Lately it seems the term “gaslighting” has been thrown around quite casually in the media. However, the psychological effects are no casual matter. Gaslighting is a form of sustained psychological manipulation that causes the victim to question or doubt his or her sanity, judgment and memories. And if you’ve experienced it, you’ve probably wondered how to stop gaslighting in a relationship, even if you weren’t familiar with the term.
“At its heart, gaslighting is emotional abuse,” explained Alexis Taylor, sex and relationship expert. “The act of gaslighting your partner is, simply put, a form of sustained psychological manipulation that causes the victim to question or doubt his or her sanity, judgment and memories.”
“It’s really a vicious cycle,” said Kaylee, 27, who recently got out of a relationship where she was being gaslit.
“At first, I thought I was losing my mind. My ex would constantly tell me I was too sensitive, or that our issues were all due to my inability to accept criticism. It wasn’t until the term ‘gaslighting’ started entering into mainstream conversations that I realized that’s exactly what I was experiencing.”
What is gaslighting?
“Gaslighting is a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and ultimately lose her or his own sense of perception, identity and self-worth,” explained Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” regular expert child psychologist on “The Doctors” and co-star on WE tv.
“The term is derived from the 1944 film ‘Gaslight,’ in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she’s insane by causing her to question herself and her reality,” Walfish said. In this case, it was literal—the husband caused their home’s gas lights to flicker, only to tell his wife she was crazy when she tried to explain what was happening.
Essentially, it’s a way to control people by altering their perception of reality, making them intentionally doubt themselves until they have no choice but to capitulate to their abuser.
“It doesn’t seem like much, but one of the small signs I started to pick up on was when my ex would always come home way past midnight without telling me where he was, or come home for dinner hours after he said he would meet me,” Kaylee said.
“When I expressed my concern, he would tell me I was too obsessed with punctuality and that him coming home late shouldn’t bother me that much. That was just the beginning of his manipulation.”
Gaslighting vs. lying
In popular media and online culture, people tend to use the term “gaslighting” when they’re really just talking about lying; however, there are key differences between the two terms.
“The difference between lying and gaslighting is that lying is more overt and blatant,” said Walfish. “Lying is easier to detect than gaslighting, which is filled with manipulation and masked by the person’s charm.”
Here’s an example of the distinction. Let’s say your company implemented a suite of new policies designed to increase revenue. It’s been months, and management is finally ready to reveal the results to the company. Your boss starts a rousing speech about how great the new numbers were, but there’s a problem. The revenue graph projected behind him shows they’re anything but great, and anyone looking at them could see this.
On the other hand, imagine your boss takes the stage and acknowledges the poor revenue numbers, with a twist. The new policies, he says, were a resounding success—it was the workers who caused the poor performance by not buying into and following them correctly. You and your colleagues are stunned, because by all accounts everyone dutifully implemented the new policies.
In both cases, lies are being told. And in both cases, the boss means to deceive. But while the former is a transparent (if not pathetic) attempt to spin bad news, the latter is gaslighting. The company made a mistake and instead of acknowledging it, they tried to manipulate their workers into thinking it was their fault. Questioning your boss in the former scenario might lead to some tough (albeit necessary) introspection; doing so in the latter would likely only lead to more admonishment.
According to Walfish, it’s important to keep in mind that most gaslighters are filled with blinding charm. Even the most seasoned psychology professional can be duped by a slick gaslighter, so don’t beat yourself up if it takes time for you to realize it.
Signs of gaslighting in relationships
They make you feel insecure by breaking you down. In order to gain control and power, a gaslighter will harp on the victim’s insecurities. To help determine if your partner is breaking you down, ask yourself: Is this person saying things that are designed to make me feel bad? Is the level of criticism pervasive in the sense that they’re going at the same thing consistently?
They try to alienate you from people who care about you. They do this because they want to control the narrative. They want to separate these relationships, so they’ll cause conflict.
They exude excessive charm. This is the abuser’s way of seducing you into trusting them before they act out their abuse.
They use the silent treatment. The silent treatment functions to keep the receiver in suspense of what will happen. The victim is unsure of what they “did wrong,” and how “bad” it is. It is a way of controlling the other person as a precursor to abuse.
They expect you to read their mind. This means the person acts unhappy until others guess what they want. This controlling behavior locks the other person out and raises their anxiety, feeling like a failure for not guessing correctly.
They practice poison delegation. This is where the controlling abuser asks the victim to do something for them, saying they can’t do it for themselves. But, whatever the victim does is met with harsh criticism instead of praising any good-faith effort.
They constantly correct you. Specifically, the gaslighter disputes or corrects things that are irrelevant to the main point being discussed. The constant correcting keeps the abuser on top and forces their subject to waste time and energy digging out of a pointless hole. For example, if you’re objecting that your partner hasn’t done the dishes in a “few” weeks, a gaslighter may harp on the fact that actually, they did the dishes two weeks ago, not three.
They deny having any faults. Even when you point out their emotionally abusive ways, your partner doesn’t accept their behavior as a flaw. Instead, they convince themselves and try to convince you that they’re doing all this to help you become a better person.
How to stop gaslighting
“It’s not advised to talk to your partner about feeling like you’re being gaslit, because they’re going to tell you that what you’re seeing isn’t what you’re actually seeing,” explained Taylor.
If you do believe your case is mild and can be overcome, writing down the gaslighter’s pattern of behavior and confronting it as it occurs may be one of the best ways to call them out and to see if their gaslighting tendencies are a deal-breaker.
“After calling them out, the gaslighter may calm down thereafter, but know that it will start again,” warned Bina Patel, CEO of Bina Consulting LLC. “If you are in a relationship where one partner is a gaslighter, my best advice is to exit the relationship. It gets worse, not better.”
However, keep in mind that it is very difficult to change the behavior and mentality of gaslighters, since they may be associated with an undiagnosed personality disorder. Both Taylor and Patel agree that gaslighting in a relationship is almost always a deal-breaker.
How to recover from gaslighting
If you’re still trying to piece together what happened, allowing yourself to reflect can help with closure—but don’t get hung up on it.
“Try your best to go back over any possible early warning signs at the beginning of the relationship,” said Walfish. “For instance, did you initially feel a ’this is too good to be true’ feeling? Did you get a sense of hollow, shallow, superficial quality about the person? Look for these possible signs. You may not have picked them up because your gaslighter may have been too well-practiced.”
Recovering from the manipulation and psychological abuse of gaslighting can be extremely tough, but it’s a great opportunity to practice self-care, build back healthy self-confidence and learn from your experience.
Try to look inward at the low sense of self they left you with. You want to remember that emotion because if you ever feel it again in a future relationship, turn, don’t look back and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
Life after gaslighting
Simply put, gaslighting is a manipulative tactic used to shift the power dynamic in an otherwise healthy relationship such that one person has complete control over the other. It’s not a term to be thrown around casually.
The psychology behind gaslighting in relationships, including how to identify the warning signs, how to understand the reasoning behind this venomous behavior and how to navigate the next steps are valuable for everyone to understand. Once you’re aware of the problem, you can try and avoid entering such a manipulative relationship or repeating the same relationship patterns.
“Honestly, I’m still grappling with what happened and trying to build back healthy self-esteem,” said Kaylee. “The one thing I’m grateful for is that I experienced gaslighting at such a young age. I know the signs and, although I’m still working on rebuilding my confidence, I certainly won’t tolerate that sort of manipulation now that I know what it looks like firsthand.”