A candle shaped like a woman's body is being lit by someone with a lighter
Illustration by Marta Pucci

Gaslighting in Relationships. How to Recognize it and Defend Yourself

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
5/11/2022
Last updated:
5/23/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
5/11/2022
Last updated:
5/23/2022

TL;DR

  • A gaslighter is someone who manipulates others to gain control over them.
  • Gaslighting can involve bending the truth and causing the victim to question their own reality and even sanity.
  • It can happen in romantic relationships as well as in friendships and in the workplace.
  • While difficult to spot the signs of gaslighting at the beginning, they tend to build into a huge problem over time.
  • There are a number of things you can do if you're worried you're being gaslit, but getting out of the relationship quickly is often the best advice.

Gaslighting at its simplest is about manipulating others to gain control over a situation. But would you recognize this kind of psychological abuse if you were the victim? And more importantly, would you know what to do about it?

What do we mean by the term 'gaslighting'?

Ever had someone say to you, “You’re too sensitive,” “You’re imaging it,” or “Lighten up, I was only joking!”?

How did it make you feel?

These are typical statements used by gaslighters. And it’s not putting it too bluntly to say that gaslighting is a serious problem. It is emotional abuse; a form of manipulation. Gaslighting leaves its victim questioning what they thought they knew about themselves, their recollection of events and ultimately their perception of reality. It can make them feel lost and confused with no idea how or why:

“Am I overreacting?,” “Is that not what happened?,” “Am I going mad?”

This is something that can happen in romantic relationships as well as in friendships and in the workplace. One thing is for sure though, in an intimate relationship it is far more damaging due to the trust you have placed in your partner. It is also much harder to walk away from.

Of course, if this happened once in a while, it’s possible you wouldn’t notice it. But when you start to spot this type of gaslighting behavior sneaking in more regularly, it could be a sign that there is a problem brewing.

Some examples of gaslighting

Gaslighting can take a number of different forms, or more usually a combination of several different techniques. Each is designed to slowly wear the victim down and exert power over them.

One common type of emotional manipulation is to deny all knowledge of a specific memory or event you have; to make you question whether it ever happened in the first place. To sow seeds of doubt in your mind. If you raise a concern with them, or mention something you’ve been worried about, they may act as though your emotions and feelings don’t matter. They may tell you you’re too dramatic or you “always overreact”.

And if you try to confront them? They’ll likely tell you they have no idea what you’re talking about and you must be crazy to say the things you’re saying. They may even turn things on their head and make it sound like they are the victim and you are the one manipulating the truth.

Over time, this type of gaslighting can encourage you to shut down; to become afraid to show your emotions. They may tell you everyone else is lying to you and you should only believe them. And dangerously, you may start to believe that everything that happens is your own fault which, unsurprisingly, can have a huge mental health impact on your daily life. It can also be a source of relationship anxiety.

But is it deliberate?  

It’s often assumed that gaslighting is done deliberately. That the gaslighter is choosing to use this manipulation technique to control their victim. And often this may be the case. Indeed, gaslighting can be a favorite pastime of many narcissistic people.

But sometimes, the person manipulating the situation may be entirely unaware of the hurt and pain they’re causing. The important thing to remember here is that doesn’t make it OK and it doesn’t make it any easier for them to stop doing it.

Spotting the signs

One of the reasons that this is such a huge problem is that, as a victim of gaslighting, it can be incredibly hard to recognize what is going on. Gaslighting is not an overnight occurrence, it tends to start subtly and build over time. With many of the characteristics easy to explain away as an ‘off day’ or bad mood.

Our advice is to first check in with your gut. Deep down, do you feel you’re in a healthy relationship?

If you’re looking for signs of gaslighting in your relationship, ask yourself some questions:

  • Do you believe your partner repeatedly lies to you?
  • Does your partner criticize you often… calling you crazy or stupid or inept?
  • Do you often finish a conversation feeling confused or unsure about what just happened?
  • When you think about it, have you become more distant from previously close family and friends? Do you ever worry that they might be being turned against you?

And crucially, if you try to voice any of these concerns, do you get anywhere?

These are all common gaslighting techniques. Psychological manipulation tactics that can develop over time to create a cycle of abuse.

If you’re unsure whether you’re in a gaslighting situation, consider talking to a trusted friend who can help to give you a more balanced view of reality. They’ll help you to understand how things look from the outside.

Alternatively a book, such as the excellent 'Gaslighting' by Stephanie Sarkis, PhD could help you to really shed light on and begin to understand the gaslighting techniques that are so often used.

What to do if you spot gaslighting behavior?

Recoginizing attempts to gaslight is only the first step. Once you’ve spotted the warning signs, what can you do to get yourself away from this manipulative behavior?

  1. Start to collect evidence as soon as you can. Begin a journal or make notes on your phone. Anything you can refer back to when you are doubting yourself. This will help you start to trust yourself and your memory. And it will give you concrete facts to discuss with family or friends when you feel able to reach out for support.
  2. Try to trust your intuition. If your gut is telling you it’s not right, it probably isn’t. Tell yourself your feelings and beliefs are valid no matter what they are. Don’t allow anyone else to tell you they are not.
  3. Build a habit of checking in with yourself. You are your most important supporter. How do you feel? What is your emotional state? This may go hand in hand with journaling above. The point is, don’t blindly believe your partner's allegations about your mental state. Make up your own mind.
  4. Try not to be drawn into an argument with your partner. When they start denying that what you’re saying is true, or start demeaning your character or feelings, it’s easy to go on the defensive. It’s natural to want to stick up for yourself or counter their accusations. Unfortunately this won’t help. A gaslighter likes nothing more than to get a rise from you; to get under your skin. As with any kind of bully, the best response is normally no response.
  5. Where possible, seek help from a trusted friend or member of your family. Discuss your concerns and tell them how you’re feeling. See what their view is and talk to them about the best way forward.

Unfortunately for gaslighting victims, often the only real solution is to get out of the relationship. Gaslighters do not become gaslighters because of anything you have done, it is a trait of their personality. It’s a hard truth that things are unlikely to improve.

Depending on your situation - not least whether there are children involved - leaving your long-term partner can be painful and difficult. Consider seeking support from a mental health professional if you feel unable to break away. They will help you to explore your feelings and reassure you that these issues are not in your head.

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