The Impact of “Gaslighting” in Domestic Violence Situations

Gaslighting-DV-300x199In domestic violence cases, whether in protective order hearings or during a trial, the term “gaslighting” is often used to describe a pattern of behavior in which the defendant’s denial of wrongdoing actually furthers the abuse. In reality, gaslighting IS a form of abuse, and if you do it to your partner, the state gives your partner recourse against you. But in this day and age, if you’re accused of domestic violence, false allegations of “gaslighting” can actually strengthen an unfair case against you. Let’s delve deeper into the subject of gaslighting–what the term means, how it can further a pattern of abuse, and how it could even be used against you in a domestic violence case.

What is Gaslighting? 

In California, domestic violence is defined as abuse committed against an intimate partner, cohabitant, or family member. This abuse can take many forms, including physical, emotional, sexual, economic, and psychological abuse. “Gaslighting” is a type of psychological abuse in which the abuser attempts to make the victim doubt their own perceptions, memories, and even sanity in order to keep the victim under their abusive control. The term “gaslight” comes from a British stage play Gas Light, later remade into the famous film Gaslight starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, in which a husband uses trickery to convince his wife she is losing her mind.

Gaslighting can be done in a variety of ways, including making false accusations, denying that certain events took place, or withholding information from the victim. Nowadays, it may also involve using technology, such as getting into the victim’s phone or computer and manipulating evidence. By doing these things, the abuser can create a false narrative that suggests they were not at fault in the abuse–that the victim is imagining things.

How Can Gaslighting be Used to Further Abuse? 

Gaslighting can have a profound impact on domestic violence cases because it is used to keep a victim under control through false illusions. Victims of gaslighting may second-guess themselves and their memories of what happened. They may also be less likely to come forward and report the abuse out of fear that they will not be believed. Thus, the pattern of abuse is perpetuated.

Even worse, gaslighting can be used to make a false case against the victim. The abuser may fabricate evidence or witnesses in order to suggest that the victim is not telling the truth about what happened, or even that the victim is initiating the violence! This can be damaging in court proceedings because if the manipulated evidence is convincing enough, the victim’s credibility can be harmed.

How the State of California Views Gaslighting

The cruel truth about gaslighting is that by its very nature, it’s difficult to prove. However, the state of California does recognize it as a form of psychological abuse, and victims have recourse in the law to seek protection. In fact, with the passing of California’s new Coercive Control law, victims of domestic violence now have the legal right to seek protective orders against their abusers on the grounds of a “pattern of behavior that unreasonably interferes with a person’s free will and personal liberty,” rather than pointing to a specific instance of abuse. Since gaslighting clearly falls into the category of a “pattern of behavior,” victims can now seek legal protection from it. Thus, ironically, the tactic many abusers have used in the past to keep domestic violence victims under their control can now be used as a reason for a victim to seek a protective order–even if there is insufficient evidence to charge the abuser with a crime.

How Accusations of Gaslighting Can Hurt You If You Are Accused

While it is important for victims of domestic violence to have recourse against their abusers, there are concerns that the new legal protections for victims can also be manipulated to raise false accusations of domestic violence–and, by extension, make it more difficult for those who are falsely accused to exonerate themselves, and more likely that they will face penalties for their alleged actions. 

To illustrate, let’s suppose you are having marital troubles with your spouse, and she wants a divorce with full custody of the children. However, knowing that California won’t award her full custody without just cause, she accuses you of domestic violence—which may immediately result in a temporary restraining order or even get you arrested. Of course, there’s no physical evidence of domestic abuse–you’ve argued a lot, but things never got physical—so it’s doubtful that any criminal charges could stick. However, because she can now claim you exerted “coercive control” against her as a form of abuse, she might petition the court for a protective order against you by claiming that you controlled her emotionally or financially, and that you gaslighted her to keep her from coming forward with it. Under the law, even if there is insufficient evidence to charge you with a crime, if your accuser can convince the judge with minimal evidence that coercive control occurred, the judge may then issue a protective order against you. That order not only forces you to leave your home and your family, but it can now be used against you in a child custody battle.

Another way that accusations of gaslighting could be used is to strengthen the credibility of your accuser in a hearing or trial. If, for example, your accuser is questioned as to why they waited so long to come forward with allegations of domestic violence, “I was gaslighted” may be seen as a believable answer.

What to Do if You Are Accused

If you are accused of domestic violence (including gaslighting) in the State of California, remember that being accused does not mean you are guilty. You have a right to legal representation and to challenge any evidence or testimony presented against you. However, the strengthened protections of the law for accusers make it all the more crucial never to attempt to face accusations of domestic violence without the help of an experienced attorney. We’re here to help. Call our office for a consultation today.

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