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Gaslighting in a Relationship: Signs & Examples

Brenda Gil, Seattle Therapist

Jul 27, 2021

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the perpetrator gains control and power over another through slow, gradual manipulation and invalidation by way of lies, criticism, and isolation. This leads the victim to question their reality, memories, and sanity. In this article, we discuss common signs and tactics to help you identify potential gaslighters and recover from this experience.

What is gaslighting in a relationship?

Gaslighting can occur in more than just intimate relationships. It typically presents in relationships where there is some power imbalance such as parent-child relationships, professional relationships, or even socially between racial groups. Victims may feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves due to the perpetrator’s repetitive criticism and contempt focused on making the person think they are emotionally or psychologically unstable and unable to survive without them.

Further, the perpetrator may or may not be aware that they are engaging in gaslighting behaviors. Gaslighting is a learned behavior, and people with underlying personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder have a higher likelihood of engaging in these behaviors. Perpetrators can take advantage of the trust others place in them and exploit it so that the other becomes dependent on them, cementing a power differential and a taking toll on the victim’s mental health.

Dealing with gaslighting is mentally unhealthy

Imagine being made to second guess your past experiences, emotional reactions, and self worth by someone you trust. At first, you may experience disbelief when the gaslighter attempts to challenge your reality and you may try to defend your perspective, then they manipulate your fears and insecurities through personal attacks that deflect their responsibility or faults, reshaping your reality. Additionally, a gaslighter may criticize you, distance you from others, or limit you from expressing your identity through invalidating your thoughts and feelings.

As a result, you lose trust in yourself and develop anxiety due to excessive worry that you will not be able to make decisions on your own, experience overwhelming guilt for making your them upset, and develop hopelessness due to beliefs that only they can truly care for you due to all your faults.

The mental health impacts include depressed mood, loss of interest, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, changes in sleep patterns, feeling on edge, irritability, fatigue, and thoughts of suicide.

15 common signs that your partner is gaslighting you

Gaslighting can be difficult to identify as the process is gradual and confounded with cycles of romance and reassurance following conflicts. A person dealing with gaslighting may experiencing the following:

  1. Difficulty trusting your own decisions
  2. Wondering if your emotions are appropriate
  3. Feeling like you are too sensitive
  4. Feelings of helplessness
  5. Believing you are “crazy” or that there’s something wrong with you
  6. Experiencing a brain fog or memory problems
  7. Isolating from friends or family
  8. Feeling confused or frequently second-guessing past events
  9. Often apologizing to and feeling guilty for the gaslighter’s behavior
  10. Low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety
  11. Difficulty identifying your values and accomplishments
  12. Feeling like you are walking on eggshells
  13. Fearing how you would be able to move on without them
  14. Unable to discuss problems in the relationship due to feeling guilty or responsible for them
  15. You experience most of these signs with just the gaslighter

10 examples of gaslighting (and how to stop it)

Learning how to stop gaslighting in a relationship starts with recognizing gaslighting tactics. Gaslighters often start by demonstrating high amounts of affection, attention, and may try to get to know very personal aspects of your life early on. Once they feel they have gained your trust and identified some insecurities, gaslighting may begin. The following are examples of common gaslighting statements:

  1. That never happened
  2. I’m doing this for your own good
  3. You’re cheating on me
  4. You’re overreacting
  5. You just want attention
  6. No one else will love you like I do
  7. I don’t know what you’re talking about
  8. You’re crazy
  9. Look what you made me do
  10. I didn’t do that

Let’s explore the tactics these statements reflect and how to combat them below:

1. Questions your memories

A gaslighter may attempt to change your reality by negating or disqualifying your memories and experiences of events. Their most effective weapon may include using your insecurities and personality traits against you making it difficult to use logic and defend against this attack. Practice keeping a diary to track events, dates, and times. You can also use photos or voice recordings to keep record of these events.

2. States they know what’s best for you

A perpetrator may justify their actions by drawing on your insecurities and ability to care for your self and needs. They may argue that they love you and therefore are acting in your best interests. This pattern of interaction typically leads to the victim excusing the perpetrator’s behavior and being unable to make decisions for themselves due to self-doubt. Make a cost-benefits analysis to help you recognize potential solutions and assert your ability to care for your own needs.

3. Projects their insecurities

The desire for control over others is usually rooted in insecurity. Thus, a gaslighter may project their insecurities or habits onto their partner. A common example is a partner accusing the other of cheating or being flirtatious with others when they themselves are guilty of these behaviors. This may result in feelings of shame which impair freedom and increase guilt. Recognize and separate your insecurities from your partner’s to distinguish projections from truths.

4. Invalidates feelings or needs

Partners that engage in gaslighting may invalidate hurt emotions and tell you that you are overreacting or wrong for feeling that way. Focus on your emotions and the trigger contributing to your response rather than focusing on who is right and who is wrong to avoid invalidation.

5. Uses negative stereotypes

Another form of invalidation is minimizing your responses by drawing on gender or racial stereotypes. This may look like criticisms about “always being the victim” or being “too sensitive.” This serves to control another’s emotions so that problematic behaviors are more easily excused. Increase your emotional awareness and distress tolerance by tracking your emotions and triggers.

6. Isolates you from others

A gaslighter could make you doubt your worth through assertions that only they know what’s good for their partner, that their partner is not good enough and lucky to have them, or that no one will ever love them like they do. On a more extreme scale, an abuser may delete calls or text to prove friends don’t care or use guilt to steer the partner away from spending time with others. Talk to a trusted support or couples therapist about events you experience to identify if your emotions are valid given the situation.

7. Uses the silent treatment

After an argument they may ignore to trigger distress in partner resulting in them apologizing to resume the connection. This worsens as the person increases their sense of dependency and becomes more anxious without the partner due to low confidence and self esteem. Increase your confidence in your reality through record keeping and confiding in trusted others and by engaging in self-soothing activities.

8. Attacks your identity

Abusive people may attempt to make you believe that you are mentally ill or exploit existing psychological issues to discredit your experiences. If you are concerned about your mental health, seek therapy or consult with a friend and ask how they may respond in your situation.

9. Blames you for their behavior

Statements like these may feel like you are responsible for the person’s behavior. They may shift responsibility to you and accuse you of being too sensitive, jealous, unstable, frigid, etc. Actions like these can be used to mask infidelity and excuse this boundary violation. Give yourself permission to end the relationship and create a safety plan and keep your records hidden if you worry about your safety in the relationship.

10. Frequently lies to maintain power

People may engage in lies and deny previous actions making their partner feel anxious and powerless leading to a perceived loss of control. Honesty and respect are basic expectations of a healthy relationship. If these are not present, it may be helpful to compare benefits of staying in the relationship and benefits of ending the relationship to preserve your sense of worth.

Do people know they are gaslighting?

A gaslighter may not know they are perpetrating this type of abuse. However, the objective is to gain control over another due to conscious or unconscious beliefs that their feelings or thoughts matter most. People that experience personality disorders like narcissism are more likely to engage in these behaviors due to lack of empathy, feelings of superiority, and a desire for constant attention or admiration.

People that engage in gaslighting tend to deflect responsibility due to low awareness and inability to regulate their own emotions or self-soothe. Shifting blame and denying events that place them in a bad light prevents them from experiencing discomfort and maintains the feelings of superiority. Additionally, lack of empathy enhances the ability to dismiss other’s emotions and be critical of others. Through this cycle, victims become dependent on the gaslighter until they become the only relationship in their life, which meets the gaslighter’s need for constant attention.

Can a relationship recover from gaslighting?

A relationship can recover, but it will take a large amount of effort from both parties. A first step can look like the gaslighter taking responsibility and making steps to change communication styles to create space for other’s emotions and experiences. The person experiencing gaslighting will need to assess if they are willing to trust the person that engaged in gaslighting. This can be challenging if the person lacks self-awareness and struggles to demonstrate genuine remorse and willingness to change.

Healing may look like clarifying boundaries as self care and connecting with friends and family as resources when rebuilding independence. Engaging in therapy can be beneficial to clarify boundaries and repair negative impacts on their mental health. However, if trying to make things work keeps you in a cycle of abuse with concerns for your safety, it may be best to walk away even if it’s from an abusive family member.

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