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'Gaslighting': What are the warning signs?

A man shouting at a woman

Gaslighting is the act of systematically misleading someone until they doubt their own senses, their own judgments, and even their own sanity. It has become one of the most talked about terms of our time. In 2022, it was selected as the ‘Word of the Year’ by dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, which saw a 1,740% surge in searches for ‘gaslighting’ on its website.

In the same year, the word was used in a published High Court judgment for the very first time. Prominent human rights barrister Charlotte Proudman hailed this moment as a milestone in British law, saying that it gave ‘legitimacy and credibility’ to the offence.

The story that gave us ‘gaslighting’

When English writer Patrick Hamilton created a play called Gas Light in the late 1930s, he could never have imagined his title would be adopted as one of society’s biggest buzzwords almost a century later.

Hamilton was already a master at depicting cunning, manipulative behaviour. His earlier play, Rope, was about two egotistical students who carry out a murder to prove their intellectual superiority. With Gas Light, he turned his attention to what we would today describe as a form of non-violent domestic abuse.

Set in the Victorian era, it’s the story of an increasingly anxious wife who thinks she’s losing her mind. She is, in fact, being misled and manipulated by her own husband, who is intent on finding a stash of jewels hidden somewhere on their property. The title refers to the gas lights in the house, which mysteriously flicker and dim when the husband isn’t around. He tells his fraught wife that she’s just imagining this, when in reality they’re dimming because he’s turning on the gas lights elsewhere in the building while searching for those jewels.

There were two movie adaptations of the play in the 1940s, both of which contracted the original two-word title to Gaslight. Decades later, in 1969, a medical paper titled The Gas-Light Phenomenon described ‘cases in which there were definite plots to remove an unwanted and restricting relative by securing admission to a mental hospital’.

Popular use of the word is often dated to a New York Times column that appeared in 1995 and used the term in a political context. But it’s only been in more recent years that usage of the word has truly skyrocketed.

The gaslighting murderer

Although anyone can exhibit gaslighting behaviour (think an overbearing parent or hyper-controlling work colleague), the term is most commonly used in the context of ‘coercive control. This is an umbrella term referring to sustained patterns of psychological manipulation in relationships, which can involve a perpetrator undercutting their victim’s self-esteem, isolating them from friends and family, dictating what they can and can’t do, and challenging their own thoughts and perceptions.

One of the most horrific examples of gaslighting in British history came to light in 2019, during the murder trial of 28-year-old church warden Ben Field. The handsome, charismatic Field had charmed – or, to use his own phrase, ‘snake-talked’ – his way into the affections of his former university lecturer Peter Farquhar.

In his late 60s, Farquhar was flattered by the much younger man’s interest, little realising that Field’s intention was to inherit his assets after his death. Time and time again, Field spiked Farquhar with bioethanol and hallucinogens, causing him to have terrifying visions of black insects and shards of light, and lose his grip on reality.

Field would film the increasingly confused Farquhar, ask him mocking questions, and chronicle the gaslighting in his secret diary, like a scientist carrying out an experiment. He eventually murdered Farquhar, probably by suffocating him while he was intoxicated. His nefarious plot came to light after he embarked on a similar gaslighting campaign on another elderly target who lived a few doors down. He was handed a minimum prison term of 36 years.

The red flags of gaslighting

As the very point of gaslighting is to delegitimise the victim’s own analysis of a situation, it’s a particularly cruel form of abuse. Some red flags that may indicate you’re being subjected to gaslighting in a relationship include:

  • Feeling tense and hyper-aware of your own words and actions when around your partner
  • Blaming yourself when your partner is angry, or when things go wrong
  • Feeling the need to frequently apologise to your partner
  • Constantly prioritising your partner’s wishes and feelings over your own

Meanwhile, the person doing the gaslighting may:

  • Lavish you with intense romantic interest, text messages, gifts, and proclamations that you are ‘the one’ very early on in the relationship, so as to emotionally lock you in (this is known as ‘love bombing’)
  • Interrogate and undermine your perceptions and feelings, perhaps by accusing you of over-thinking, being neurotic and ‘hysterical’, or outright paranoid
  • Consistently criticise your friends and family, to isolate you and make you more dependent on them
  • Flatly deny actions and events which you know happened
  • Tell you they know what’s best in any given situation, or that they’re only restricting your autonomy for your own good, and/or because they love you

Calling out gaslighting behaviour can be very difficult, as your partner is likely to perpetuate things by accusing you of lying, making things ‘all about you’, or simply getting the wrong end of the stick. Recognising the tell-tale signs of gaslighting, keeping receipts of interactions such as text messages, and seeking the help and advice of friends and family, are some of the initial steps you should take when tackling what may be an increasingly thorny and toxic dynamic.