Every once in a while, I come across an article, and I immediately recognize
the issue as one that comes up frequently in a divorce context. I came
across such an article by Yashar Ali titled “A Message to Women
from A Man: You Are Not Crazy”. In the article, Ali describes a
scenario in which a man will tell a woman that she is too sensitive, or
that she is crazy,
or that she doesn’t remember things that clearly happen, which has the result of the woman believing that she is crazy, that she is the problem. The psychological term for such a pattern of behavior is known as “gaslighting.” The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman, in which the woman receives an inheritance, and is courted by and then marries the man, whose goal is to have her committed to a mental institution, so that he can access the money. The husband intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker, and then tells the wife that she is seeing things, that the lights are not really flickering, and that she must be crazy.
The pattern of behavior is not just limited to attempts to convince the
other person that they are mentally ill, but to convincing the other person
of any negative trait. An example would be making unkind comments about
a person’s weight, repeatedly, and when the behavior is called out,
the perpetrator of the unkind comments would respond “You are so
sensitive! I’m just kidding, why do you have to be such a drama
queen all the time?” Now, the person has received negative
comments about her weight, and about her ability to interact with people and her inability to have a balanced perspective.
What is missing? The unkind comments have not been addressed. By making a new negative comment, the real problem of the unkind comments can be shoved aside.
Culturally, women are more conditioned to value relationships, and to take
actions which are non-confrontational. Women will apologize for having
an opinion before they offer the opinion. When talking, women will often
shoulders in to appear less threatening, and when speaking, have inflictions that make their statements questions rather than opinions. Women are given approval when they are self-sacrificing for others, particularly their children or husbands, at the
cost of their own self-worth. Women have also had the reaction from early childhood that if they have a strong opinion
that a man disagrees with, she is told that she is a bitch, or emotionally cold, or unfeminine. By the same token,
when a man has a strong opinion, he is often culturally perceived as strong and authoritative. His strength of opinion
makes him more masculine. Men are also not encouraged, again from early childhood on, to express their feelings, or to identify their feelings and to value the feelings of others.
Now, gaslighting refers to the intentional emotional manipulation of one
person by another, to cause self-doubt, for personal
gain. You don’t have to go far to see any number of reality shows in which unkind and insulting comments are made,
and audiences cheer when one person is emotionally abusive and the other person is emotionally hurt. When that kind of
behavior is considered popular entertainment, it is hard to defend against a charge of being “too sensitive” and “too emotional” when you are insulted by someone with whom you have an emotionally intimate relationship. The statements may not even be consciously manipulative, just thoughtless. The purpose of the thoughtless statement, however, is to gain power over the other person. If you experience repeated demeaning behavior from someone with whom who have an intimate relationship, spanning years, it can be a significant blow to your self-esteem.
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