You may have noticed the word 'gaslighting' popping up in the media recently but what does it mean and what are the warning signs? We spoke with Margaret Martin, Director of Women's Aid Ireland, to find out.

What is gaslighting?
'Gaslighting' is a term that describes the action of psychologically manipulating a person, or a group of people, into doubting themselves; their memory, their perception or even their sanity. 

The term comes from the movie Gaslight (1944) - adapted from Patrick Hamilton's 1938 play - starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.

The Oscar-winning film follows Paula (Bergman) and Gregory (Boyer), a couple who fall in love and move into Paula's deceased aunt's house in London. Before long, viewers are left to call Gregory's motives into question as he repeatedly tricks Paula into believing she's forgetful, confused and possibly unwell. 

At one point, operating on a floor that Paula believes to be boarded up, Gregory causes the gas lights in the house to dim and flicker, but when Paula questions this, she is told she is imagining things. 

French-born American actor Charles Boyer talking to Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman in the film Gaslight. 1944
Actor Charles Boyer talking to actress Ingrid Bergman in the film Gaslight (1944)

What are the signs of gaslighting?
Margaret Martin, Director of Women's Aid Ireland, told RTÉ LifeStyle that the term 'gaslighting' is relatively new but is often used by women who ring the service to describe emotional abuse which can show itself in a number of ways.

"Women would use that term themselves to talk about how they're made to feel that they are imagining things or how they're being undermined. 

"Very often we hear about how she [the caller] tends to leave her keys in a particular place for the car or the house and he [her partner] moves them.

"It can be small things but it is somebody who knows you - it's about trying to unhinge you," she explained.

sad woman
Women's Aid received 10,281 disclosures of emotional abuse in 2017

Is gaslighting illegal?
In 2019, a bill outlawing psychological abuse in relationships was passed in the Dáil. 

The act of "coercive control" being recognised as a serious offence follows an annual report from Women's Aid Ireland which revealed 10,281 disclosures of emotional abuse and 1,443 of financial abuse alongside 3,502 disclosures of physical abuse and 607 of sexual abuse in 2017.

Martin says she hopes this move will lead to more training for Gardaí, court personnel and judges so that they are better able to identify the signs of emotional abuse in domestic violence situations.

"There is a need to up the capacity of people who are going to respond to somebody who is experiencing coercive control. The danger with something like coercive control is that people look at it and think it's all very vague.

"There are women who have been killed and there was never any physical violence there was just emotional abuse - the only reason I say 'just' is because people tend to dismiss it - and people end up being killed, maybe when they try to separate.

"It's really important that state agencies take these things seriously and realise that you don't always need a bruise to be abused."

Womens Aid Report 2017
Women's Aid Report 2017

What can you do if you witness or experience gaslighting?
According to Martin, talking about the situation and reaching out to Women's Aid is the best thing to do if you are the subject or the witness of emotional abuse.

Abusers can often use repetitive tactics that can leave victims feeling isolated and confused, speaking about this manipulation can help to make the situation clearer and make the victim feel less alone.

"If you've been punched, if you have a broken bone, if you have a bruise, if you have a cut - you can see it so you know it's not your imagination and you don't need to make sense of it [in the same way]. You'd have other levels of distress," she explained.

"In terms of emotional abuse, what we're talking about is more vague; it's about feeling nervous about their partner or their reaction so being able to talk that out [is helpful].

"What happens in that conversation is that women start to see much more of what's actually happening to them and the patterns of his behaviours."

upset teen girl
You don't need a bruise to be abused

Does gaslighting only happen in romantic relationships?
Gaslighting is not limited to romantic relationships. It can happen within any situation whether it be with family, friends, colleagues or even en masse in a political context.

American journalist Lauren Duca famously wrote an article titled Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America, for Teen Vogue in which she accused Trump of manipulating the truth and, therefore, the country.

She wrote: "There is a long list of receipts when it comes to Trump's lies. With the help of PolitiFact, clear-cut examples of deception include Trump saying that he watched thousands of people cheering on 9/11 in Jersey City (police say there's no evidence of this), that the Mexican government forces immigrants into the U.S. (no evidence), that there are '30 or 34 million' immigrants in this country (there are 10 or 11 million), that he never supported the Iraq War (he told Howard Stern he did), that the unemployment rate is as high as '42 percent' (the highest reported rate is 16.4 percent), that the U.S. is the highest taxed country in the world (not true based on any metric of consideration), that crime is on the rise (it's falling, and has been for decades), and too many other things to list here because the whole tactic is to clog the drain with an indecipherable mass of toxic waste.

"The gas lighting part comes in when the fictions are disputed by the media, and Trump doubles down on his lies, before painting himself as a victim of unfair coverage, sometimes even threatening to revoke access."

If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing domestic abuse you can call Women Aid's 24hr National Freephone Helpline on 1800 341900.