Manipulation is a powerful tool, and it can take many shapes in a romantic relationship. The danger in pairing with a manipulative person is that they’re very astute and many times the damage is done before you even realize that you’re being manipulated. One of the most common forms of manipulative abuse (and it is abuse) is gaslighting, which we’re about to discuss extensively. Gaslighting in relationships is common, but it inflicts intense harm. If you suspect that you or someone love are being manipulated by a romantic partner, stick around. Let’s dive into the warning signs and explore some solutions for dealing with a manipulative partner.
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What is gaslighting?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, gaslighting is “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”
While gaslighting is not a clinical term, the mental health professionals at Choosing Therapy describe it as any act that makes you doubt your own beliefs or feelings about a situation. Unfortunately, this form of abuse is common in unhealthy relationships. It can happen at any age, from teenage relationships to seasoned adults. Studies show men are more often the perpetrators of this particular form of manipulation.
Gaslighting often creeps in slowly. First, the perpetrator will build trust, and then over time, they begin to gaslight—which can make it hard to recognize. This behavior tends to manifest in minor incidents over a long period of time, conditioning the partner to accept the abuse. There’s often an unequal power dynamic, in which one partner exhibits a much stronger personality than the other.
Recognizing and Combating Manipulation in Relationships
A typical scenario involves the gaslighter downplaying the significance of their partner’s achievements and other connections, with the ultimate aim of positioning themselves as the most central figure in the victim’s life. Once they have placed themselves on a pedestal, they are in a prime position to begin controlling your thoughts and decisions. Let’s take a look at a few common tactics used by mental manipulators to familiarize ourselves with the red flags.
1. Insults and Demeaning Behavior—Verbal Abuse
Your partner may insult or belittle you, either in private or in front of others. They might use humor as a weapon, teasing or mocking you while dismissing their hurtful remarks with, “I’m just kidding.” This form of gaslighting is not just a one-off but a regular occurrence. When you protest, they may say something like, “You’re overreacting,” or “Can’t you take a joke?”
2. Memory Manipulation
Gaslighters often make you doubt your own memory or perceptions. They might say things like, “You seriously don’t remember that?” or “You promised to do that” to sow confusion and self-doubt. This manipulative tactic makes you question your own perceptions of what you remember.
3. Denial of Wrongdoing
Individuals who engage in bullying and emotional abuse often have a pattern of refusing to acknowledge their wrongdoing. This behavior allows them to evade accountability for their harmful actions. Such denial can leave gaslighting victims feeling invisible, unheard, and as if their suffering is insignificant. They may say, “I didn’t say that,” “You’re making that up,” or “That’s not what I meant.”
4. Deflection and Blame-Shifting
When confronted about insensitive behavior or mistakes, a gaslighter may go further than just denying responsibility. They may deflect blame by accusing you of being too sensitive, paranoid, or crazy in an accusation designed to shift responsibility away from themselves. They’ll say things like, “Don’t blame me for this. You started it” or “Oh, so you think you’re so perfect.” This tactic can make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells to avoid triggering an argument that will always end up being your fault.
5. Invalidating or Trivializing Your Thoughts and Feelings
Invalidation is a destructive gaslighting tactic that can wreak havoc on your mental and emotional well-being. Invalidation dismisses or belittles an individual’s feelings, experiences, or opinions, essentially denying their validity. It erodes a person’s self-esteem and creates a toxic environment in which their thoughts and emotions are constantly undermined. While attempting to invalidate your feelings, a manipulator may say, “Well, you’re the only one who feels that way,” “Everyone agrees with me,” or “It’s not that big of a deal. Stop overreacting.”
6. Using Compassionate Words as Weapons
On occasion, when confronted or challenged, a gaslighter may employ tender and affectionate words in an attempt to ease the tension. They might say, “You know how much I love you. I would never intentionally harm you.” Another common one is “I only said that to try to help you.”
These seemingly heartfelt statements can sometimes persuade the victim to excuse the gaslighter, permitting them to evade responsibility or face consequences for their actions. While these words might be what the victim wishes to hear, they often lack authenticity, especially if the same hurtful behavior persists.
7. Rewriting History
Gaslighters often manipulate narratives to their advantage, reshaping stories to suit their interests. For instance, let’s say your partner pushed you against the wall. When talking about it later, they may distort the story by suggesting that you stumbled, and they were merely trying to help you regain your balance, resulting in you hitting the wall.
This deliberate alteration of events can cause doubt in the way you remember the incident. The gaslighter’s aim is to foster confusion and self-doubt on your part, aligning precisely with their intentions in employing these manipulative tactics. The abuse doesn’t need to be physical like a shove, you may notice that they lie and distort all kinds of situations, twisting them in their favor.
In essence, gaslighting involves a partner undermining your feelings and perceptions, aiming to instill self-doubt and challenge your sense of reality. It’s a form of abusive behavior that preys on your deepest desires for understanding, appreciation, and love within the relationship. Partners who partake in this kind of behavior often suffer from a personality disorder such as narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. They may need to seek professional help
Warning Signs of Gaslighting in Victims
Now that you know some of the tactics used by gaslighters, your alarm bells may be going off. If you’ve noticed your partner, or the partner of a loved one, using some of the above language, you may want to take a closer look at the victim too. Gaslighting can manifest in various ways depending on the personality of the victim, and the impact can be profound. Here are a few ways that the abuse manifests in victims.
Doubting Your Feelings and Reality
Victims may begin to doubt the severity of mistreatment, convincing themselves it’s not that bad or that they’re overly sensitive.
Questioning Your Judgment and Perceptions
Fear of speaking up or sharing emotions can develop as victims learn that expressing themselves often results in negative consequences. This leads to silence and self-censorship.
Feeling Vulnerable and Insecure
Victims often feel like they’re “walking on eggshells” and experience diminished self-esteem and a constant state of unease. They may stop trying new things, speak unfavorably about themselves, or second-guess all their decisions. Self-doubt is very common in a gaslighting victim. Victims may relinquish decision-making to others due to a lack of trust in their own judgment.
Feeling Alone and Powerless
Gaslighting can isolate victims, making them believe that everyone around them views them as strange or unstable, reinforcing their sense of entrapment.
Disappointment in Self
Victims may perceive themselves as weaker or less assertive than they once were, leading to feelings of disappointment in their personal growth.
The gaslighter’s inconsistent behavior can leave victims feeling confused, as if they’re dealing with two different personalities.
Constant apologies for one’s actions or existence can become a coping mechanism, as victims become convinced that everything is their fault. Victims often assume that others are let down by them and feel the need to apologize continually.
Defending the Abuser
Victims will often assume the blame in front of others, protecting their partners from any confrontation. If a friend or loved one points out the abuse. They will deny it, defend their partner’s behavior, and take the blame on themselves.
These effects demonstrate the insidious nature of gaslighting and its potential to erode an individual’s self-worth, confidence, and mental well-being within the context of a relationship. Recognizing these signs is essential to breaking free from the cycle of manipulation and seeking support to heal and rebuild one’s sense of self.
Getting Help for the Effects of Gaslighting
In the book, The Gaslight Effect, a prominent clinical psychologist and leading authority on gaslighting, Dr. Robin Stern, shows how the gaslight effect works. If you’re interested in learning more about the subject from an expert, pick up a copy. On the other hand, if you’re fairly certain that your romantic relationship is suffering from this emotional or verbal abuse, it’s time to seek professional help from a psychotherapist or counselor.
It can be difficult to get treatment because of the nature of manipulation. When subjected to manipulation, it’s common for the perpetrator’s actions to appear non-threatening or even caring to the victim. In fact, the victim might feel a sense of gratitude because it seems like their partner knows better and cares about them. Those who engage in gaslighting often employ tactics to induce guilt or instill doubts about their own sanity when the victim attempts to seek assistance or support. It’s unlikely your partner will come along at first. Go for and by yourself!
Why is gaslighting so damaging?
According to Craig Malkin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School and the author of Rethinking Narcissism, “There’s a fundamental core experience of togetherness and connection in a romantic relationship, and when there’s a split or fragmentation between shared realities, there’s such an undermining of intimacy, connection, and safety in the relationship.”
In addition to its detrimental effects on an individual’s self-esteem and emotional well-being, gaslighting can be especially harmful to a relationship because it undermines the essential concept of a “shared reality” between partners. We need the intimacy of sharing our lives with someone. We crave the bond of our shared memories. They validate us in a way.
However, gaslighting behavior fundamentally challenges this shared reality. It calls into question, and in some cases dismantles, the foundation of trust and comfort within the relationship. As a result, partners may struggle to maintain their connection and may experience a profound loss of trust and security.
Is gaslighting a relationship death sentence?
If your partner is suffering from a diagnosed personality disorder, it will be quite hard for them to change their behavior without extensive clinical help. However, not all manipulative abusers are narcissists. Sometimes, it’s a learned behavior and can be adjusted if the person is willing to work on it.
Determining which relationships can be salvaged and which ones require you to walk away, as well as learning how to protect yourself from falling into a gaslighting relationship, is crucial for your well-being. Remember that you have the right to be in relationships that respect your boundaries, feelings, and worth. If a relationship consistently undermines your self-esteem and emotional well-being, it may be time to consider walking away for your own mental and emotional health.
Why do people gaslight?
Most manipulative abusers suffer from a need for control. This compulsion to control their partner may stem from a personality disorder or from a severe lack of self-worth. While not an excuse for bad behavior, recognize that there may be former abuse, a serious disorder, or a profound issue with self-esteem that is causing the abuser to behave in this way. Others manipulate because they were taught to and may not even realize they are being abusive.
Tactics to Minimize Gaslighting
If you have reason to believe you’re being gaslit, it’s essential to take proactive steps to address the situation effectively, taking into account the specific form of emotional abuse you are experiencing. It’s important to note that stopping the behavior is not your responsibility. The abuser is the one who makes the decision to gaslight or not. You’re only responsible for protecting your own mental health. Here are a few behaviors that you can institute for your own protection.
1. Don’t debate the narrative.
When your partner is changing the truth and trying to manipulate your memories, do not debate or give up your own reality. Christi Lincoln, MA, LCPC states that the best method is the “grey rock” tactic. Be as boring and responsive as a grey rock. Narcissists love to argue. It’s where they get their power. Don’t give them the satisfaction. You might say something like, “Well, it appears we have different memories of the situation. There’s no use in arguing about it.” Stop the conversation before they have the chance to start manipulating your thoughts. Your feelings and memories are valid. Don’t give them up.
2. Acknowledge and accept your own feelings.
When your partner engages in emotional gaslighting, they may attempt to invalidate your feelings, suggesting that you shouldn’t be experiencing them. It’s important to maintain your self-assuredness and respond with, “My feelings are my own, and you cannot deem them incorrect. I respect that you see things differently. Let’s both acknowledge and respect each other’s feelings.”
3. Set clear boundaries.
You must set boundaries to create a healthy relationship. This includes outlawing the use of certain words and phrases in your home. It may also include pointing out the behavior when you notice it, or involving a third party when an issue arises. As a victim of gaslighting, you have the right and the ability to place protective boundaries around yourself. Take some time to think about the tactics you have noticed in your partner, and put in place barriers to address those specific behaviors.
Abusive relationships are not confined to romance. Gaslighting and other forms of mental abuse can occur in all types of relationships, including those with coworkers, family members, or friends. Setting boundaries is an important part of all your relationships. For more on this topic, check out “The Importance of Setting and Maintaining Boundaries in Friendships.”
4. Document details.
While we don’t suggest arguing with your partner about the details, in an effort to protect your own mental health, document. This may include writing down dates or times, taking pictures or videos, etc. Some abusers will back down when confronted with detailed proof. Others will escalate their behavior and accuse you of being a spy or paranoid. Either way, you have proof, for your own assurance, that your version of events did indeed occur.
5. Get outside influence.
When you begin to feel a dip in your self-worth. When you begin to ask that question, “Am I just being too sensitive?” It’s time to run the situation by a trusted third person. Ideally, that person would be an unbiased one. While you may confide in a sister or friend, they often won’t see the situation clearly out of their love and concern for you. You may want to initiate a conversation with a therapist, pastor, the abuse hotline, or other unbiased third party for a fresh perspective.
6. Take some space.
As with any argument, sometimes the best way to deal with a manipulative situation is to walk away for a while. Tell your partner that you don’t like where this conversation is going, and suggest that you restart the conversation later when you’ve both had time to clear your head. Toxic relationships feed on immature and improper communication. When you feel that conversation heading down the wrong road. Do a U-turn.
7. Boldly confront the behavior.
Without getting angry, and without name calling or harsh language, point out to your partner when they are using manipulative tactics. Many gaslighters don’t even realize when they are falling back on old behaviors. When those phrases start to enter the conversation, you know what they are, stop the convo. Address the specific phrase that was said. Address how that phrase makes you feel and how it is being used as manipulation, and then either continue the conversation on a healthier path or leave it. Do not allow repetitive bad behavior to go unnoticed.
8. Walk away.
If you’re struggling with self-esteem or loss of trust in your relationship, and your partner is showing no signs of change, it’s time to walk away. No relationship is worth losing your self-worth or putting yourself in danger of escalated domestic violence. Try your best to alleviate the situation, but if the suggested tactics are not working, it’s time to end the relationship.
Recognizing and combating manipulation in a relationship is easier said than done. Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation that’s sneaky. That’s the thing about being manipulated—you don’t know you’re being manipulated. Gaslighting in relationships is common, but it’s not always fatal. Recognize the signs, set some boundaries, and get some professional help. You may be able to save your relationship if you’re both willing to put in the work.
While you should never give up your own reality or sense of self-worth, compromise is an essential element in any relationship. Take a look at “The Importance of Compromise in a Relationship” for a healthy look at what is and isn’t negotiable in a romance.
Frequently Asked Questions
This psychological manipulation involves one individual causing their partner to question their own perceptions, experiences, memories, or comprehension of past events.
There are many forms of gaslighting like Insults and Demeaning Behavior, Deflection and Blame-Shifting, Verbal Abuse, and Minimizing Your Thoughts and Feelings to name a few.