Published on September 14, 2023

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is clear that emotional abuse is a form of domestic abuse.

Gaslighting is a kind of emotional manipulation when the perpetrator slowly alters the perception the victim has of him or herself and world around them.

Gaslighting may include (but it is not limited to) persistent lying, undermining victims’ confidence, thinking, reasoning and intelligence,  encouraging the feelings of guilt, questioning victim’s sanity, their perception of reality, including past and present events, questioning victims perception of other people and their actions, encouraging feelings of inadequacy. It may focus on criticising victim’s looks, choices or set of beliefs. Perpetrators may switch between charm and anger making the victim feel constantly on edge and encouraging the feeling that the victim is responsible for the perpetrator’s change of mood. It generally affects victim’s self-esteem and as it is perpetrated over a long period of time the victim may not even be aware that it is happening. It can start with perpetrator making little, seemingly insignificant suggestions and corrections to the victim’s way of behaving, thinking, likes and dislikes and slowly but surely its likely to grow and expand to encompass many (if not all) of victim’s thinking and perceptions about themselves and about the world around them.

It is hugely difficult for victims themselves to recognise perpetrator’s actions as gaslighting as with time their perception of the world and themselves can become entirely aligned with that of the perpetrator and therefore in victim’s own eyes, they are at fault, they are the ones that need to change their behaviour and actions.

It is not unusual for victims to disbelieve anyone and everyone that attempts to point emotionally abusive and manipulating behaviours of the perpetrators to them and completely side with the perpetrator against any outside influences.

Eventually, gaslighting is likely to achieve social isolation of the victim, loss of their self-esteem and even loss of their own identity. It will achieve complete and unhealthy reliance on the perpetrator, making any breaking away from the perpetrator harder and harder.

Breaking the cycle of abuse, however, is not impossible. It is undoubtedly hard and difficult step for the victim to take, making them feel worse, helpless and at the rock bottom, before they can start re-building themselves.

What is gaslighting? How can you prove it in court?

Due to its very nature, it is difficult for victims to pursue allegations of gaslighting in court. It is difficult for victims to describe and put into words individual instances of perpetrator’s manipulating behaviours, particularise and compartmentalise manipulations that have become part of their own being and their own belief system.

However, with careful analysis of perpetrator’s past behaviours, descriptions of victim’s changed life experiences and perceptions it is possible to show to the court that the victim has been subjected to gaslighting behaviours.

The case of RE: H-N and others (Children) (Domestic Abuse: finding of fact hearing) [2021] EWCA Civ 448 is particularly significant in my view, in victims’ abilities to pursue allegations of gaslighting in court.  It is no longer necessary for victims to plead and evidence individual and specific allegations of domestic abuse. Instead, the courts are now encouraged to consider perpetrators’ behaviours in a wider context, looking for patterns of perpetrators’ actions that amount to coercive, abusive, controlling and gaslighting behaviour. It is no longer necessary to plead individual actions of abuse in schedule of allegations, which would make pleading gaslighting behaviour almost impossible. It is now possible to seek findings on wider patterns of abusive behaviours which, in their totality may amount to gaslighting.

In my view the above case made the ability of the victim to plead gaslighting behaviour in family court that little bit easier.

Victims should be encouraged to talk about all perpetrators’ behaviours with their lawyers, support workers and others assisting them in working through the abuse they suffered. In my view, only with discourse around perpetrators’ actions and understating the change in victims’ life experiences patterns of behaviours that amount to gaslighting behaviour will be identified. Victims should be encouraged to speak about their experiences in abusive relationship as a whole, rather than focusing on actions and behaviours they themselves consider abusive.

Irena Osborne contributed to ‘Separating With Children 101′, 3rd edition, (Bath Publishing, 2023)

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The Early Days Of Separation

Humans are designed to cope with many onslaughts, but change continues to prove extremely challenging. How you manage the early days of separation or divorce has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the process.

When couples separate, they are often thrown into a period of uncertainty. Identities are changing from couple to single, from mum and dad together as a family unit to mum with children and dad with children. Depending on the circumstances and who decides to leave the family home, there are many questions that arise during the early days of separation. “Will we have to sell our home?” “I haven’t worked since we had children – how will we manage financially?” “What will our friends and family think?” “How much will divorce cost?”
“Will I cope on my own?” There seems to be so much to sort out both practically and emotionally and it comes at a time when at least one of you will be ‘all over the place’ emotionally due to the loss you are experiencing. This can make decision-making seem impossible. Who wants to agree the practicalities of legal issues and more importantly organise the children when they are devastated, angry and confused by loss? It can turn otherwise rational, clear-thinking mums and dads into what appears to be belligerent, stubborn, unreasonable people.

Take Your Time!

In those early days of separation or divorce, take your time if you can. Seek support from friends, family and professionals. Try not to make any big decisions too quickly.
Bear in mind that communication problems with your ex and all the pressures on family life you are now experiencing, like for many separating couples, will get better with time. It’s important to recognise that you and your ex will more than likely be in very different emotional places at the moment; different stress levels and anxieties will be making communication difficult. Taking the time to sometimes do nothing, to not react, give things a day or two, can prove very useful techniques.
What you have to remember is that if you have children, your ex is always going to be part of your life. That can be hard to take on board when you are feeling hurt and angry. If you can find a way to communicate with each other that focuses on the children, you will all benefit in the years to come.

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