For fools are fools and that’s that,
thinking up new ways to do mischief.
They leave a wake of wrecked lives
and lies about God,
Turning their backs on the homeless hungry,
ignoring those dying of thirst in the streets.
Isaiah 32:6 (The Message)
The Bible has much to say about foolishness and the way of fools. As opposed to being unintelligent, fools are consistently depicted as being unwise and uncaring (as in the passage above). In some close relationships, there can be a particular form of uncaring that is colloquially referred to as “gas lighting”. This is a manifestation of emotional disregard that is focused on invalidation, manipulation, and control. People who utilize gas lighting may or may not have narcissistic tendencies.
For the person on the receiving end of this destructive behavior, they can begin to feel as if they are actually “unstable” or “crazy”. The invalidation results in a questioning of reality and intuition. The person’s ability to make decisions is significantly undermined to the point of emotional dependence on the manipulator. Such items as self-confidence, self-esteem, pride in oneself, self-efficacy and insight creation are severely eroded if not altogether destroyed.
In many cases the manipulation is not initially experienced but develops over time. The initial charm of the gas lighter is replaced with consistent undermining. For astute observers (outside of the relationship), the situation appears to be a “bait and switch”, which is a term that connotes the replacement of initial attractiveness with more sinister actions. If a partner lures the other with words of encouragement or support, and then turns to putting that person down for their emotions, or challenges, that is excruciatingly painful and damaging. It can even feel like the ends of literal hooks sinking into the heart and then being yanked hard with the "switch".
When there is a partner in a relationship who employs this very destructive practice, it can be very challenging for the relationship to survive and even more difficult, perhaps impossible, to thrive. The partner on the receiving end of this behavior needs to pay attention to this. Boundaries are important here and perhaps one of the most relevant one is choosing what and how much to reveal to that unsafe partner. A person who is psychologically unsafe is very destructive to the well-being of others – and can have the effect of stifling others’ success and expression.
Because gas lighting is insipid and hidden, it can be difficult for the casual observer to notice and validate. Within the relationship, it creates multiple spaces that are absent of psychological safety. The perpetrator struggles to own their part in conflict. They demean, attack, and blame the other partner for all the “wrongs” in the relationship. Some common phrases of use are:
“It’s your fault!”
“You started it!”
“Here you go with your drama!”
“You are the biggest problem!”
“Here we go with your tantrum!”
"It's all in your mind"
"You are imagining that/you are making stuff up!"
Often, relationships remain stuck in this negative cycle of psychologically damaging experiences for many years.
Gas lighting is a real and significant issue in some relationships and while it can be overcome, it takes significant work from both partners.
If you think you are in relationship that is characterized by high levels of invalidation, criticism, judging, labeling, attacking, blaming, discriminating, acting superior to, dictating, deceiving, discouraging [and more can be added to this list], then you might be the victim of a gas lighter. The first step towards creating greater levels of safety for yourself is to confidentially share with someone who loves and supports you. If there is no such person in your orbit, then reaching out to experienced counselors will help to create a place of acceptance, value, and healing for you.