavior makes you more isolated from friends and family who may point out the reality of your situation or offer support. This also makes the narcissist look like the “better” spouse and creates a history of you being the bad spouse should you leave.
  10. They do not interact with your family or friends. You are always making excuses for their behavior toward friends and family. They don’t go to family gatherings, school functions, or get togethers with friends unless the event will make them look good.

How Gaslighting Impacts a Divorce

The worst part about gaslighting is that it undermines your self-worth to the point where you second guess everything. The biggest hurdle most spouses of a gaslighter deal with is the fear of “messing things up” by filing for divorce, hiring the wrong attorney, or upsetting the very spouse they are trying to leave. Because this is such a common tactic used by narcissists, most clients married to narcissists ask us at least once if we can handle these types of people in a divorce, but they ask themselves repeatedly whether they are making to right decision because their spouse has convinced them that they can never do anything right. This often leads to a paralysis of sorts which traps you in a relationship because the you feel like even if you try to get out, you will only inevitably mess things up, make things worse, just like your abuser said you would. The fear of upsetting the narcissist is ingrained and overwhelming, and overcoming this paralysis, this fear of messing up, is the first – and biggest – hurdle to overcome.

Often the abused spouse thinks that it will be hard for friends or family to understand why they have initiated the divorce. However, once the abused spouse starts communicating again with friends and family, they soon discover that their friends and family are not surprised at all. Most of the time, those closest to you see what you do not. Most of the time, your friends and family are just waiting for you to leave and are more than happy to tell you how much of a jerk your spouse was to them, to you, to everyone.

Unfortunately, the gaslighting does not stop once you file for divorce. As soon as your abuser finds out you have retained an attorney, they will ramp up the gaslighting:

They will question your choice of attorney. Too expensive, “you are just wasting money”, “they will charge you for everything”, “you don’t know what you are doing”, or claim that your attorney is not good enough to go up against them, etc. Then they will try to get you to fire your attorney so they can take advantage of you, under the guise of settling this without spending all of “our” money.

They will tell you that you are going to lose everything – especially the kids – because of your terrible mistake.

They will complain that all of this money spent could have gone to the kids, and how it’s your fault that the kids can’t continue in the activities they have always done.

Narcissists in particular will often stop paying child support and spousal support even when an order is in place in an attempt to both maintain control over the money and to force you into a position of having to bargain, starve, or fire your attorney. This tactic is all too common, and only serves to run up the attorneys fees that the narcissist is complaining about in the first place!

Narcissists typically will refuse to participate in the divorce process. They refuse to provide the documents that are required by law and to which you are entitled.

They file so many unnecessary and frivolous motions with the court that all your court time is taken up addressing these side issues just to prolong the resolution of your issues. Often, getting your issues resolve (like getting an order for support in the first place) can take months longer to obtain because of these delay tactics.

They will take all of the money from the accounts, leaving you with all of the children’s expenses, and often the mortgage, with no means of support.

They will actively try to alienate the kids against you, fight for custody of the kids while painting you as unfit, histrionic, or they will claim you have mental health or substance abuse issues. Custody issues are so prevalent and so difficult to navigate because of the gaslighting that they have done to you and to your kids.

The first step in protecting yourself and your children in a divorce is recognizing this behavior and avoiding the predictable traps of divorcing a narcissist. An experienced attorney can help you prepare to divorce a narcissist, and help you defend against this pattern of behavior during and after the divorce process.

For more info on gaslighting, please see this blog from Stephanie Sarkis and this story from Live Bold and Bloom, and this article from Kirstie Taylor.