Gas lighting – the abusive relationship tactic you need to know about

PHOTO: Facebook
PHOTO: Facebook

To the outside world, the wealthy businessman and his beautiful wife appeared to be smitten with each other.

Jason and Susan Rohde lived in a lavish home an exclusive part of Bryanston, Johannesburg, with their three daughters and seemed to live an idyllic life.

On Facebook, Susan (47) regularly shared photos of the couple happily relaxing with their friends. In one picture, she leans her head on her handsome husband’s shoulder, beaming from ear to ear.

It seems no one knew what was going on beneath the surface – until chilling WhatsApp messages between the couple were revealed in the Cape Town High Court recently.

Jason (48) now stands accused of murdering the wife he seemed to love so much – and in the wood-panelled courtroom, the façade of the Rohdes’ picture-perfect lives has been shattered.

“Do you have any idea how insecure you have been making me feel this entire time?” Susan said in a message to her husband in the weeks before she died.

“I have to beg you to let me go to places with you, I have to beg you to spend time with me.”

Susan’s insecurities weren’t unfounded – Jason had been having an affair with Cape Town estate agent Jolene Alterskye (35). When Susan found about the relationship in 2016, her reaction as “irrational, obsessive and angry”, Jason said.

In other messages read in court Susan sounds desperate, telling Jason that she doesn’t care anymore: “You want me to go crazy, and that is exactly what you’re going to get.”

The former property mogul countered by accusing Susan of being the “bully”: “To call someone 40 times per day and at 5am in the morning is bullying.”

The morning before Susan’s death, Jason told her in a message that she made too many assumptions about him.

“You hear and think exactly what you want,” he told her.

On 24 July last year, Susan’s lifeless body was found on a hotel bathroom floor at Spier wine estate in Stellenbosch. Jason insists that she was depressed and took her own life, but the state claims that Susan was strangled to death during a fight.

During his plea explanation Jason said: "I believe, with respect, that her exponential deterioration and inability to reason or conduct herself rationally ultimately led to her committing suicide."

But now that Susan’s emotional state has been placed in the context of her husband’s extra marital affair, the affect that an affair can have on a relationship is being examined.

When does an affair become more than just a heart-breaking situation for those involved and instead become dangerously dismissive and manipulative?

The term used when one party manipulates another in such an extreme manner is “gas lighting”.

What is gas lighting?

The term comes from the play Gas Light, which later became a 1944 Oscar winning thriller, explains Susan Eksteen, an Imago relationship therapist from Krugersdorp.

In the movie the man tries to convince his wife that she’s crazy and does it by questioning her sanity and perception of reality. The couple have gas lights in their home and when the man switches the attic lights on, the lights in the house become dimmer – but when the woman asks her husband about it he tells her that she’s imaging it.

“Gas lighting is a form of manipulation and brainwashing that makes the victim doubt his or her perception, identity and self-worth. Statements and accusations are usually based on blatant lies and embellishments and twists of the truth,” explains Susan.

“Many victims of gas lighting feel inferior and lose their self-worth as they become more and more anxious,” says Dr Marelize Swart, a psychologist and sexologist from Cape Town.

Professor Gerard Labuschagne, the former head of the police’s psychology investigation unit, says that although gas lighting isn’t a clinical term, it is certainly considered as an attempt to manipulate someone else’s reality.

“A classic technique is to move things around or let strange things happen in an attempt to make someone else believe that they’re or unstable or mentally disturbed.”

It’s usually done with a goal in mind, he adds, like to get custody of children or control of finances.

At the very least, Susan says, gas lighting is a misuse of the power balance in a relationship. “The victim is subjected to the gas lighters’ unreasonable arguments and the gas lighter does this by using his or her aggression.”

According to Marelize, it is a sophisticated form of emotional abuse where victims end up questioning their instincts and feelings. “It can take months or even years before anyone realises that they’re in a relationship like this.” She says that it can occur in any relationship, including personal, romantic and professional.

Why is it dangerous?

Your self-image suffers as a result and your emotional capabilities are restricted, says Dr Elmari Mulder Craig, a sexologist and relationship therapist from Pretoria.

“You later believe that everything is your fault, and if you only did this or that differently, the relationship could improve”.

People who like the feeling of being in control or who have certain narcissistic personality traits are more likely gas lighting culprits. “It can be dangerous because it often escalates and turns into different forms of abuse and can lead to you doubting yourself.”

How do you handle a relationship like this?

If you realise that you’re being gas lighted or that you’re being emotionally abused in your relationship, considering seeking professional help, says Elmari. “It’s not going to get better by itself. Also try to confide in someone close to you, like a friend or family member, who can help you to make sense of your reality – what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

According to Elmari a person who is displaying emotionally manipulative behaviour has often experienced terrible trauma. “Their behaviour is often a way to make sense of their own angst.”

“If a couple is in such a toxic relationship both parties should be prepared to go for individual as well as couples therapy, only then will they be able to get the relationship back on track.”

Susan says you need to change your attitude to lessen the influence of the gas lighter’s behaviour on you. “Turn your expectations down a notch and set boundaries. Don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of. Learn to say no and don’t give in when you’re intimidated.”


Former police psychologist Gerard Labuschagne shares some of the signs you should look out for.

- You question yourself all the time.

- You constantly ask yourself if you’re the one being sensitive.

- You constantly feel overwhelmed and like you’re going to lose your mind.

- You keep apologising to the other person.

- Even though you know you have wonderful things in your life you can’t understand why you’re still unhappy.

- You are constantly apologising to your friends and family for your partner’s behaviour.

- You withhold information from your family so that you don’t have to explain things.

- Even though you know that something is horrible wrong you can’t get so far as to say what it is, not even to yourself.

- To withstand the constant degradation and twisting of reality, you start to lie.

- Even simple decisions are difficult to make.

- You feel as though you used to be a different kind of person – one with more self-trust, who was more loving, more fun and more relaxed.

- You feel hopeless and without joy.

- You wonder if you’re good enough for your partner, employee, friend or child.


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