"My husband makes me feel like everything is my fault," says Janice, 30, the mother of a 5-year-old. "I can't hold my own in an argument with him. He misinterprets everything I say."
When Janice first met Henry he seemed to be the most caring and charming man in the world. But these days Henry reacts with hostility to everything she says, and he's a master of the backhanded compliment. "Last week, I had my hair cut in a stylish new way. Henry said, 'Why'd you cut your hair? It looked so much better the other way.' Of course he never told me I looked good in the old style. I feel so defeated," Janice recalls.
"Henry knows I'm sensitive -- as a child I was very overweight -- yet he frequently makes critical comments about my appearance, and I feel ambushed by his outbursts."
Janice can no longer handle Henry's sneers or sarcasm. "When I'm with him, I can feel my chest and neck tightening," she says. What's more, she often wonders if maybe it is her fault that the marriage is on such shaky ground.
Henry, 34, has a very different perception of what's wrong. "Janice is simply too sensitive about perceived injustices," he says. As far as he's concerned, his wife always has to have things her way. "Half the time, I don't know what she's so upset about." As for his sneering remarks, Henry lobs that one back in Janice's court. "You should hear the way she talks to me," he continues, "ordering me around like she's my mother."
Henry, the oldest son of an overbearing mother and a passive father, was frequently demeaned, criticized and punished as a child. He learned to protect himself by maintaining as much control as possible over every situation. He loves Janice, he says, but he doesn't know how to show her.
"Like the character in 'Gas light,' the 1939 movie in which Ingrid Bergman's husband made her believe she was going blind by slowly dimming the lights, Janice is unsure of her own feelings and convinced that there's something wrong with her," notes Mark Snowman, a marriage and family therapist in New York. In truth, Henry is behaving provocatively. Abrasive and resistant to suggestions, he cleverly flips the blame back on his partner. By changing the topic, withholding information, refusing to communicate or attacking and blaming Janice, Henry is jockeying for power.
In most cases, he isn't aware of what he's doing; it's the only way he knows now to survive emotionally. While such evasive maneuvers might have been necessary when dealing with his mother, they are inappropriate in a healthy relationship.
When one partner feels "gaslighted" by another, two things must DTC happen: The attacking partner must learn to recognize his anger and deal with it more appropriately. And the partner under attack must adopt some protective skills at least temporarily.
The following advice helped Janice and Henry:
* While you may not be able to change your partner, you can change your response to his actions and set limits on behavior you deem unacceptable.
* Learn to identify clues that you are on the road to a potentially explosive interaction, and then exit the situation until you are calm enough to continue.
* Select one or two personal signals to back off. These two opted for the phrases "I can feel myself getting angry" and "Let's back off." Now, when either says these simple words, the other knows that it's time to separate and cool down.
* If you are the partner feeling victimized, try hard to express clearly the impact his words or actions have on you. Janice learned to say calmly: "When you speak to me in that way, I feel attacked." Henry learned to say: "When you hound me about matters around the house, I feel you're trying to control me."
Once these two learned to disengage before things got too hot, they had powerful tools to work through any problem.