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You may have heard of the term gaslighting in the past few years. It's an elusive term that can have big consequences on your relationship. So what is gaslighting in relationships and how might it be affecting you?
I once had a client (we’ll call her “Angela”) who clearly thought it was her fault her boyfriend of six years (we’ll call him “Mark”) left her.
Angela was having difficulty understanding what went wrong with Mark, since there was no closure at all with him.
He totally disappeared on her without any sort of feedback as to why he was leaving.
Angela found me through a mutual friend and described her troubles meeting new guys one year after Mark left her. She was struggling with an uncharacteristic amount of insecurity.
Saying her break up with Mark was confusing and heartbreaking was putting it mildly…
After digging deeper into her situation, I found that over the course of the second half of their relationship, everything about how he treated her changed.
He went from patient to irritable almost overnight…
One stark realization for her was that everything about her own life (hobbies, travel habits, food preferences, etc.) began to change.
She started to get emotional with me as she explained how her personality completely shifted during her relationship with Mark.
For example, she used to love to sing from sheet music. She told me about the time when Mark told her their neighbor was complaining to him that she sang too much and even off-key.
Angela didn’t understand this because this was the same neighbor who had praised her singing a couple of months before.
He even gave her a suggestion to try singing higher-pitched tenor songs versus the alto songs she had been singing!
What was going on here? Let’s take a closer look…
When Gaslighting Creeps In
It turns out Angela wasn’t going crazy. Little did she realize she was altering her whole existence in order to appease Mark and garner positive affection from him.
Did the neighbor really complain about Angela’s singing? Probably not. Mark lied in order to manipulate her.
But what did Angela’s compliance to Mark’s manipulation end up doing? It positively reinforced and even rewarded Mark’s manipulative behavior!
This subtle manipulation had long term effects beyond her relationship with Mark…
Angela was having problems meeting other men because, deep down, she was already afraid of intimacy.
She had lost her sense of self and doubted most things about herself. How could she connect with men if she didn’t know who she was?!
From the outside, the above story may seem obvious. But often there’s months or even years of slow manipulation that goes into getting someone to the point of Angela.
Frequently, it becomes even worse than this…
This is called “gaslighting” in relationships, a form of subtle psychological manipulation in which the victim is eventually made to doubt everything about themselves.
This allows the abuser (the one doing the gaslighting) to get away with abuse and easily keep secrets (i.e. spending money), prolong bad habits (i.e. doing drugs), or change the victim into the person they want to be with.
If the above sounds uncomfortably familiar to you, there are some easy, practical ways you can tell if you’re being gaslighted.
3 Types Of Gaslighting
What are the different types of gaslighting in relationships?
There are typically three types of gaslighting, or rather, three reasons why the abuser may be manipulating their victim: 1. Hiding something from the victim, 2. Changing something about the victim, or 3. Controlling the victim.
This type of gaslighting focuses on hiding something that the abuser should be ashamed about or that they know the victim will be angry about.
Among other things, this could include an affair, an alternate or previous life, or hidden money and reckless spending habits.
While potentially feeling ashamed of the secret or scared of its discovery subconsciously, most gaslighters feel justified in committing and hiding these actions.
They hide it primarily because they think the “irrational” reactions of the people around them will be an inconvenience to them.
The abuser often convinces those around them to doubt their own beliefs about the situation and turns the blame on victim. Examples could sound like the any of the following:
“Remember that time you were wrong about X? Well how do you know this isn’t like that?”
“How can you trust where you’re getting that information from?”
“Katie has always been a liar. She has it out for me. Why would you take her word over mine?!”
“Don’t you know I would never hurt you or lie to you? I love you! If you loved me, you’d trust me. I’m hurt that you don’t.”
No matter the form the words take, the tactics follow an underlying theme.
The abuser will use an established relationship (trust, love, and commitment) or assumed authority (husband over wife, in the case of relationships), to get the person to doubt their position or feel guilty about suspecting anything.
This is the type of gaslighting we see in Angela’s example.
Mark must have hated her singing and wanted it to stop. There were likely other things Mark wanted to change in her, as well.
These people tend to mold their relationships to suit their needs, or their fantasies, rather than working to have a healthy relationship.
The gaslighter may desire to change something as small as the way a person dresses to something as significant as entire belief systems.
If the victim doesn’t easily comply to these changes, the abuser will resort to convincing the victim they are not good enough.
These tactics can change a person’s identity more deeply than the other types of gaslighting.
In Angela’s case, Mark used a (fictional) private conversation he had with the neighbor to make Angela doubt her ability to sing, and thus lose her desire for it.
Even more so, because she loved Mark and didn’t want to cause him “distress” by her singing, her aversion to singing was felt even deeper than if she had known she was bad, but Mark wasn’t around to hate it.
Phrases that might be used for this method may look like the following:
“They were just being nice when they complimented you. I love you and want the best for you, so I’ll tell you the truth — you’re not good at singing…”
“It looks like you’re gaining a few pounds. I love the way you look, but I also want you to be healthy. Maybe you should lose a few pounds… for yourself, of course.”
“Did you know that [insert authority’s name] shows that men are naturally lazy? If you helped out more around here, maybe we could actually be happy. Other men work sixty hours a week too, you know, and still come home and cook dinner for their wives and clean up!”
The danger here is that these could all be true. Maybe the neighbor was being nice, maybe the person could be healthier, maybe the husband could help more around the house…
Or maybe, if looked at in context, these are just one part of a consistent effort to change a person’s behavior.
If it’s just a few times, and only about a single thing, it may be genuine concern with poor communication.
However, if you notice a constant onslaught of comments like these, especially about multiple things, it’s very possible the person is trying to change the core of who you are.
This is one of the most abusive, damaging, and purposeful forms of gaslighting. Here, the abuser seeks full control over the victim.
Sometimes it’s so they can change the person or hide information from them. But often it’s for the sole reason that they enjoy having power over others.
The biggest way a person accomplishes this is by secluding them from friends or family.
This is a huge red flag for gaslighting in relationships…
In the Disney movie Tangled, the evil witch imprisons Rapunzel and gets her to stay largely by ensuring her that the world outside is dangerous and unable to be handled by a girl like her.
The abuser (“gaslighter”) may try to make you believe your family and friends hate them, and that by seeing your family you are violating the love and commitment you have with each other.
The gaslighter may seek to move you far away from friends and family under a pretense of a new job or an adventure. This is one sign that must be taken in context of other clues.
The abuser may keep the victim’s schedule busy and fill all their time with obligations or other activities that may be “fun” but will not include friends and family.
They may lavish the victim with gifts to make them feel as though the abuser’s “love” is all the victim needs to mask their own personal insecurities.
There are many other ways an abuser may seek to isolate their victim.
Be aware, anyone who genuinely loves you and wants the best for you will never seek to isolate you from friends or family. Isolation and dependency are never healthy for a relationship!
Signs Of Abuse
It can be difficult to tell if you are being gaslighted. Not all the conversations or tactics above mean you are definitely a victim of abuse.
It could just be evidence of poor communication, an unhealthy (but non-abusive relationship), or a single, isolated situation.
It’s important to take everything in context and look for patterns of behavior. Another thing you can do is look for these signs, either in yourself, or in the suspected gaslighter.
Having a few of these doesn’t necessarily mean you are being gaslighted, but if you have all or the majority, take action as soon as you can.
In The Abuser
Most of these signs have to do with controlling information. A gaslighter cannot be successful without changing thought and perspective, which can only be done through information.
One of the best ways to prevent gaslighting is to have as much exposure to different people and perspectives as possible.
A. Withholding Information
One of the easiest and least noticeable methods of controlling information is the gaslighter will tell a half-truth or give you just enough information to satisfy the victim.
In normal relationships, this can be a legitimate way to protect either party, or to avoid too much intimacy too soon in a relationship.
However, gaslighters do this with the intent to deceive, control, and hide…
Another way the abuser can accomplish this is by refusing to talk about important information.
They can fake being confused or not understanding or can refuse to talk about their emotions.
Often this is the first step, and if the person is unsuccessful in withholding information, they will move on to one of the next methods.
B. Changing Information
Another tactic is changing the information, particularly in a way that fits the abuser’s perspective.
A gaslighter who is having an affair with a coworker will say they are “staying late to work.” From their perspective, since this is a coworker, they’re not actually lying.
Another way of doing this is by recounting memories from their perspective…
They may say “well I remember it this way…” leaving just enough truth to make their false memory (which they probably actually believe) plausible.
At this point, this then becomes a “he said she said” situation, and any person who may have any doubt at all about their memories (usually a healthy thing to have) will become confused about the situation.
When this happens enough times, the victim starts to have zero confidence in their ability to correctly remember things, and the abuser now has nearly full control over how the victim’s memory.
C. Discounting Information
Through this method, the gaslighter may seek to discredit an otherwise reliable source. They may say things like:
“Oh, well he’s always hated me. Why would take his word for it?”
“That’s fake news.”
“You’re going to trust that person over me? If you loved me, you’d trust me more.”
Eventually, after being worn down for a while, the victim begins to doubt any source of information that doesn’t come from the abuser.
Only sources “verified” by the gaslighter count as true information, anything else is just out to get them or “pull the wool over your eyes.”
D. Verbal Abuse
As you can see, gaslighting in relationships can take many forms. Sometimes, the gaslighter will verbally abuse the victim in order to reduce self-esteem and increase doubt.
They will usually frame this as joke so they can claim they’re not actually being abusive as well as accuse you of “not having a sense of humor.”
Making fun of a man’s masculinity or a woman’s weight are two of the more common methods.
In Angela’s case, Mark may have “joked” about her being a bad singer. Other comments might be about the victim being a bad parent, “stupid,” or ugly.
Eventually, with enough “jokes,” the person starts to believe these things about them are true.
The abuser will seek to remove the victim from any source, especially family and friends, who may try to warn the person about the gaslighter’s actions or offer a perspective different than the abuser’s.
This also serves to make the victim lonely and solely dependent on the gaslighter.
If they believe they are unable to make it in the world without the abuser, they are unlikely to leave them.
This can also take the form of controlling all media (TV, movies, social media) that the victim takes in.
Any form of isolation is an act of manipulation and abuse and should never be tolerated in any relationship.
Two of the overarching themes of these tactics is to reduce the self-esteem of the victim, and to weaken their thought process.
Both make the victim more dependent on the abuser and can make the person unable to or afraid of functioning by themselves.
In The Victim
Just a couple of these alone do not point to gaslighting in a relationship, but if you are suffering from all, or the majority, of these “symptoms,” take a serious look at your partner’s words and actions to see if they may be gaslighting you.
A. Relationship Dissatisfaction
You may feel a dissatisfaction with your relationship, or have a general feeling of unhappiness or anxiety, without being able to point to a specific reason why you feel that way.
You may also have a lack of desire or a fear of talking about your relationship with other people. People in happy, healthy, and safe relationships like to talk about how much in love they are.
If you are scared to talk about your relationship because you are subconsciously afraid someone will call it out, that is a huge red flag.
B. Increased Self-Doubt
While a certain amount of self-doubt can be healthy, constantly doubting your own opinions, memories, and perspectives can be sign that someone is manipulating you to think that way.
Being unable to or afraid of making simple decisions, like what shirt to wear or where to go for dinner, could be caused by some anxiety someone else has given you by making “wrong” choices.
Some personality types naturally suffer from these, so this is one area where it’s important to not jump to a conclusion too quickly.
C. Overly Apologetic
Some people are naturally apologetic, but if you’ve increased the amount you apologize to people, especially for small or unimportant things, it could be a warning sign.
This is a classic sign of abuse.
D. Lack Of Self-Esteem
If you notice a large decrease in your confidence or self-esteem, this points to something being wrong.
Most of us go through phases like this, but if, like Angela, you feel as though you’ve lost a sense of self, don’t like yourself like you use to, or have an unusual lack of confidence, it’s possibly caused by someone making you feel that way.
Any onset of depression or anxiety is reason to seek help, no matter the cause.
But if you feel it’s connected to your partner, or your relationship in general, and there’s no other history of these conditions, it may be caused by an abusive partner.
One characteristic sign of gaslighting is an increased sense of being absent-minded or forgetful. This is caused by the constant, usually subtle, mental and emotional manipulation of the abuser.
While this can be caused by things like lack of sleep, chronic stress, or even medical conditions, if this is unlike you or a new aspect of your personality, seek help!
Even if it is a medical condition, there’s usually a solution.
Falling and being in love can be an incredible experience, and often leads to wanting to spend every moment you can with the object of your affection.
This doesn’t mean you should develop an unhealthy level of dependence for your partner, however.
If you find you are unable to function or be happy while not with your partner, you’ve developed an unhealthy level of codependence.
Many times, this is a reaction to abuse (kind of like the “Stockholm syndrome”).
No matter the reason, it’s something that needs to be addressed.
If your partner has the same tendency, or doesn’t support you getting better, it’s a red flag that they may want you that way for a reason!
Protecting Yourself From Gaslighting
While gaslighting can be hard to identify and recover from, there are some things you can do to protect yourself so it’s harder to be manipulated by abusers.
1. Surround Yourself With Friends & Family
Isolation is one of the biggest tools that an abuser has. Keeping in touch with family and friends can protect you for many reasons.
Primarily, it can help you stay rooted in reality. How many times has someone told you something and you’ve sought out a second opinion from someone you trust?
Friends and family can also help you identify warning signs in a relationship.
We’re social creatures, so being around people we love tends to make us happy, which in turn can shield us from things like anxiety and depression.
Even if you’re not able to spend as much quality time with others as you’d like, it’s really important you at least talk to other people frequently.
Your partner should not be your only friend or person you confide in!
Social media can be a great way to stay connected and in touch with people.
But it can also cause depression and anxiety if used too much or in the wrong way. It can even change your brain chemistry!
Sometimes you can get by with just blocking or removing a specific person, but if you find that social media increases your anxiety, consider taking a break.
News can do this too. It is important to stay up to date on what’s going on in the world, but sometimes the news can be overwhelming, and in today’s world, can even make you doubt what is true and false.
Consider focusing on local news only for a while, and if possible, from sources with opposing biases.
If you’re feeling anxious or depressed, try to avoid conversations like politics, religion, and disasters for at least a week. It’s just detox, you can catch up once you’ve had a break!
Getting off social media, and in some cases turning off the news, can help reset your brain and calm the anxiety that can come from them.
3. Keep A Journal And Pictures
As we’ve seen, gaslighter’s thrive on modifying, replacing, or erasing your memories and perspectives of situations.
One way to ensure you maintain control of your past is by keeping a regular journal and taking pictures.
It may seem like “living in fear,” but there are actually a lot of other good reasons to document your life.
It can help you get past trauma, release endorphins when you look at it, and can help you process information as you’re recording it.
In the case of gaslighting, keeping these things can help you reference things in a more objective manner than “he said, she said.”
When you doubt what happened, go back and read or look and get a good idea of how you perceived the situation at the time rather than trying to remember yourself.
Knowledge is power, especially when the success of gaslighting depends so much on controlling information!
Reading a little bit every day or week, especially non-fiction and self-help books, can help give you the knowledge and mental ability to resist gaslighting techniques.
Fiction can even be good if you enjoy it. It can entertain you, help you deal with stress, and even make you better at detecting lies and half-truths.
5. Leave The Relationship
Toxic relationships are no good even if they don’t involve gaslighting.
They stress you out, can make you depressed or anxious, and help you lose track of what a healthy relationship actually looks like.
All these things can make you more susceptible to gaslighting and other toxic relationship behaviors in the future.
While you may want to try to make a toxic relationship work, if the person is unwilling to change, it’s not worth it.
If you’re in a relationship that exhibits gaslighting behavior, especially the isolation and “joking abuse,” leave!
The longer you stay the more likely you are to suffer gaslighting. Don’t doubt that this is a toxic relationship.
6. Seek Help
I’m a big fan of seeking out professional help for most needs.
We ask doctors to treat our physical illnesses and go in for yearly check-ups, so why not develop an ongoing relationship with a mental health professional?
While you most likely won’t need to go in for a “yearly checkup,” there are a host of problems a therapist can help you with.
Depression and anxiety are two of the big ones, but confidence building, establishing good habits, and helping your relationship be healthy are just a few of things.
If you begin seeing any of the early warning signs of gaslighting, or even if you suffer from anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem, seeking out a therapist as soon as possible can shield you from a lot of pain in the future.
For more of my recommendations on how to deal with gaslighting and other relationship issues, check out my Resources page here.
Healing Yourself After A Gaslighting Relationship
Just as it can be difficult to break out of gaslighting, it can be equally hard to heal from it.
As we saw from Angela, her other “relationships” had suffered from it, and it wasn’t until she realized that something was wrong that she could even begin fixing it.
But it is possible to move on. It’s even possible to stop being an abuser, though it is incredibly difficult until you can admit you have a problem.
These following steps can help both victims and abusers get past the trauma of gaslighting.
1. Find A Therapist
I mentioned this a few times already, but it’s so important. A therapist can help you heal faster and more fully than trying to deal with this by yourself!
2. Take A Relationship Break
After suffering any sort of relationship abuse or toxicity you should take some time to be single.
Ideally, you wouldn’t even hook up for at least a few months, but if you need a couple one-night stands to keep your head clear, make sure they don’t turn into relationships.
You need to find this time to treat yourself, rediscover yourself, and get to know yourself better.
It’s nearly impossible to do this when you have to help meet other’s needs like you do in a relationship. Abstain from relationships and give your wounds time to heal.
3. Cut Off Contact
Cut off contact completely from your abuser. Delete them from your phone, block them on social media, exorcise them from your friend group, and do not let them convince you to reconcile.
Even if they do change for the better (a very rare occurrence), they’ve lost you and you deserve better.
If you have kids with the person, seek full custody. Abuse begets abuse and abusers shouldn’t see their kids.
4. Don’t Be Afraid To Grieve
It’s OK to be sad and mourn — for the identity you lost, for the time you wasted on the person, for the effort it will take to heal.
Confront your emotions and let them out. Find people you can talk to and whose shoulder you can cry on.
A Final Word To The Gaslighters
I had a gaslighter in my family. Someone who should be very close to me. But that person is no longer in my life now. I had to let them go.
You see, at some point the gig is going to be up. It’s a game you can only play with yourself and your victim for so long.
Ask yourself, is your now identifiable behavior really worth it? Do you like having people who love you in your life? If the answer is undoubtedly ‘yes,’ it’s time to change course now.
These are some suggestions to get you on the path to change:
1. Seek Help
You cannot stop being an abuser by yourself.
You need help and to surround yourself with people dedicated to helping you be a better person.
This might include cutting off family and friends who enable you or encourage you to be a toxic person.
2. Do A Twelve-Step Program
While originally meant for alcoholics, they have 12-step programs for just about any dysfunctional behavior.
This is a tangible way to work through stopping this behavior and healing both yourself and the people you’ve hurt.
3. Take A Relationship Break
You’re not fit to be in a relationship until you’re a better person and won’t slip into your abusive habits again.
Don’t subject other people to your behavior, and don’t increase the number of people you’ve hurt.
4. Practice Meditation
This is covered in various forms through 12-step programs, but is important enough to mention again.
Mediation, prayer, or other forms of “just sitting” is not only physically and mentally healthy, but it helps regulate your emotions — anger in particular.
Find a form of meditation you can enjoy and practice it every single day. It will speed up and solidify the types of changes you want to make.
Gaslighting can be a traumatic and life changing experience.
Angela didn’t even realize what had happened to her until well after the relationship. Many people never know what’s happening or why they’re so sad.
It is more common than people want to think. Even in very minor instances, can be very detrimental to your relationship and mental health.
You can protect yourself. You can heal. Just watch for the signs and act as quickly or as confidently as possible!
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