That’s not what happened; you’re overreacting. You’re crazy. I would never do that. It was just a joke. You’re so forgetful. Everyone agrees with me. You’re being paranoid.
These are the catchphrases of the gaslighter – someone who is deliberately using manipulative behaviour to make you think that your memory or understanding of something is wrong, and they are right. That you can’t trust yourself, and you need to rely on them instead. Abusers gaslight so they can gain and retain control of a relationship.
Why is gaslighting a red flag?
Gaslighting is a strategy that is intended to break down the trust you have in your memory, instincts and self-esteem. It can make you doubt yourself and depend more on the “objective” perspective of your partner – while in reality, they are taking care of only their best interests.
It’s an abusive behaviour and can be a sign of more frequent and worsening abuse to come.
What does DARVO mean?
DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim Offender. It’s a series of actions used by a perpetrator as a defence mechanism when their unkind behaviour is questioned or called out. It works to confuse you and your sense of reality.
Denying your memory or perception of an event is gas lighting. They could be denying an agreement, or a conversation, or even something physical – like hitting you.
Denying doesn’t always mean outright saying something never happened. It can also look like creating a story to explain their actions. In the example of denying a physical attack, for example, they might say something like: “Of course I didn’t hit you on purpose, you were about to hit me, so I put my hands out in defence,” – when in reality, you hadn't moved at all.
After denial comes the attack that tries to break down your credibility. The abuser might go on the offensive about your motivation for questioning them, your mental health (“you’re crazy!”), your parenting ability, your intelligence... Anything that fuels the voice in your head that says maybe they are right, and you are wrong.
They may also add extra lies like, “This is why your family doesn’t like you,” or “Everyone agrees with me on this,” which are designed to also isolate you from your friends and family.
Reverse Victim Offender
Next comes blame shifting. This is where the perpetrator manages to make you out as the one at fault. They try to make you feel bad for bringing it up in the first place, or say that it was only because of something you did first.
How to talk to your friends about gaslighting
By its nature of breaking a person’s memory of events, gaslighting can be a tricky situation to notice you’re in – let alone seek help from your friends.
A friend who is being gaslit isn’t likely to tell you it’s happening while it’s occurring. If you’re worried about a friend, keep an ear out for phrases like: “They don’t really mean it, they just...” or “...but it’s OK because I know they love me.”
They are discreetly sense checking with you – testing to see if you’ll agree with their perpetrator (like they may have been told), or that something really is off. As a friend, you can:
Ask them how they felt in the moment, and how they feel about it now.
Validate their experiences, believe them, and help them learn to trust their own memories and perceptions again.
Gently tell them if they have talked to you about these kinds of things before – reminding them that this isn’t an isolated incident.
Encourage them to keep a record – a diary, photos or videos – somewhere secure and private, where they can look back at their experiences and feelings. You could even suggest they send it to you before removing it from their device, if they are worried about their partner looking through their phone.
Showing that you are on their side and believe them is important: if someone indirectly seeking support is brushed off, that could be the difference between your friend telling their story, leaving their relationship or seeking other support – or staying in a dangerous relationship.
If you or a friend need help with gaslighting, or other types of abusive behaviour, take a look at our list of specialist crisis and support services.
Across Australia, we have a skewed view of what violence in intimate relationships actually looks like. What comes to mind is physical violence, or sexual violence – something that is much easier to categorise as “not OK”. But that type of behaviour typically doesn’t appear out of thin air. It usually follows non-physical violence – insidious behaviour that breaks down a person’s boundaries, instincts and self-esteem to gain control over their independence, autonomy and judgement.
This post is part of a series getting to know the common types of non-physical violence against women in intimate relationships (red flags), how to spot the warning signs, and how to look out for yourself and your friends.
Learn more about gas lighting from our CEO Em Maguire and women with lived experience on the There’s No Place Like Home Podcast.