Are you a moth to the gas-light?

Posted on: September 14th, 2018

There have been many occasions where a client has nervously entered my office for the first time, taken a seat and promptly burst into tears.

Any relationship breakdown is traumatic, but for some, this has been exacerbated over many months (or even years) by a distressing form of emotional abuse perpetrated by their narcissistic partner.

I want to talk about Gas-lighting…
‘Gas-lighting’ occurs where one person deliberately manipulates another so that the victim questions their own sanity, memory or reality which is done to gain power and control.

The term ‘Gas-lighting’ originated from the 1944 movie ‘Gas-Light’, in which the female lead is tormented by her abusive husband, who slowly manipulates her into believing that she is going insane. The film is considered the first artistic portrayal of this type of emotional abuse.
Commonly, a ‘gas-lighter’ will:

  • Lack emotional empathy
  • Tell outright lies
  • Deny they ever said or did something, even though there is firm proof to the contrary (fake news anyone?!)
  • Become angry if they are challenged
  • Trivialise your feelings – ‘oh, stop being so over-sensitive!’
  • Confuse you by changing the subject
  • Align others to denigrate you (these unwitting third parties are known as ‘flying monkeys’)

Victims will often doubt their own gut instincts, mainly because they have been told to ignore the obvious. They may be dependent on their abusive partner, unable to cope with the stress of daring to challenge their unacceptable behaviour. They may also find it difficult to accept the view of others, particularly their legal advisor (who is actually looking to protect them).

How do you extinguish a ‘gas-lighter’?

If you have separated, or if you are thinking of doing so, it is important to prepare yourself for the journey ahead:

  • Seek emotional support from a trained counsellor/psychologist
  • Keep a written record of all relevant communications with your ex
  • Try and concentrate on ‘facts’ rather than ‘feelings’ when it comes to communicating with your narcissistic ex. It is likely that they will be hoping to upset and undermine you, for there is nothing more pleasing to a narcissist, who actively seeks out drama and acrimony.
  • Try to remain objective and consider your long term goals. Write down those goals so that you can focus on them when you are having a difficult time.
  • Chose a calm, reasonable and practical legal advisor. Whilst it might seem appealing to fight your aggressor by instructing a ‘pit bull’ , in more cases than not, this approach will do more harm than good. Your narcissist ex will actively seek to engage in a ‘legal battle’ and this will only serve to increase your stress and your legal fees.

As an experienced family lawyer, I encounter all types of human behaviours and I have very honed instincts when it comes to dealing with hostile and manipulative opponents. I understand that during times of stress and conflict, a supportive and reasonable approach can go a long way to resolve family disputes but equally, I know when it is necessary to be firm and take a more robust approach.

My legal tool kit also includes tissues, a cup of tea, a good ear and biscuits at the ready…

If you require legal advice in relation to your separation, divorce or child arrangements dispute, please contact Marie Stock, Senior Associate at Coffin Mew.