What Is Gaslighting? How to Recognize It in Your Relationship
- What is gaslighting?
- Phrases gaslighters say
- How it feels to be gaslit
- Why do people behave this way?
- How to heal
Are you crazy? If you’re involved with someone who is gaslighting you, you may not be able to answer that question definitively. Gaslighting is a common manipulation tactic, often used by narcissists, to make you question yourself and bend to their whims.
Let's explore gaslighting and how to recognize and deal with it.
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is mental and emotional manipulation that makes you question yourself, your beliefs, and the circumstances around you. You may be told that certain events didn’t happen, that you’re misremembering them, or even that you’re making them up. You may be accused of overreacting and being too sensitive.
When someone gaslights you, it can make you question yourself and your perception of reality.
The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play in which a man manipulates his wife to believe she’s going crazy so he can steal her money. The term comes from a scene in the play where the man causes the house gas lights to flicker. When the wife asks why, she is told that it’s not happening, causing her to doubt herself and what’s going on around her.
Today, gaslighting refers to acts of repetitive manipulation to gain control over another person. This usually happens over a period of time when the gaslighter insidiously chips away at the other person’s psyche. It often begins subtly and almost imperceptibly. This can make it difficult for the victim to recognize it as abuse.
Gaslighting can happen in any relationship of trust and differing levels of power. This includes families, the workplace, and even government and politics. But in an intimate relationship, gaslighting is not only emotionally abusive, but it can also result in domestic violence and become physically dangerous.
Here are some possible signs of gaslighting in a relationship:
- They make you doubt your reality
- They make you feel like everything is your fault
- You become more isolated from your friends and family and more dependent on them
- You constantly apologize for things that aren’t your fault
- You find yourself editing what you say so you don’t seem sensitive or overreactive
- You become easier to manipulate because of your isolation and diminishing self-confidence
- No matter how much proof you have of their inconsistencies, they always deny it
- You feel alone and powerless
Gaslighting is one form of abuse. It can lead to other forms of domestic abuse including financial, verbal, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse.
Four examples of gaslighting
A spectrum of emotionally abusive actions can be broken down into four basic gaslighting techniques.
Lying and denying the truth are hallmarks of gaslighting behavior. It can start out with simple things of little importance. The gaslighter seems taken aback that you think they’re lying.
He says he will be home in 20 minutes. Hours later, he walks through the door. When you ask where he’s been, he denies he ever told you that. Furthermore, he says he told you he had a late meeting. (He didn’t.)
Placing blame outside themselves is how gaslighters deny responsibility. Even though the gaslighter may be overtly at fault, they adeptly turn it around to make you feel responsible.
She promised to stop drinking, but you come home to find her passed out on the sofa – again. The next day, she blames you for buying the bottle of bourbon (which was meant as a gift for your brother). At the same time, she claims your overly dramatic nature is the whole reason she needed to “take the edge off.”
A gaslighter’s manipulation can seem charming and caring on one end of the spectrum and like outright bullying on the other end. They use subtle or not-so-subtle manipulation tactics to make you do what they want or to get their way.
You suspect he is lying to you about his whereabouts. He begins to send flowers to your office and shows up one evening with an expensive pair of earrings and tickets to a production you’ve wanted to see. When you voice your suspicions, he gets hurt and angry and points out everything he does for you, claiming you’re never happy.
Manipulation of your “reality”
A gaslighter will deny that certain things actually happened or that things were said. This eventually causes you to question your own reality and sometimes even your own sanity.
She told you she paid the bills for the month. Now, you’re now getting notices of nonpayment in the mail. She claims she never said she paid the bills. She calls you irresponsible and complains that she has to handle everything.
Phrases you might hear from a gaslighter
Gaslighters can be very charming and attentive at first. The gaslighting behavior is often so subtle, you barely realize it’s happening. Often, it begins with just a feeling of things not being quite right or situations that have you questioning your memory or perception of how an incident played out.
Eventually, it becomes more overt.
How do you know when you’re the victim of gaslighting in a relationship? Your manipulator may use some telltale phrases. Here are some red flags to consider.
- “It was just a joke.” Your manipulator does or says something hurtful. When confronted, they innocently proclaim that their abusive behavior was just a joke.
- “You’re too sensitive.” You react to hurtful or untrue things they say but are accused of overreacting, being paranoid, or just being “too sensitive.”
- “I don’t know what you want me to say.” When confronted with their behavior, this abruptly ends the conversation.
- “Why would I ever say something like that?” But they did, and they did it for a reason.
- “Why do you make this stuff up?” Your manipulator is trying to rewrite reality.
- “I think you really need professional help.” Your manipulator plants the “crazy” seed, often followed by, “And other people think so, too.”
How it feels when someone gaslights you
Gaslighting happens in relationships where people should be able to trust one another. But in intimate relationships, gaslighting results in inequitable power dynamics in the relationship and becomes a form of control and psychological abuse.
If your partner’s behavior seems like gaslighting, you might:
- Feel uncertain about your own feelings and perceptions
- Fear saying things that seem stupid or sensitive
- Walk on eggshells in fear of saying anything that may be perceived as critical of your manipulator
- Feel insecure and often apologize and make self-disparaging remarks
- Look to your manipulator for approval and self-worth
- Make excuses for your manipulator’s behavior or comments
- Feel stuck, depressed, and alone
Unfortunately, over time, it can seriously affect your mental and physical health. Some victims of gaslighting can even come to believe they deserve the abuse they’re getting.
Why do people behave this way?
Gaslighters need to control others to feel powerful. They have learned over time that this type of manipulation works. They may even have been victims of this type of behavior at the hands of their own parents or others around them.
People who use gaslighting behaviors to manipulate others are often viewed as narcissistic or sociopathic or as having personality disorders or unhealthy psychological traits. But, bottom line, gaslighting is all about control, breaking another person’s spirit while appearing blameless, alienating others, and keeping their victim dependent on them alone.
How to heal
You are not crazy, and you deserve love and respect.
Getting distance and breaking free from the mental and emotional control of an abusive partner is critical to gaining a healthy perspective and healing. Physically and psychologically removing yourself from your manipulator can help you gain clarity and begin to trust yourself again. If you can’t physically leave the situation just yet, learn to calm yourself, begin to trust your feelings, and get support so you can gain the emotional strength to leave.
Reconnect with family members and other loved ones from whom you have isolated yourself. Get their feedback and perspective. Working with a mental health professional can be helpful – not because you’re “crazy” but because you are trying to emotionally remove yourself and heal from a controlling and abusive relationship. Learn how to build boundaries, rebuild your self-esteem and sense of self, and protect yourself from this kind of manipulation in your future relationships.
At Hello Divorce, we are dedicated to supporting people in their relationships, whether in connection with the divorce process or the building of a healthy life afterward. We offer professional resources, online divorce plans, and a library of information for people who are navigating divorce or beyond. Let us help.
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