Tackling Gaslighting: Identifying, Safety Planning and Risk Management
Gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse that has become increasingly recognised in abusive relationships. This post is designed to provide social workers with guidance for identifying gaslighting and how to address it with clients to aid safety and recovery.
This article is aimed at social workers to help them in their work with families living with abuse, if you have been personally affected by gaslighting you may want to visit our sister site at dvactprogrammes.org for advice aimed at victims/survivors.
The term Gaslighting comes from a 1930's play which was later adapted into a popular film 'Gaslight' in which an abusive husband dims the lights and moves items around the house then denies that he has done so, in order to drive his wife insane. Gaslighting can be used by anyone in a position of power, including parents, employers and politicians. In the context of an intimate relationship, it is a type of emotional abuse which involves an abuser psychologically manipulating their partner in order to make them doubt their own reality. Abusers use this tactic to increase the power and control they have over their partner and to make their partner more dependent upon them.
A 2014 study in America found that 74% of female victims of domestic abuse experienced gaslighting from their partner or ex-partner and 50% identified gaslighting as a barrier to gaining support - (Sweet, 2019)
The effects of gaslighting on a victim's mental health can be devastating and can take much longer to recover from than other types of abuse. Gaslighting is designed to destroy a partner's sense of self, damaging their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth. There is limited research on the effects of children living in homes where gaslighting is present, however, we do know from research on children living in an abusive environment that, particularly with younger children, their mother's reality is their reality. So if their mother's perception is being distorted the children's are too. We also know that children who live in a home where non-physical abuse is being used are likely to suffer the same harmful effects as those living with physical abuse.
How to identify gaslighting
Gaslighting can be identified by looking at the abusive partner's actions and listening to the victim about how they are feeling. Always ensure that couples are spoken to separately so that they can speak freely without the abusive partner present.
Common tactics used by gaslighters against their partner are:
Denying - Telling their partner they are imagining something happened when it actually did.
Countering - Telling their partner that their memory of events aren't correct, making them doubt themself.
Questioning - Asking their partner if they are sure that events happened the way they remember.
Trivialising - Making their partner feel like their thoughts and feelings don't matter, that they 'can't take a joke', or are being 'too sensitive'.
Accusing - Calling their partner, mad, stupid, unwell.
Faking forgetting - Pretending to forget things that happened.
Faking compassion - Telling their partner that they 'need help' or they're doing things for 'their own good'.
Stonewalling - Refusing to listen or engage in conversation or changing the subject.
Gaslighters are denying their partners reality for a reason and they are unlikely to admit their true motivation or accept responsibility for their actions. Caution should be taken when considering what is being said by partners who exhibit gaslighting behaviours as they are likely to be good manipulators who often create a plausible charming persona. Common responses by abusers include:
Total denial – stating their partners are lying.
Dismissing - saying their partner is intoxicated or mentally unwell (very common in cases of gaslighting with victims questioning their sanity due to the actions of the abuser).
False accusations - claiming it is actually her that is the abuser.
Alleging that family or friends that are trying to support her are ‘interfering,’ who disapprove of him and are ‘getting into her head’.
Claiming that they are helping their partner and protecting her as she 'needs help'.
Giving a lengthy list of the things she does wrong whilst portraying himself as the reasonable, sensible partner.
Listening to victims of gaslighting
It is important to really listen to someone who may be a victim of gaslighting. Gaslighting often starts gradually so a victim may already have a strong attachment to their partner who has used abuse to isolate them from others, to not trust their own mind and be more dependent upon them.
Over time, you begin to believe that there is something wrong with you because one of the most important people in your life is telling you this - Robin Stern author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life
A victim of gaslighting will often rely heavily on their partner to recall memories, they may also want them to make decisions and say that they 'need' them to always be present in meetings or appointments. If a victim of abuse changes their story (which is common in domestic abuse cases) particular attention should be paid if they are changing their story to the one that the perpetrator gave or using the exact same words or phrases as their abuser. Gaslighting also acts to 'de-skill' victims so it may be helpful to watch out for women who might say that they can't do things that they previously could because they have been led to believe that they are inadequate or stupid by their partner.
Many of the symptoms and feelings that a victim may have are similar to those of someone who suffers from anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. The difference with gaslighting is that their partner is actively making them second-guess what they already know is true. If they don't typically feel like this with other people, but only with their partner, then this may be an indication that they are being manipulated.
Victims of gaslighting often say that they:
Feel confused or crazy, hopeless or depressed.
Know something is wrong, but can't quite say what it is.
Can't understand why they are not happier.
Can't make even simple decisions.
Feel like they can’t do anything right.
Feel like a different person – they used to be much more confident, fun-loving, or relaxed.
Question their own feelings such as asking “Am I too sensitive?” or "can I not take a joke?" multiple times a day.
Frequently apologise to their partner.
Frequently make excuses for their partner’s behaviour.
How to tackle gaslighting: Safety planning and risk management
Gaslighting has a significant impact on mental health so those who have experienced gaslighting, as well as other forms of controlling behaviours and abuse, will most likely need mental health support. However, therapy and treatment programmes are only likely to be successful and safe once the abuser no longer has any control over the victim.
The following guidance is to aid risk management for families remaining in the home with an abusive parent who is thought to be using gaslighting:
1. Keeping proof - The nature of gaslighting means that victims can doubt their memories of incidents of abuse. Encouraging the victim to keep proof can be useful to aid in the recovery of their mental health as well as providing evidence for future proceedings or care planning. Effective ways that victims can gather proof can include keeping a journal, recording voice or video memos straight after an incident and taking pictures of injuries or destruction to items or property. Proof always needs to be kept safe and it is essential that any devices used are secure. Videos, pictures or notes can be emailed to a trusted person and then deleted but a tech safety tool should also be used to ensure that emails are secure. Go to Refuge's tech safety tool at https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/Tech-safety-tool
2. Safety planning - It is important that safety planning is carried out with all families that are living with domestic abuse which should have the children's safety and protection as the primary concern. As well as planning for emergencies, where gaslighting and controlling behaviours are used, safety planning should also include strategies to reduce isolation.
3. Reduce isolation - One of the most effective methods to help victims living with controlling and abusive behaviour is to ensure that they pursue interests outside the home. Securing employment is the most valuable of these in that it also provides a sense of autonomy and financial independence. Contact with other adults also allows her to ‘reality check’ her circumstances against those of other women. Work with the victim and look at ways that she can increase her social circle.
4. Involve suitable others to provide support - Involving others (usually family members, particularly from the maternal sides) who can give practical and moral support to the family can be helpful both in combatting isolation and monitoring safety. It may be possible to invite supporters to attend certain sessions and be made aware of the nature of the abusive behaviour, including any ‘red flag’ indicators and what their involvement in the safety plan will be.
5. Arrange outside contact for the children - It is highly protective for children to have contact with other children and adults outside the family home, if the child is very young this could include securing a nursery place. For older children a named mentor at school can help although this does not need to be a professional but could be any trusted adult. The provision of an easily accessible safe space for the children should be a priority in safety planning.
6. Meet the victim and children regularly - establish a routine of regular meetings where the victim is seen on her own. If completing visits remotely avoid any video conferencing work in her home, we have found that meetings taking place in the maternal family home often have the joint benefit of having someone to care for the children while the session takes place. If this is not possible it may be necessary to meet in social work offices. Regular visits are highly protective and must be a part of any working agreement.
7. Have a shared understanding amongst professionals - It is vital that all key professionals involved in the case understand the risk concerns and support any safety plans or agreements. This will ensure that there are no mixed messages given to the parents about the risks and the importance of the safety plan.
The following are 'red flag' indicators and would necessitate further action/consideration:
Evidence that the perpetrator is restricting access to the victim or children by screening calls, cancelling appointments, or speaking on their behalf;
Concerns that the victim or children appear to be fearful or anxious or a change in behaviour is noted;
Failure to engage with services;
the family going missing;
police/ambulance notifications of domestic incidents or disturbances.
How DV-ACT can help
DV-ACT experts are able to complete assessments and treatment programmes with victims and/or perpetrators regardless of the status of the case. Assessments will examine the use of abuse used in the relationship and the impact of this on the children and victim, with a risk management plan for each member of the family. DV-ACT can also deliver focused and specialised treatment programmes for both victims and perpetrators. Contact us for further information
Detailed guidance for social workers on how to complete safety planning with families can be found in our post How to complete safety planning with families.
Helplines and resources
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
Childline - 0800 1111 you can also go to https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/
NSPCC (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 or Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form email@example.com
Online community support - With Abuse Talk you can join the discussion on domestic abuse through a weekly Twitter Chat every Wednesday 8-9pm GMT www.twitter.com/abusetalkonline there is also a forum https://jennifergilmour.com/community/ which is available 24/7 and a podcast which delivers a series of interviews with those that work in the domestic abuse sector. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more.
Stern, R. (2009). Are you being Gaslighted? Psychology Today.
Stern, R. (2019). Gaslighting in relationships: How to spot it and shut it down. Vox.
Sweet, P. L. (2019). The sociology of gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851-875.
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?