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Gaslighting: what is it, what are the signs and what can you do?

Do you constantly question your instincts and feelings? Often feel confused, anxious even crazy? Feel that you can’t do anything right? Lost your confidence and often wonder if you are ‘good ‘enough’? Then you may be a victim of gaslighting.

Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting and it can take many forms: a partner, a friend, a parent, in-laws or a boss.

No matter where it is happening, it’s important to be aware of it, recognise if it’s happening to you and what you can do about it.

To help, Julian Hawkhead, Senior Partner at Stowe Family Law joins us with his advice on gaslighting and the impact on marriages and relationships.

I recently met a lady who told me about her life with her husband. A life in which she had been regularly ridiculed and insulted in public, made to feel inferior to him and regularly told that she was no use. At the same time, she told me how generous he could be, how the children adored him and how if I met him I would find him to be charming. And so, began another tale of a victim of a ‘gaslighter.’

Gaslighting is a type of behaviour which causes the victim to doubt themselves, to lose their sense of self-worth and identity. It will involve persistent statements being made which exaggerate or distort the truth to the point where over time you believe it is true. I have seen many clients in this situation: coming out of an abusive relationship, where the ugly insults may have been thinly veiled under a defence of “it was just a joke” but have caused deep and lasting damage.

Such clients find themselves lost, they struggle to stand up to their spouse until one day they cannot stand it any longer, maybe they have hung on until the children left home or for some key event to occur and then they have to get out. Others persist in these abusive relationships for the fear of the unknown and what other options they may have.

The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1944 film called Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman. It tells the story of a lady who falls in love with a charming man. They marry but she soon starts to find that odd things are happening at home which causes her to doubt her own sanity. Her husband tells her that she is imagining things. Sound familiar? I won’t spoil the ending in case you are tempted to watch this classic.

The abuse that comes from gaslighting can be subtle, it can be digs and manipulation or it can be all out control. It can be verbal, it can be emotional, it can even be physical. The bizarre thing is that this behaviour can often come with a complete lack of self-awareness. The perpetrator is oblivious to their own behaviour and the impact it is having on people around them. It can be found in the home and it can be found in the workplace.

Here are five signs of a gaslighter:

  1. You are regularly told what you are doing wrong. In fact, you are never or rarely told that you have done something right, even if you had, it would still be said to be wrong. Your self-confidence is therefore under constant attack and even the most self-confident would begin to doubt themselves.
  2. They use their relationship of trust and intimacy to their advantage. They know your weaknesses and vulnerabilities and use them.
  3. You will dread being in their presence, whether it is a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach knowing that they are coming home soon or wondering when the next snide comment will be made, you are regularly unhappy.
  4. When you try to confront them about their behaviour, they are in denial, they never said that, or they were just joking. If you persist to confront the behaviour, they become very aggressive and will do everything to push the blame back onto you.
  5. In the end, you begin to resent the person that you have been made to feel for so long. You almost resign yourself to the “jokes” half-heartedly laughing along with them becoming a shadow of yourself.

There is one simple truth here, this behaviour is wrong. It is destructive and it can never be justified.

The two options to resolve this are either to face up to it and seek that the perpetrator changes or to leave an unhealthy relationship.

Seek counselling and talk through what is happening so that you can get a sense of perspective on what you are going through that isn’t distorted by what you are seeing after a long period of that gaslighting behaviour.

Get in touch

We regularly come across all types of behaviour that impact on families and relationships. We can advise you on the legal remedies that will help you find a better future for you and your family.

You can make a confidential enquiry to our Client Care Team who will put you in touch with one of our specialist divorce lawyers here. 

Julian is Stowe Family Law’s Senior Partner and is based in our Leeds office. Julian has extensive experience in all aspects of family law particularly in complex financial disputes. He has been with the firm for over 20 years and has a reputation for his strategic thinking and ability to cut through to the key issues and solve the most intractable of cases.

Contact us

As the UK's largest family law firm we understand that every case is personal.


  1. Nicola Smith says:

    As a victim of gas lighting and verbal abuse the Judge found comments about him going to hit me over the head with a cricket bat if i didnt shut up, that he was going to break my jaw if i didnt eat properly and telling me he wasnt walking down the street with a fat bird (60kg) and I better waddle so passersby knew i was pregnant (4m onwards) jokes and part of his personality. I think Jugdes need some education as these were so hurtful and broke he. Telling my 2m old he would batter her if she threw up again was put down to him being Northern. We need a change in the court system….maybe I should have had Stowe as my lawyers I might not have spent 35k I didnt have.

  2. Rosie says:

    Apologies if this isn’t the place for a query….. I’m nearly forty and only realised the crazy behaviour from my mum that forced me out of a home and left me homeless as a child has a name ! gaslighting! makes sense now…
    Not sure I could go through with it but has anyone ever taken someone to court to try and get one of these types of people just to shut up and think about how much harm they’ve done? meanwhile claiming damages of £1?
    From my side it was never about competing over money/glory/grudges…. It just hurts to be stomped on (in private only so it stays a secret) when ur innocent kid every day……

  3. Susan says:

    Can you be gaslighted and stonewalled at the same time?

  4. Theresa says:

    I’m dealing with gaslighting and stonewalling from my mom. I still live with her and don’t know what to do about it. Have tried everything I can think of. The good news is now I know what it is and why I had such a messed up childhood onto adulthood. Any suggestions are appreciated

    • Sally Shakespeare says:

      Hi Theresa. Thank you for your comments which I have passed to our client care team who will be in touch. Best wishes

  5. Dave says:

    Into third year of divorce. Ex still hasn’t submitted all her bank statements. Have felt the effects of gas lighting over the years, terrible experience for which I still have therepy. It got to the stage where i doubted my own sanity, I ended up recording conversations etc as I thought I may go mad. My solicitor doesn’t quite understand, its very difficult for her to get her head around. My ex successfully carries on, whilst the nightmares for me never leave. Never underestimate the effects of Gas lighting it literally saps away your soul and sanity

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