Gaslighting refers to a form of emotional abuse where the perpetrator gains control and exerts power over another through slow, gradual psychological manipulation and invalidation through lies, criticism, and isolation. This leads the victim to question their reality, memories, and sanity. This article discusses 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 romantic relationships. It typically presents in unhealthy relationships with some power imbalance, such as parent-child relationships, relationships with other family members, 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.
Gaslighting is a learned behavior, and people with underlying personality disorders such as narcissistic personality disorder are more likely to engage in these behaviors. Further, the perpetrator may or may not know they are engaging in gaslighting behavior. Perpetrators can take advantage of the trust others place in them and exploit it to create codependent relationships, cementing a power differential and taking a toll on the victim’s mental health.
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15 common warning signs that your partner is gaslighting you
Gaslighting can be challenging to identify as the process is gradual and confounded with cycles of romance and reassurance following conflicts. A person dealing with gaslighting may experience the following:
- Difficulty trusting your own thoughts and decisions
- Wondering if your emotions are appropriate
- Feeling like you are overly sensitive
- Feelings of helplessness
- Believing you are “crazy” or that there’s something wrong with you
- Experiencing a brain fog or memory problems
- Isolating from friends or family
- Feeling confused or frequently second-guessing past events
- Often apologizing to and feeling guilty for your partner’s behavior
- Low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety
- Difficulty identifying your values and accomplishments
- Feeling like you are walking on eggshells
- Fearing how you would be able to move on without them
- Unable to discuss problems in the relationship due to feeling guilty or responsible for them
- 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 affection and attention and may try to get to know very personal aspects of your life early on. Gaslighting may begin once they feel they have gained your trust and identified some insecurities. The following are examples of common gaslighting statements:
- That never happened
- I’m doing this for your own good
- You’re cheating on me
- You’re overreacting
- You just want attention
- No one else will love you as I do
- I don’t know what you’re talking about
- You’re crazy
- Look what you made me do
- 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 own 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 a 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 yourself and your needs. They may argue that they love you and therefore are acting in your best interests. This interaction pattern typically leads to the victim excusing the perpetrator’s bad behavior and being unable to make decisions due to self-doubt. Make a cost-benefit analysis to help you recognize potential solutions and assert your ability to care for your own needs.
3. Projects their insecurities
The desire to maintain control over others is usually rooted in insecurity. Thus, a gaslighter may project their insecurities or habits onto their partner. A typical example is a partner accusing the other of cheating or being flirtatious with others when they 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 you are overreacting or wrong for feeling that way. Focus on the truth of 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 or hurtful 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 as they do. On a more extreme scale, an abuser may delete calls or texts 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 the partner resulting in them apologizing to resume the connection. This worsens as the person increases dependency and becomes more anxious without the partner due to low confidence and self-esteem. Increase your confidence in your own reality through record keeping, confiding in people you trust, and engaging in self-soothing activities.
8. Attacks your identity
Abusive people may attempt to make you believe 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 a friend to ask how they would 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 mask infidelity and excuse this boundary violation. Permit yourself to end the abusive relationship, 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 blatantly lie 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, comparing the benefits of staying in a toxic relationship and ending it may be helpful to preserve your sense of worth.
Gaslighting in romantic relationships is emotional abuse
Imagine being made to second guess your own judgment, 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 by invalidating your thoughts and feelings.
What are the mental health side effects of being gaslit by a partner?
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 them upset, and develop hopelessness due to beliefs that only they can genuinely 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.
Do people know they are gaslighting?
A gaslighter may not know they are perpetrating this type of abuse. However, the objective is to gain power or 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 a lack of empathy, feelings of superiority, and a desire for constant attention or admiration.
People who engage in gaslighting tend to deflect responsibility due to low awareness and inability to regulate their emotions or self-soothe. Shifting blame and denying events that place them in a bad light prevents them from experiencing discomfort and maintains feelings of superiority. Additionally, a lack of empathy enhances the ability to dismiss others’ 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 mental health professionals help a relationship recover from gaslighting?
A mental health professional may be able to help a relationship recover from gaslighting, but it will take a large amount of effort from both parties. A first step can look like the gaslighter taking responsibility and taking steps to change communication styles to create space for others’ 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 resemble clarifying boundaries as self-care and connecting with friends and family as resources when rebuilding independence. Engaging in therapy can be beneficial to define 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.
Gaslighting In A Relationship FAQs
Where can I go to learn more about abusive relationships?
We recommend speaking with a mental health professional and your primary care provider to learn more about gaslighting in a relationship and abusive relationships in general. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence is also an excellent resource for people in physically and emotionally abusive relationships.
What are the potential legal consequences of gaslighting in a relationship?
Gaslighting in a relationship can be considered domestic abuse under the law, depending on the state where the abuse occurs. A person gaslighting their partner may be charged with domestic violence, assault, and/or harassment and, in extreme cases, could be sentenced to jail time. Additionally, they may be barred from accessing shared property/assets and may be ordered to pay the victim’s medical or psychological bills.