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Gaslighting and Divorce

Timothy P. Flynn May 24, 2024

gaslightLike the term "narcissist", the term "gaslighting" risks losing its meaning due to overuse. Gaslighting does have a place, however, in the lexicon of modern divorce.

Here are some examples of phrases a gaslighter uses on his victim:

For Pete’s [Christ’s] sake…

You are imagining things…

Don’t be so sensitive…

You’ve got to be kidding me…

You are crazy; you’re losing your mind…

You’re overreacting…

Don’t get so worked up…

You’re just paranoid…

The term “gaslighting” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2022 based on Internet searches. The Chicks [formerly the Dixie Chicks] scored a number 1 Billboard hit during the pandemic of the same name. Dolly Parton lyrics contain the occasional gaslight reference. Gaslighting as a tactical concept has made it into a series of articles published in the Harvard Business Review.

Webster defines the term “gaslighting” as:

Psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perceptions of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.

Gaslighting as a psychological phenomenon is the process of excavating the victim’s consciousness and world view and replacing it with the perpetrator’s scripted reality.

One of the earliest reported cases of the gaslighting phenomena involved divorce. The case study from Great Brittan in 1969 involved a woman who was able to convince her husband that he was insane so that he could be transferred to a mental hospital. This enabled her to divorce her husband with an ironclad excuse and to escape fault in the proceedings.

In 2007, the term gained pop psychology wattage with Robin Stern’s book, The Gaslight Effect. Stern describes a typical relationship pattern where strong women are caught up in destructive relationships that ultimately cause them to lose confidence and to question their own self-worth. The result is often a depressed mindset.

Such relationship patterns are often disclosed to divorce lawyers in confidence during client consultations. The perpetrators are usually, but not always, strong egotistical males. 

Stern’s book was followed by an academic study published in 2014 by Professor Kate Abramson of the University of Indiana entitled On Gaslighting, which has morphed into a very-recently-published book. Both Stern and Abramson note that males are the ones most often doing the gaslighting.

Professor Abramson, whose common examples of gaslight phrases are listed above, attributes an immorality to the gaslighter; an intent to deconstruct a person, not just get them to agree with you. Professor Abramson defines gaslighting as, “a multi-dimensional moral horror show.”

Abramson’s detailed study stays true to psychological terminology, distinguishing gaslighting from “brainwashing” and “guilt tripping”. According to Professor Abramson:

Agreement isn’t the endpoint of successful gaslighting. Gaslighters aim to fundamentally undermine their targets as deliberators and moral agents.

The NY Times Book Review had this to say about the colloquial expansion of Professor Abramson’s subject:

From “attachment style” to “trauma-bonding,” personal judgments have become diagnoses — without the assistance of a licensed professional: Anyone with a social media account or a jokey T-shirt can get in on the action. 

So often, divorce lawyers witness this phenomenon mixed into their contemporary caseload. One spouse seeks to dominate the other spouse by a relentless barrage of continuous deconstruction designed to slowly, methodically chip away at the victim spouse’s confidence and ultimately, their very sanity. They weaponize love and trust in a relationship toward the end of wreaking psychological damage. This is done for a perceived advantage.

One famous example of this dynamic was the discourse between Simon De Beauvoir and her lover, Jean Paul Sartre. She confided in a discussion made public that he not only disagreed with her point-of-view but ripped it to shreds. To the point where Beauvoir began to see her own opinions as worthless.

In addition to divorce, spouses, and significant others, the parent-child relationship can also be destructively gaslit. In our law practice, we sometimes observe a gaslit spouse, and gaslit children, all within the same household. This makes intuitive sense when one thinks that, “if I’ve been able to control my spouse in this way, why not employ the tactic on my children, who also must be controlled.” Also, the power imbalance in the parent-child relationship favors the parent gaslighter.

In the divorce context, a couple where one spouse is a gaslighter is a prime example of a power imbalance; similar to the power imbalance that arises with domestic violence. Some professionals, like Professor Abramson, characterize gaslighting as a veiled form of domestic violence.

These cases are difficult as the gaslighting spouse is invested in maintaining the psychological imbalance. That spouse becomes more obstructive as he loses control of the outcome. What worked on his spouse over time, does not work on the industry professionals involved in the divorce process.

The outcome of a divorce process is required to be equitable. But the outcome sought by the gaslighting spouse is psychological destruction.

As Professor Abramson warns, however, do not fall into the trap of oversimplification with an armchair disgnosis. There are many shades of gaslighting; it is nearly always a matter of degree. In some long-term married couples, for example, each spouse gaslights the other.

Half of the interpersonal relationships that make up our marriages end in divorce. Therefore there is no suprise that, among those marriages that fail, gaslighters abound.

If you are the victim of a gaslighting spouse and would like to explore your options in a divorce proceeding, contact us to schedule a free consultation.