Gaslighting is an old and well established concept to describe a very real problem, but many legal professionals don’t have any understanding of what it is or where the term comes from.
What is gaslighting? The common definition
The common definition is that gaslighting describes a “form of psychological abuse in which the victim is gradually manipulated into doubting his or her own sanity.” Wikipedia. From a CSI perspective, this definition is not very helpful. The term comes from a 1938 play titled Gaslight, which was adapted to two different motion picture versions, British and American. The story offers a more comprehensive insight into the problem.
From the 1940 British version of the movie, gaslighting is described as an adult relationship where one party, in an effort to cover up their own misdeeds or take something from the other, deliberately manipulates the other’s understanding of reality so that they come to doubt their own understanding of reality, and the other party fails to successfully challenge the attack campaign. The gaslighter gains power by isolating the victim, enlisting negative third-party support, and controlling who they can communicate with and what information they are privy to. Only with the help of an outsider, positive third-party support, could the victim in the movie break the campaign of manipulation.
What is gaslighting? A CSI definition
From a CSI perspective, the movie provides an excellent description, however gaslighting can be seen as describing a broader concept and more common behavior pattern which does not require a clearly deliberate effort to manipulate reality. It can result from a not-quite conscious use of coercive self-protective strategies which result in the same thing.
Gaslighting necessarily involves two people. It works best when the following sub-conditions are present.
Gaslighting is almost always associated with a host of other self-focused and coercive behaviors, including the oscillation of aggression and charming/disarming behaviors, unresolvable struggle, the use of rules to control others, humiliation sensitivity, and “snowballing” which involves taking small issues and blowing them out of proportion to cause a conflict. Consisted with the Gaslight movie, isolation from family and friends is common, as is control of information and seduction of third party support. All of these behaviors and sensitivities are consistent with an affectively-oriented adult attachment pattern, and are described in the CSI article 13 shiny objects.
Gaslighting can involve physical violence (domestic violence, intimate partner violence, coercive control), or not. The gaslighting and control can be intense yet never involve physical violence.
Blame/denial and boundary failure
Another way of seeing it is that adult #2 fails to hold appropriate boundaries. In CSI’s experience, where gaslighting is intense the pattern of blame/denial and boundary failure can escalate to where it becomes extremely difficult if not impossible to help adult #1, the gaslighter, break the pattern. But it is possible to help adult #2 gain insight into what has happened, what they can do about it, and actually take steps to reduce or stop it.
The most troubling litigation cases, such as divorce, are where the judicial officer fails to see the gaslighting, or denies its existence even though obvious, and supports adult #1. Decisions from these judicial officers usually result in juridogenic harm.
Why would adult #2 allow this to happen?
There may be several reasons, and from CSI’s perspective, the typical reason is that adult #2 also had a difficult (although not necessarily as challenged) childhood attachment experience, but in the opposite way as adult #1. That is, adult #2 is relying on self-protective strategies which causes them to strongly desire to please and/or get along with adult #1, avoid conflict, and importantly, fundamentally value “not doing the wrong thing”. They may have a strong desire to do the right thing, and when they are not sure what that might be, they may err on the side of what their partner is saying. These patterns may be described with the DMM terms of compulsive caregiving (A3) and compulsive compliance (A4).
Example. When adult #1, the gaslighter denies a misdeed they did, or an experience or feeling adult #2 had, adult #2 tends to pause and question whether their memory might not be correct because it is important to them, at a deep psychological level, that they not say the wrong thing. For adult #2, it is psychologically safest to be unsure, or avoid a conflict, rather than say something that might not be correct.
These psychological, or self-protective attachment strategies and associated danger-processing patterns, create fertile ground for gaslighting to flourish.
Prevalence: how common is gaslighting?
At this time, CSI is not aware of research studies addressing the prevalence of gaslighting. We hope you will let us know if you find it.
In CSI’s experience gaslighting behaviors, like most everything, exists on a continuum of light to heavy. In a fair number of high conflict cases it probably exists, or at least it is somewhat common to see evidence of efforts by adult #1 to utilize intense forms of blame/denial, but where the boundary failure is not complete so the effects of gaslighting have not fully “flowered.” In these cases, the problem is present but is harder to see without a good grounding in conflict science, and an important goal is to help validate adult #2’s experience and positive efforts to hold boundaries so the problem does get more out of control.
Why is gaslighting not well understood?
Several things seem interesting to us at CSI. Most people cannot describe the source of the term, and few people can describe it with much clarity. The original play, by Patrick Hamilton, was published in 1938. It was such a powerful story that British and American screenwriters adapted it to film, and the 1944 American version was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture. The film is so descriptive that the title has endured as the way to describe this psychological phenomenon. And yet, after 80 years this form of abuse is still widely unknown or misunderstood in the legal community.
It is also interesting to note that the idea of denying one’s own misdeeds was captured in this story during the rise of Nazi Germany. Even today, 81 years after the play was released, neo-Nazi’s and other extremists practice gaslighting by denying the Nazi Holocaust never happened. Or worse, they claim “The Holocaust didn’t happen but it should have.” CNN.
Gaslighting is just one form of relationship abuse, and obviously, many people “get it.” At CSI we think that interpersonal abuse is more common than generally acknowledged, occurs in many forms, and that many people have either no experience to understand why this is true, or they themselves have strong psychologically protective defenses which interfere with their ability to see it. Compulsive caregiving and compulsive compliance self-protective strategies are common among legal professionals, and these can interfere with seeing or acknowledging the existence of this type of coercive control. Likewise, a good number of legal professionals utilize some level of self-protective strategies which involve obsessive coercion, and their comfort with conflict may interfere with seeing what is going on.
One of our biggest challenges is helping lawyers and judges to overcome their blind spot to abuse.
Why the term “gaslight”?
The movie is set in the late 1800’s, when houses had lighting from gas lamps. The husband is up to no good, and his nefarious and secretive activities require him to go into the attic. When he turns on the gas lamps in the attic the gas quantity to the other lights in the house is reduced. When the wife asks her husband about the dimmed and flickering lights, and the noises she hears in the attic, he denies it all and tells her she is seeing and hearing things.