“Imagine yourself in a pot of water,” Dr Abigael San, a chartered clinical psychologist, is saying. “Bear with me. The pot of water is your relationship. Initially, it’s very pleasant. There might be a few times – small occasions of your partner tell you that there’s something wrong with you, perhaps, that you are emotionally immature, that you have a mental health problem – which turn the temperature up slightly. It makes you doubt yourself and to accommodate the other person by apologising or covering things up, but you can stand the heat.
“But it continues. And then, years later, you realise you’re accommodating the other person enormously and tolerating so much and your own self-esteem is lower and lower. And it’s then that you realise that the pot of water you’re in is boiling. At the beginning, you would never have just jumped into the pot of boiling water – it’s just that the heat has been turned up very slowly; so slowly that you barely notice it until that boiling point. That’s one way of describing what it feels like when a partner gaslights you.”
Last night, a fiery argument between Love Islanders Amber Gill and Michael Griffiths generated another conversation about gaslighting – and the more subtle ways it can lurk between the lines. As Amber was confronted by Michael’s decision to ditch their “relationship” and couple-up with Joanna instead, he became defensive. “There were situations where I felt that she wasn’t that into me and it was quite apparent,” he said to the complete surprise of everyone else.
“I wasn’t staying true to myself, I was biting my tongue in situations I wouldn’t usually bite my tongue in and overlooking things that I wouldn’t usually overlook.”
He continued. “Stop raising your voice,” snapped at a clearly very calm Amber. “You made me not open up.”
“You disrespect me,” he said, publicly admonishing her as a defence for his own actions.
Tellingly, he refused to apologise, despite having behaved in a clearly hurtful way.
It went on, uncomfortably so. The episode generated more than 200 OfCom complaints and sparked calls for Michael to be kicked out of the Majorcan villa. To Amber’s great credit, she simply absorbed Michael’s (ironically) childish outburst and side-stepped the blame game. But his own frustrations showed his true intentions – and underlined that this was a clear example of gaslighting. The less Amber reacted – and the less power Michael realised he had over her emotions – the angrier Michael became.
We all know the feeling of conflict in a relationship. Perhaps some of us have known it too well – in relationships that soar and plummet in quick succession, or feel like walking through mud for the promise of clarity on the other side. Relationships are complicated, joyous, hideous things that have the power to twist and warp us from the inside out. It’s that power that can give them strength to change us for the better – but when the power is in the wrong hands, it’s easy to reach boiling point.
There is something very particular about men who attempt to undermine others by using “emotional maturity”. And there is little anyone can do when they stand accused of being “incapable of communication”. It’s an obviously belittling tactic that unwittingly reveals the accuser’s self-centric mode of play: that they have a way they would like you to behave, and you will suffer the consequences if you don’t conform.
To an extent we are all guilty of this – but says, Dr San, when it is used to shift responsibility away from themselves, there is a problem.
“The function of gaslighting is to shift responsibility away from oneself,” she explains, “so that the person themselves doesn’t have to own any of the issues that are causing the problems. And it makes the other person look kind of bad so that they lose their standing, in a way.
“In turn that makes more people think the victim is wrong, and bolsters the accuser’s consistent justifications and power.”
It’s important to remember that gaslighting is not always done consciously or maliciously, she says – and some of the “trickery” is about how we’re kidding ourselves because “we don’t like to be wrong”.
“It’s done because we all feel better when it’s someone else’s fault. Often in relationships when these dynamics are operating because a partner doesn’t want to be wrong. So they’ll zone in on all the character flaws of the other person to paint them in an irrational light so that everyone else can ‘see’ how right they are. Frequently it comes about as a barrier to feeling any anxiety and to destabilise another person.”
San says that the characteristics of someone who needs to be right about things. “It’s a very self-centred person who might be more likely to gaslight; someone who cannot see the world from another person’s point of view. Someone who is a rigid thinker and cannot be flexible.
“And probably someone who is more insecure and needs to garner this power by showing that another person is wrong.”
That’s also likely the reason that Michael was so desperately trying to change the narrative – only, with millions of people watching, that’s not going to stick this time. Still, calling out this behaviour as incredibly unhealthy, unfair and ultimately potentially damaging, is important. Amber was gracious in an already upsetting situation. Thankfully, it was only Michael who reached boiling point this time, of his own accord.