Psychological abuse is a very damaging and insidious form of abuse that is usually very hard to pinpoint even if you are a highly observant person. A victim will often have a sense that something is wrong, but may struggle to identify the real cause of the communication issues in their marriage and the true source of their unease.
Most times, psychological abuse does not involve outwardly controlling behaviors such as raging or threatening. Instead, it usually involves the disorienting tactic of abuse called gaslighting. This tactic of abuse is used to bully a victim into silence, to cause them to lose trust in themselves, and to keep them questioning their reality.
It’s important to note that the relational goal of an abusive person who gaslights their spouse is very different than the victim’s goal.
Below is a great example of what gaslighting looks like, written by Elle Renee Arters.
Wife: Did you spend this $195 I see in our account?
Husband: No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
W: The $195 to Dick’s Sporting Goods? Your favorite store? You didn’t buy something? Because we hadn’t talked about it & now we’re under in our account.
H: I told you no. How did we go under? You’re supposed to be the one balancing our account. How did you let this happen?
W: I wasn’t expecting this expense.
H: Have you been checking our account every day?
W: Well… mostly, I didn’t check it yesterday, but I’ve been up on it every day this month.
H: Well, that’s the problem then. You should have checked it yesterday. You better call the bank right away & find out what happened. And you need to get this fixed – you know I’m going to the football game this afternoon & I’ll need money.
W: I’ll call the bank & see if we can get it reversed.
H: Maybe I need to take over handling the finances again. We really need to be able to depend on you tracking everything. Did you pay the internet bill? Or did you forget that too?
W: What? No, I paid that.
H: Are you sure? Or did you pay that because you’re always on the computer so you care about that, but you just don’t care if I hang out with the guys & go to the football game just even one time.
W: I don’t think that, of course I care, I’m glad you’re going today. I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened. I’ll see what I can do to fix it right now.
H: what a great game! (cleaning out the back of the truck & bringing in the tailgate gear to the garage)
W: did you have fun? (just finished cleaning up cereal dinner with the kids & notices some new items in the garage) wait… are those chairs & cooler new?
W: I’ve never seen those before. Did you buy those?? They’re not from Dick’s Sporting Goods, are they?
H: (greatly offended) I can’t believe you’re even saying that. Do you think I’m a liar?! I told you I didn’t buy anything.
W: Well, where did those come from?
H: What are you talking about? We’ve had these forever.
W: What?? No, I’ve never seen those before. These are brand new.
H: You’re crazy, you know we’ve had these. I told you. Greg gave them to us.
W: What??? You’ve never told me that. When did Greg give them to you? Why would he do that?
H: You know Greg, always buying the next bigger & better thing. He bought these earlier this year & then decided to get something else, so he gave these to us. They’re not even that nice compared to what he got.
W: He just gave them to you? You didn’t have to pay him anything for it? How come I haven’t seen them before?
H: (offended & angry) I don’t know why you haven’t seen them, they’ve been in the garage the whole time. Why are you asking me 100 questions? I didn’t do anything wrong. Greg’s wife doesn’t harass him when he buys stuff. I didn’t even buy anything and you’re nagging me. Not my fault you’re irritated at me for getting a night out while you were home with the kids. Stop taking out your anger on me.
W: (frustrated, confused & emotional) Seriously?! That’s not what I was doing! I’m not angry! I’ve never seen them before & I was just trying to ask you a question!!
H: Geeez, chill out, why do you have to get so hysterical all the time? I’m not even the one yelling even though you’re accusing me. I was just kidding with you. (calm & suddenly sweet & smiling. Walks over to give her a kiss). You take everything so seriously all the time. You didn’t even give me a chance to show you what I brought you. (hands her football memorabilia from the game). You act like I’m just this terrible monster who never does anything for you.
W: (confused & tired). I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I know you do stuff for me, I don’t think that. I’m sorry, thank you.
Wife doing laundry later that week & folding husband’s clothes. Notices receipts in his pocket & pulls them out. There’s a receipt for Dick’s Sporting Goods for $195. Confronts husband.
W: What is this? You told me you didn’t buy anything at Dick’s. I called the bank to file a fraudulent claim & get the charge reversed because you said you hadn’t made that purchase!!
H: (Snatches the receipts angrily). Why are you going through my stuff?
W: I was doing your laundry for you! Why did you lie to me?!
H: I didn’t lie.
W: Yes you did! You told me you didn’t buy anything!
H: I never said that.
W: What are you talking about?! That’s exactly what you said!
H: Well, what was I supposed to do? You never let me spend anything that I need. I work my butt off all day so sue me that I didn’t want to come home to you nagging & yelling at me about one little purchase for me for a change.
W: Wait, you also told me that Greg gave you these things for free! What the heck – you just made up a whole story?! I knew I wasn’t crazy, that I hadn’t seen those chairs before! Oh my word!!!
H: See, you’re freaking hysterical, I can’t even talk to you right now. You’re so controlling. (grabs the keys & heads to the door)
W: Where do you think you’re going?! We need to talk about this! You lied straight to my face. Again!
H: There’s nothing to talk about. You don’t know what you’re talking about & you’re not even open to listening to my side. You think you know everything. I don’t even know why I’m still with you some days. Just use me for my money & you don’t even give me sex every day either. (slams door & leaves).
In counseling appointment with pastor/counselor.
PC: So did you guys read the assignment & work on your communication this past week? Can you give me an example of how you’ve shown love to your wife, and how you’ve shown respect to your husband?
H: (jumps in immediately) I think this week has gone really well. (smiles at W and reaches to take her hand. W is sullen & weary & irritated by his sudden affection. H keeps pursuing & she reluctantly lets him hold her hand while he also snuggles up closer & puts his other arm around her)
PC: that’s great! I’m so pleased that you’re taking this seriously & working on your marriage. Was there any specific way you showed her love this week?
H: I went to a game with the guys this past week, and I knew she was probably tired & maybe a little jealous that I got to go out while she stayed home with the kids. Even though we were tight on money, I made sure to bring her back her favorite new tumbler that she’d been wanting.
PC: that’s great H! W, how did that make you feel to know he had done that for you?
W: (weary & quiet). Fine.
PC: (puzzled & disappointed) Just fine? He was considering how you must have felt at home by yourself & wanted to know he was thinking about you. Sounds like he was looking out for your heart, helping you know you didn’t have any reason to be jealous. That just seemed… fine, to you?
W: (realizing she had given the wrong answer) No, I wasn’t even jealous. That’s not it, it was… (sigh) very sweet, yes, it was very thoughtful of him.
PC: (pleased, affirming & smiling) Good! And W, how do you feel about this week? Was there a specific way you showed him respect?
W: (trying to figure out how to explain the lying situation. Lets go of H’s hand). Well… I did want to bring up one thing…
H: (interrupts) Well, PC, there was one more thing I wanted to talk about actually. Now, I know I shouldn’t have gotten upset, but we had a little misunderstanding about this one small purchase I made without asking her earlier this week. I know she likes to be in control of all our finances & I’m trying to do a good job leading her in how to budget & manage. She made a little mistake & our account went under. We got a little angrier than we should have at each other and I even had to leave for a bit to cool down so I didn’t say anything I’d regret. And I know I need to do a better job at that. I take full ownership for my part. But I think we did a good job working through it. Everyone makes mistakes, I’m not mad at her, we just have to keep working harder through these kinds of things. I love her, our marriage is worth it & I’m committed to making us work. (leans over to give her a kiss while she’s visibly upset).
PC: Absolutely, I’m so happy to hear you say that. Not enough good men & women take this serious enough these days. Sounds like you guys handled it well. You owned it and apologized. I’m assuming W, you did too?
W: What? No, I didn’t apologize. That’s not what happened.
PC: (puzzled, disappointed & a little irritated). Well, he just told me what happened. You never asked him for forgiveness for your part in the misunderstanding?
W: There wasn’t a misunderstanding. He lied to me about a purchase he made. He told me he didn’t buy anything at Dick’s & then he brought home chairs & a cooler that he said Ryan gave him & then I found this receipt, and…
H: (interrupts) I never said Ryan gave me those things.
W: (flustered) I meant Greg. It was Greg, right? You said he had bought those things for you because…
H: (interrupts) I never said Greg bought me those things.
W: (frustrated & flustered) Yes you did! Oh wait, I meant he brought you those things. It doesn’t matter. The point is…
PC: (interrupts) Hold on! I don’t think we want to drag all this back up. The details don’t really matter. The point is you guys had worked through it, H apologized, even gave you a gift. If you forgave him, then we really don’t need to be bringing this back up. Are you ready W to apologize so he can also extend forgiveness to you and we can move beyond this?
W: I didn’t do anything wrong!
H: (exchanges knowing look with PC & heaves a heavy, victimized sigh) I just don’t know what else to do some days. It’s like nothing I do is ever enough. I want this marriage to work, but I just don’t know if W does.
PC: (scrutinized, disapproving look at W while he takes some counseling notes on his pad of paper)
W: I’m… I’m sorry. I just, I was wanting… I don’t know. I guess… I’m sorry.
H: I forgive you. (charming smile) See, that wasn’t so hard? (light laugh & kisses her on the cheek)
W: (bewildered & silent).
Gaslighting. Minimizing. Blameshifting. Denying. Triangulation. Intimidation. Just to name a few of the tactics seen above.
This scenario plays out in relationships every.single.day.
Chronic lying will make a person feel crazy, because her reality & judgment is being assaulted – the abuser demands her reality & judgment be whatever he needs it to be to get what he wants. There is simply no respect for the other person’s truth, perspective or facts. – Elle
If you have experienced that harmful effects of gaslighting, I am praying for God to clear the fog of confusion and to give you great clarity and sharp discernment. I am also praying that God would heal your heart, restore your trust in yourself, and to bring safe people along side of you to walk through this healing journey with.
You can also visit our Esther Company resource section to find more helpful articles, books, and podcasts.
Elle Renee has a passion and calling to help hurting and wounded women. In 2011, Elle experienced significant changes in her personal life as God launched her on a dramatic, new journey as a single mother. She found herself thrust into a traumatic and painful season, and yet, supernaturally experienced new levels of freedom, rest, healing, love, hope and power, as well as a renewed hunger for the early seeds of creativity from childhood. These years that followed cultivated a fresh desire for all women to experience the same compassion, hope and freedom that she experienced in Christ, and especially women who were walking seasons of trauma, grief and abuse. As she continues to walk a life post-2011, God continues to reveal His ever-present beauty & courage within the messiness of life – teaching her how to live life art-fully.
Do you find yourself in a season of loss, chronic pain, grief, trauma, divorce, betrayal, abuse? Does it feel like your life has turned upside down unexpectedly? Do you want help moving from surviving to thriving? Do you wonder where God fits in all of this? Elle recently launched sessions for coaching and parental alienation. You can contact Elle through her website: www.ellereneestudio.com