Domestic abuse charities are calling for greater awareness of the signs of ‘gaslighting’ to help the police, medical and legal professionals identify and support victims of psychological abuse.
In 2015, coercive control was recognised by the Serious Crimes Act as a dangerous and damaging form of emotional abuse. Gaslighting shares many similarities with this type of controlling behaviour and it’s important that it should be recognised by professionals working with victims – particularly during divorce and separation, when they may be at their most vulnerable.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulative psychological abuse that causes victims to doubt themselves and involves controlling behaviour that isolates the victim from friends and family, becoming reliant on their abuser. The term originates from the 1944 film Gaslight which portrayed a woman who is slowly convinced by her husband that she is going mad.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, describes it as “a horrible form of power and control [that] distracts attention from the partner’s abusive behaviour and puts the spotlight on the victim.”
Victims often find it difficult to believe that they deserve help, while the abusive partner shows a very different outward face to the one behind closed doors, meaning that friends and family are often unaware that anything untoward is going on. This has the effect of reinforcing the victim’s belief that they are making it all up, keeping them trapped in their situation.
Ms Ghose has urged the government to focus on the insidious nature of gaslighting and other forms of psychological domestic abuse, which can be difficult to recognise:
“We need more awareness of existing law and a real understanding among professionals of the dynamics of domestic abuse, what is going on behind closed doors, and an understanding that professionals can fall victim to the manipulations of the perpetrator.
A clever, charming, manipulative perpetrator may pull the wool over the eyes of the police officer or the judge in the family court.”
Since its inclusion in the Serious Crimes Act in 2015, coercive control carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and has led to 300 prosecutions. Gaslighting is an all-too-common form of abuse and deserves similar recognition in the family court to protect victims and better educate legal professionals of its effects.
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