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Gaslighting and coercive control

April 28, 2021 Speech Box

Do you know a victim of gaslighting? It’s a form of coercive control that is surprisingly recognisable once you acknowledge its existence. Clients who come to us having experienced this type of abuse by their partner are invariably in a very delicate state.

Earlier this week the BBC published this story about Ruth Dodsworth, an ITV Wales presenter who was  harassed and stalked by her ex-husband for years, said it was the ‘best thing’ her story went public recently as it gave her a platform to help others speak out.

Ruth Dodsworth’s ex- husband Jonathan Wignall, 54, was sentenced to three years for coercive and controlling behaviour and stalking.

‘Coercive control’ is now a criminal offence, which is certainly a step in the right direction. The ongoing problem is that so few people appear to understand what it means and so it is simply ignored. There are many types, but today I’m going to look specifically at gaslighting.

The phrase is based on a 1938 play called Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton in which the victim is systematically and psychologically manipulated by her husband to such an extreme that she begins to doubt her sanity.  The wife is aware that the (gas)lights dim at sinister moments but the husband insists she must be imagining things and as a consequence attempts to get her diagnosed as insane so he can gain power of attorney over her and keep his secrets hidden.

In our clients’ circumstances the abuser uses words to get their victims to mistrust those who might support them, making them feel worthless and abandoned. The abusers often appear outwardly charming and are invariably highly intelligent. They are usually not physically violent but use coercive control and emotional manipulation to hurt their victims instead.

Counsellors say they can often identify victims of coercive control early on as they tend to be obsessed with their own failures and inadequacies.

The problem is particularly acute in divorce situations.. Clients often question their own thinking, perception and reality testing, and tend to experience  low self-esteem and begin to lose confidence in their mental capacities and develop a sense of learned helplessness. They become more susceptible to the victimizer’s control.

As Kate Abramson in her paper Turning up the Lights on Gaslighting says: ‘“The abuser may invalidate the victim’s experiences using dismissive language: “You’re crazy. Don’t be so sensitive. Don’t be paranoid. I was just joking! … I’m worried; I think you’re not well.”’

Sound familiar?

Gaslighting and coercive control is much more common than you might think, as Ruth Dodsworth story shows us.

It’s time we took it more seriously.

Your family solicitor should be aware of this type of behaviour and be able to advise you on your options and deal with your divorce proceedings in a way that specifically takes into account the strong possibility that the other party may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). This will require a different approach in most cases to ensure that they are not able to continue their abuse through legal proceedings.

If you are affected by similar issues or would like to have a related discussion in confidence, please call me on 020 7091 2869 or email

Our Family lawyers, Litigation and Forming Families teams have the knowledge and experience to guide you through these challenging times and have rankings in both Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500 for their expertise.

If you are affected by similar issues or would like to have a related discussion in confidence, please call me, Louise Barretto, on 020 7091 2869 or email,

The above is accurate as at 28 April 2021. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.

The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case by case basis.

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