Domestic Violence
'Gaslighting' is a form of emotional abuse where one person makes the other doubt themselves and distrust their own memory.
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Anupriya* and Arunesh* had gone on a holiday in 2014. The couple had been together for over three years and this was a big step – this was the first time Anupriya was meeting her boyfriend’s cousins, who had accompanied them for the vacation.

One night, the group was sitting and having a few drinks at a beachside restaurant. Anupriya was dancing with one of Arunesh’s female cousins. Suddenly she felt someone behind her. Seeing a strange man trying to dance with her, she moved away immediately. She then turned to look at Arunesh, but he had already disappeared.

Anupriya found him on the beach, outside the restaurant. He was clearly angry.

She knew it was because of the man who had tried to dance with her. She tried asking him about it, but he refused to talk to her. The whole thing happened as Arunesh's cousins watched. Humiliated and fuming, Anupriya broke down, and they had to go back to the hotel.

The next day, Arunesh accused her of creating a scene in front of cousins. Aupriya felt guilty, and admitted that she may have been dancing in a way that had made the man make a move. She felt terrible of embarrassing Arunesh in front of his family.

***

Bengaluru-based Revathy* had been seeing Manish* for about a year. They met each other in 2012 when the latter, a PhD scholar from Hyderabad, had come to Bengaluru in an exchange programme to the college where Revathy was doing her Masters. He eventually went back, and the couple was in a long-distance relationship.

Revathy wanted to speak with Manish over Skype, but most times, he would refuse, claiming that he wasn’t a “talking person”. But the few times they did Skype, Manish would try to convince Revathy to strip for him on camera.

“I wasn’t comfortable with it. I didn’t want to have such intimate videos of me online anywhere. When I told him, he called me paranoid,” she recounts.

Manish taunted Revathy for being a ‘prude’, until one day she started thinking she was one. “After that, whenever he wanted to have cyber sex, I did not protest,”  she says.

But Revathy has no fond memories about this. “When something is fun, intimate, you think about it later. It cheers you up. I would just avoid thinking about it. That’s how I realised later that it was coercion. I may have said yes, but it was only because he made me believe that I was actually paranoid and a prude. Not because I wanted to,” she says, bitterly.

***

Anupriya and Arunesh were together for four years and broke up in 2015. Revathy and Manish dated for two years.

What is common between Revathy and Anupriya is that they are both victims of gaslighting.

What is gaslighting?

The term ‘gaslighting’ is derived from a 1938 play called ‘Gas Light’, which was adapted into an American film by the same title in 1944. In the narrative, a man emotionally manipulates his wife by dimming the lights, which are powered by gas. When the woman points this out, the husband denies that there is any change in the lighting at all, ultimately making her believe that what she was seeing was not real.  

“Gaslighting is when you're made to believe something is your fault when it's not. You doubt yourself and begin to distrust your own memory, thinking it's something you have done that has caused the problem, or provoked a reaction against you,” Swetha Shankar, psycho-social manager at  PCVC (International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care), a Chennai-based NGO, tells TNM.

A victim of gaslighting can belong to any gender.

“The abuser can also manipulate the narrative, and done over time, it makes the victim question their own version of events,” Swetha adds, differentiating it from other forms of emotional abuse.

“When we work with domestic violence survivors, they don't know what gaslighting is. They say things like 'I make a lot of mistakes', 'I am so clumsy', 'I should maybe have done that'. They go back and forth and play out versions where they could have done something to prevent the abuse. The self-blaming characteristic is also a big part of gaslighting," Swetha explains.

‘I’m not good enough’

Chennai-based independent filmmaker Vaishnavi married Ashish* in 2010, when she was 23, after dating him for a year. The couple got divorced in 2015 by mutual consent.

Vaishnavi says Ashish seemed like everything she had been looking for in a partner. They moved overseas where Ashish was working, after marriage. One of the issues she faced with him was that he never wanted to have sex with her.

“It was very confusing in the beginning. Later I realised he was manipulating me into thinking I didn’t want it because he did not. It took me two years to ask him why we weren’t having sex. He just said he was busy with work and I was making him feel uncomfortable,” Vaishnavi narrates. “I felt terrible for putting him in that spot.”

When Vaishnavi and Ashish decided to move back to India, she believed the pressure would ease and they could finally get intimate.

“But when it came down to actually doing it, he sat across me, and said that he had told me many times before that he didn’t want to have sex with me. But this was the first time I heard him say it so conclusively,” Vaishnavi says.

What’s more, Vaishnavi found out later that Ashish had told his friends that they were in an open marriage. They never had a discussion on this. She suspects he was cheating on her too.

All this while, Vaishnavi kept feeling she was not doing right by Ashish. What confused her more were some of his 'caring' gestures like bringing medication at late night when she was suffering from menstrual cramps, and so on.

When it came to her feelings and what she wanted however, he would make her feel guilty for wanting those things. “I would feel like I am not good enough. I’d think, here’s this man who loves and cares for me, and I keep wanting more,” Vaishnavi shares.

‘It’s all in your head’

Arunesh and Anupriya had trust issues from the very beginning.  There had been multiple incidents where he made her feel like she had ‘allowed’ men to flirt with her, and it had been her fault.

Once, she was interning in Sikkim and Arunesh had an office inauguration in Bengaluru. He wanted her to fly down to attend it and booked her tickets, not taking ‘no’ for an answer. She did not get leave and was unable to attend the event.

Later, Arunesh told her, “I was going to introduce you to my parents, but it’s good you did not come. You’re not worth it.” Anupriya ended up feeling it had been her fault. 

“He would tell me that I was ‘overthinking’ when I would try to defend myself. ‘That’s just how it is,’ he would say. Ultimately, I would get convinced that I was doing something wrong,” Anupriya says.

“I know now that he manipulated me and it wasn’t my fault,” the 27-year-old architect adds. “But my mind is very clogged. I don’t know what is true or not regarding our relationship. Sometimes, I still blame myself for why we couldn’t work some issues out.”

Revathy, meanwhile, says that Manish’s favourite word to describe her was “irrational”. He was four years older to her, and claimed to be a feminist. “He would tell me to think independently, but if I did and it didn’t agree with him, suddenly I was the one who wasn’t smart enough or the hypocrite,” she narrates.

For instance, he made her feel like she could not differentiate her beliefs from her conditioning.

“We were talking about where the relationship was going. When I told him that I’d like to get married, he said monogamy isn’t natural and that I had been brainwashed by society. I told him I knew what he meant but I still wanted to get married. He just ridiculed me,” Revathy says.

At one point, she even agreed to explore polyamory, on his insistence. However, when she actually went on a date with a man and had sex with him, Manish slut shamed her and called her a hypocrite.  

Isolating the victim

Almost all abusers prey on their victim by isolating them from anyone who would help them. This ultimately makes the victim more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.

Arunesh had a problem if Anupriya spoke to certain friends who had tried to point out that Arunesh was manipulating her.

Vaishnavi realised a few years into the marriage that Ashish did everything in his power to make sure she was dependent on him, and that she had to be there for him at all times.

“He would get drunk and call me when I was at my film shoots, saying he was drunk, had broken some glass and I was the only one he had,” she says. “Other times, if I ever seemed confident about my work and what I was doing, he would just rip it apart, and my confidence with it.”

Anyone can be an abuser

Gaslighting is not limited to intimate partner relationships alone. An abuser can be anyone – even a friend, parent, or colleague. Essentially, anyone who has both power and an emotional hold over you.

Revathy, who is now pursuing a PhD from a reputed institute in Bengaluru, recently complained against her mentor, who sexually harassed her, and over a period of time, gaslighted her.

“He made me overwork to a point where it took a toll on my health – both physically and emotionally. When I told him I wanted to quit, he said that he would die if I left, and that he needed me to be there. He guilted me into staying each time,” Revathy shares.

“Later, he badmouthed my colleagues who were supposed to work with me on my projects and isolated me from all of them. He was the only one I was talking to,” she adds.

‘I can’t trust anyone’

Vaishnavi describes herself as a very romantic person. “But I am too terrified to venture down that path again. I literally cannot trust anyone.”

Anupriya and Revathy feel similarly. While Anupriya would like to move forward, she finds herself very anxious before going on a date. “I keep thinking I will do something stupid to upset the other person. So I’ve just decided to take a break from dating altogether,” Anupriya says.

Revathy also points out that there is a lot of stigma associated with being emotionally manipulated. “I feel like an idiot, like I’m incompetent… like I wasn’t smart enough to figure out what he was doing to me.”  

Realising you’ve been gaslighted

All three women TNM spoke to said that they did not realise they were being gaslighted when they were with their abusers, even though there were other people who alerted them to it.

“The thing about gaslighting relationships is that you wouldn’t know that you were in one until you’re out of it,” Vaishnavi observes. “You’re pulled towards the abuser, which will keep you constantly seeking validation. And you’ll be manipulated into being the best punching bag ever.”

*names changed

(Edited by Sowmya Rajendran)