By Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS
When thinking about domestic violence, the physical forms of violence seem to be what folks think about and hold as the most vicious form of abuse. It is true that physical and sexual abuse cause a significant amount of harm and trauma to its survivors. But let’s look at one of the actions that allow someone to maintain a level of power and control that can lead to physical abuse...gaslighting.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a specific type of manipulation done from one person to another where the manipulator succeeds in having the target question their own reality, memory, or perceptions (Wikipedia and Oxford Languages Dictionary). This can be done in many different ways by an abusive partner, from minimizing the abusive experience:
“Oh my God. You are over-exaggerating. That didn’t really hurt.”
To telling you how you do or do not feel:
“You're not actually sad, you are just trying to get attention.”
To challenging your perceptions of a situation:
“Wow! That’s not how I remember it at all. Did you take your meds this morning?”
These are all horrible and clearly not a fully inclusive list; I hear new ways gaslighting is done by abusive partners all the time. But what I am pretty sure very few understand, unless they have experienced it, is how a common form of communication (or lack of communication) is used as a means of gaslighting, and it can be terrifying. No, it is not yelling and shouting obscenities in your face...it’s what is commonly known as “The Silent Treatment.”
If you have not been in a relationship where there is domestic violence or narcissistic abuse present, then this may seem CRAZY. The silent treatment, scary? And how is this used as gaslighting?
The silent treatment can be amazingly scary. This is true whether they are in the same home or if they have left the home and you have no ability to see what they are doing. Here’s why.
One of the number one survival strategies for a victim of abuse is to know the state of their partner. By the way your abusive partner comes home and throws the mail on the table, you have likely, in a matter of a seconds, calculated what you need to do and how you need to behave to decrease the likelihood of violence for that evening. Hearing the tone of voice and watching body language are paramount to making these quick decisions of how to behave. If your partner is not giving you this information, there can be extreme anxiety of how to act to ensure your own and your children’s safety.
If your partner is home but not talking to you, you still do not have all of the information needed to feel confident in how to act to prevent an increase in violence. Will he spring into violence out of nowhere? Usually, you can tell by the increase in the intensity and loudness of his voice of how violent things may become? It’s very disconcerting to say the least.
And how does the silent treatment aid in their gaslighting of you? Well, gaslighting is all about doubt, switching responsibility from themselves to you and maintaining a sense of control. And what does the silent treatment do? It creates doubt, gives you the time to assess your fault in the current situation, and gives them an extreme amount of control.
He’s not yelling in your face or hitting me...so maybe it’s something that I have done.
I must have hurt him very badly for this and need to apologize.
How long is this going to last? Being completely ignored is excruciating.
Each of these thoughts show exactly how the silent treatment can work as a gaslighting technique. You are looking at yourself to blame, he is deciding the length of your punishment, and it increases the desire to return to normal. With your self-worth already low after constant abuse, the silent treatment only takes it lower.
Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS, is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in working with victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse.