Miss March on Gaslighting

So, it’s Friday, but we’re going to do a Theory Thursday anyway.

I was thinking about mystery movies and how they could be applied to human inter-relationships; I mean, Hitchcock was the king of this. His movies were all about using people as pawns in the plot-line, which actually represented a larger picture about human nature, in general. Roald Dahl also toyed with people’s minds using the subtleties of human nature; all his characters seemed to be exaggerations of the worst part of the human mind (think: The Witches, or The Twits). But, the movie which always seems to freak me out the most is the 1944 version of Gaslight, starring Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman. If you haven’t seen Gaslight, I highly recommend Netflixing it and watching it with some friends in a dark room. It’s juuuust on this side of scarring you mentally forever; you’re never going to go into a relationship with the same feelings of trust again.

Ingrid Bergman staring up at the dimming lights...

I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I’ll give you the gist. Gaslight is the story of this young woman, Paula, whose aunt has been murdered and the murderer ran away with the aunt’s very expensive and precious jewels. Flash forward some years and Paula is sent away to study opera with her aunt’s singing coach (what did they call them back then?) and she meets Gregory Anton, who, all in all seems like a nice dude. He pursuades her, not only to marry him, but to move back to the house in which her aunt was killed in (which had been boarded up with all their stuff inside) and to move all the reminders of her aunt up to the very secluded attic. After everything is boarded up in the attic is when things start to get freaky around the house. Not only does Gregory insist on Paula keeping a very secluded lifestyle, but he watches her like a hawk; she’s not allowed to go out or have people in (talk about abusive boyfriends!) Also, Paula starts losing things, but claims she knew exactly where she put them; she hears footsteps in the boarded up attic; pictures disappear from the walls of the house; and most of all, the gaslight in the house keeps slowly going down and down, dimming the house from all rooms. Because Paula starts to get afraid that she’s losing her mind, her maids start to look at her with disdain and pity, only causing Paula to further think she’s losing it.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story, but the term “gaslighting” someone comes from this movie (actually, the 1944 version is a remake, so it comes from the original). The term became so popular that it actually is used by the psychology world as a real term in diagnosing someone,

“Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. It involves an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to the subject, having the gradual effect of making the victim anxious, confused, and less able to trust his or her own memory and perception. A variation of gaslighting, used as a form of harassment, is to subtly alter aspects of a victim’s environment, thereby upsetting his or her peace of mind, sense of security, etc.”

So, gaslighting someone can be a physical thing, the act of taking away, diminishing, hiding; it can also be a mental abuse, as in withholding information, providing false information. But, this is all to such an extreme, what about gaslighting someone almost without realizing you’re doing it, in effect, to ruin the relationship?

I’ve seen this happen a lot with relationships. Things are going okay with the two people, but inexplicably, one of the people starts to freak-out; either about being not serious enough, or too serious, or family problems, or wanting to settle down, and so they pull away. They don’t talk about their problems with their significant other, nor do they always, themselves, actually realize the problem. So, they may stop saying goodnight at the same time, or they may retreat to their own world, or may change little things in their life to signify their independence, or dependence, whatever they are trying to subconsciously make a point about. In effect, they are gaslighting their partner; the partner doesn’t know what’s going on in their head, or why these subtle changes are happening, but they notice, they always notice. And they start to freak out because these little changes or withholding behavior, or change in behavior, adds up. Like in the movie, the lights start to dim, and the problem becomes looming and large. And therefore, both people end up changing their behavior, one in response to the other, thus effecting their relationship, and probably not for the better.

My point is that gaslighting can happen whether we call it by it’s name or not. It’s the act of subtly changing oneself, whether done on purpose or not, and having it ultimately change the way the partner perceives us, and therefore the relationship as a whole. Granted, “gaslighting” can occur without the nefarious tones to it, sometimes people do just change, but if you don’t let the other person in on the changes, or your thoughts, you are in effect withholding information, with could possibly “drive them crazy” (used in the loosest form here) and cause the relationship to collapse.

Have you ever had someone “gaslight” you emotionally? Or have you done it to someone?

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One response to “Miss March on Gaslighting

  1. My Ex would tell me that he said something and I wouldn’t answer him. He would say that I wasn’t listening. But I believe that he hadn’t said anything.

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