Healthy relationships consist of two people who act in each other’s best interests. Sure, couples fight and disagree sometimes, but the intention of the parties is typically good toward one another. However, some relationships don’t operate on those terms. Abuse comes in many forms, and one that stands out as particularly cruel is gaslighting in relationships.
If you have problems in your relationship and feel that something isn’t quite right — even though you can’t pinpoint what it is — you should learn how gaslighting in relationships can work to destroy one of the parties mentally. Are you suffering from this type of abuse? If so, you should remove yourself from the relationship and seek help.
What Is Gaslighting?
According to the National Domestic Abuse hotline website, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that one partner uses against the other to cause them to question their feelings and sanity. Because most abusers intend to gain power and control over their victim, this form of abuse is effective, as it causes the victim to stay in the relationship. That happens when they
become so worn down by the “gaslighting” they are unable to trust their perceptions about what is happening, forcing them to rely on the false narrative developed by the abuser. At that time, the victim begins to rely more and more on the abusive partner because they can no longer define reality for themselves.
Gaslighting in relationships typically starts slowly and builds up over time. At first, it may appear that you and your partner are having simple misunderstandings. For instance, if you say they came home late the night before, they may tell you that you're imagining things and that they were back at the same time as usual. In your mind, you know this isn’t true, but you ignore it, thinking it’s just a misunderstanding. But when these “misunderstandings” continue to happen — and you’re the one who is always wrong — it might be a case of gaslighting in relationships.
Where did the term "gaslighting" come from?
In 1938, Patrick Hamilton wrote a play titled Gas Light. In it, a husband manipulates the gas lights in the house to make his wife think she is going insane. He does this to hide the fact that he is stealing from her. The lights dim, and when she points it out, he accuses her of imagining it. That happens over and over again until she begins to question her sanity. In addition to the lights, he hides things from her and then accuses her of losing them.
As it turns out, the husband was dimming the lights every time he left the house to convince his wife that she was insane so she wouldn’t notice the theft. The term “gaslighting” in relationships came from this classic play, which was made into a movie in 1944.
What Is the Damage Done to Victims of Gaslighting in Relationships?
If you think gaslighting in relationships sounds serious, you’re right. When one partner manipulates the thoughts of another, it’s emotional abuse. This form of emotional abuse takes things one step further and convinces the victim that they have gone crazy. Of course, this drives them into the arms of the abuser.
After being convinced that they’re crazy and can’t trust their perceptions, victims of gaslighting in relationships lose their sense of self. They feel they can no longer trust their judgment and begin to live in a world where they question everything they do. They constantly second-guess themselves, which leads to difficulty in making decisions. Eventually, they become depressed and withdraw from their friends, family, and society. In a cruel twist of fate, they often lean on the abuser for their sense of reality.
Why Do People Use Gaslighting in Relationships?
Since gaslighting is such a cruel form of abuse, it’s common to ask if abusers conduct gaslighting in relationships purposely. In other words, do gaslighters know what they are doing? According to Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., author of Gaslighting: Recognizing Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free, it depends.
She says that some people study how to manipulate people and do it on purpose. In one article, she cites Charles Manson as an example. She says he read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and honed in on Chapter 7 where the author taught readers how to make people believe your idea was theirs. Manson put this advice to use. However, Sarkis also says that millions of people read that book and didn’t use it to manipulate others into doing what they wanted. Charles Manson used the information to abuse and gaslight his victims intentionally.
Sarkis says some people don’t set out to intentionally conduct gaslighting in relationships, but have learned the behavior from parents. And in some cases, people who have personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder, have a deep-seated need to control others and may use gaslighting in relationships as a way to do it.
The 7 Stages of Gaslighting in Relationships
According to experts, seven stages occur when gaslighting in relationships is happening. If you are in a relationship and fear that your partner may be gaslighting you, watch out for these seven stages of the abuse.
1. Lie and exaggerate
When gaslighting in relationships, an abuser’s goal is to make the victim believe that something is wrong with them. This is done by continuously telling lies and ignoring the facts. For example, in the movie Gas Light, the husband tried to convince his wife that she was absentminded. He did this by telling her that repeatedly and then setting up situations to
prove it. For example, he watched her put something down and then he hid it. When she couldn’t find it a short while later, he told her it was her absentmindedness. The lies and exaggerations are always a work of fiction, and the truth is never a part of the equation.
Whatever “truth” the abuser is trying to convince the victim of, they will repeat over and over again until it's believed. If the lie is that the victim is forgetful, they will say so time and time again. If it’s that they are not cheating, they will say so repeatedly. People often say that the more times you say something, the more likely another person will believe it. People who use gaslighting in relationships live by this.
3. Escalate when challenged
When you confront a gaslighter, they will double-down on their assertions and attacks. They will outright deny factual evidence, blame the victim, and misdirect the argument by sowing doubt and confusion. Abusers will also make additional false claims to add more confusion to the mix. They don’t want anyone to uncover their actions, so they craftily shift the blame to the victim. A good example of this is when someone finds evidence that their partner is cheating on them. If they're gaslighting, they will call them crazy and say they are imagining the entire thing — despite the factual evidence to the contrary.
4. Wear out the victim
After some time, the victim starts to question their sanity. They become discouraged, pessimistic, fearful of their own actions, full of self-doubt, and resigned to whatever “truth” the abuser is telling them. At this point, they feel they can no longer trust their perceptions, identity, or even reality.
5. Form codependent relationships
A codependent relationship happens when one partner feels completely reliant on the other for approval, respect, safety, security, and acceptance. When someone uses gaslighting in relationships, their goal is to create codependence in their partner. They do this by creating anxiety and insecurity that forces their partner to rely on them. And they keep their partner off-balance by threatening to take away everything the codependent relationship gives them.
6. Give false hope
To keep the victim reliant, the abuser will sometimes treat the victim with kindness. Or, sometimes, they will act as if they feel remorse for something they did. Despite appearances, the abuser is setting up the victim to become even more codependent. Once they begin the “nice” phase, they are counting on the victim thinking that the bad was all in their imagination. And then they pounce. They resume the gaslighting tactics and strengthen the codependent bond that they've created.
7. Dominate and control
The ultimate goal of the gaslighter is to control and dominate their victim. They do this by maintaining the gaslighting in the relationship. This cycle can last for years until the victim has so little self-awareness that they cannot separate their reality from the abuser's fiction. Abusers want to dominate for different reasons. Some like to control every aspect of the relationship and their partner, while others have more devious motives. For example, in the movie Gas Light, the husband murdered the wife’s aunt and wanted to create self-doubt in her so she wouldn’t guess that he was stealing all of her inheritance.
Here Are 5 Techniques of Gaslighters
If you feel that you may be a victim of gaslighting in relationships, you should know about some of the techniques gaslighters use to keep victims in line. There are five things an abuser may do to force the victim to see things their way.
When someone tells you that they will not listen to what you have to say, they could be engaging in a gaslighting method called withholding. Another variation of this is
when someone says they cannot understand what you are saying, even though you are clear. For example, a gaslighter may tell you that you're silly, and they’re not going to listen to you. Or they may say that they can’t understand something as simple as you telling them you don’t like it when they insult you in front of your friends.
When an abuser questions the victim’s memory of an event, it’s called countering. For example, if an abuser insulted you in front of your friends and then said it never happened later that night when you brought it up, they are countering. That is one way a gaslighter causes a victim to doubt their perceptions.
Pretending to forget something is another way abusers use gaslighting in relationships. They may act like they don’t remember saying horrible things to their partner or promising to do something for them. And then if the victim persists, the abuser may deny that it ever happened. Can you see how a victim could lose her sense of reality if they are constantly told that their experiences didn’t happen?
When an abuser changes the subject during a discussion that is important to a victim, it’s call diversion. When they continually do this, the victim’s fears and needs are never truly expressed or acknowledged. And when the victim complains about it, an abuser may use the blocking technique. With this, the abuser questions the victim’s thinking, making them experience self-doubt. Continuing with the example above, they could insist they weren’t insulting their partner in front of their friends, but paying a compliment — and then the abuser will insist on that fact and repeat it enough until it is believed.
Another way abusers use gaslighting in relationships is to make the victim’s feelings or opinions seem trivial. For example, if a victim confronts the abuser with the fact that the abuser insulted them in front of their friends, the abuser will tell them that they are oversensitive and get angry about it.
If your partner exhibits any of these signs on a routine basis, you may be the victim of gaslighting. It would be smart to make an appointment with a counselor to further explore the possibility.
Warning Signs That You’re Being Gaslighted
In addition to watching your partner’s actions, you can take a close look at yourself to see if you exhibit any signs that you’re experiencing gaslighting. Here are some to watch for.
What You Will Feel If You’re Experiencing Gaslighting in Relationships
There are typically three states of emotions that victims of gaslighting feel. These stages are not always linear, and they can overlap at times.
In this first stage, you will find some interactions with the gaslighter weird. You will likely write them off and think they were only a one-time thing or an odd moment. For example, you may be on a dinner date, and when the check arrives, they thank you
for paying for it. Confused, you pay the bill and then ask them about it later. They insist that they only gave you the check because you mentioned that you never like a partner to pay for the check. You know you never said it, but think maybe they were getting you confused with someone else they had the conversation with.
If these strange occurrences continue to happen, chances are you’re dating someone who uses gaslighting in relationships.
The next stage is when you begin defending yourself against the abuser’s manipulation. You instinctively know something is wrong, and you find yourself replaying conversations where you felt the need to defend yourself over and over in your mind.
For example, imagine that you asked your partner to let you know when they will be home so you can plan dinner, but they routinely forget to call. You might become upset and tell them that it’s making it impossible to plan a good meal. However, instead of agreeing, they tell you that you are oversensitive and too demanding. You defend yourself by telling them that it’s not demanding to know what time to put dinner on the table, but they ignore the facts and turn the tables on you.
Later that night, or even during the next few days, you think over the reasons why you're not oversensitive or demanding. You have now entered the next stage associated with gaslighting.
People who suffer gaslighting in relationships often end up in this phase of victimhood. After being told for some time that your perception of reality is wrong, and believing that something must be wrong with you, depression sets in. It can be difficult at this stage to imagine a future that involves self-worth and trust unless you begin seeing a professional to help you come out of the fog.
How to Stop Gaslighting in Relationships
If you find yourself in a situation where you believe your partner is gaslighting you, it’s important to seek professional help. But there are some things you can do to help keep your sanity.
How to Recover from Gaslighting in Relationships
Victims of gaslighting no longer trust their ability to discern reality or make decisions. That causes them to become paralyzed with fear that they will make the same mistakes again. Typically, gaslighting victims need professional counseling to overcome the effects of the abuse, but there are some things they can do to begin the road to recovery on their own.
First, it’s important to learn about gaslighting so you can understand what happened to you. If you can look at it from a neutral position, such as focusing on the act of gaslighting instead of what happened to you, it may begin to make sense. During this process, you should seek to understand the abuser’s actions and your own.
Once a victim understands how the abuser manipulated them, they will begin to shift the blame from themselves to the perpetrator. Once that happens, they can begin to rebuild the person they were before the abuser stole their sense of identity.
Gaslighting in Relationships Is Abuse
All abuse isn’t physical, and gaslighting in relationships is one of the more serious forms of mental abuse. If you think you are in a gaslighting relationship, you should immediately set up an appointment with a professional to talk about it.
Have you ever experienced this type of emotional abuse? If you feel comfortable sharing your experience — and how you got out of it — with others, please do so in the comments below.