What is gaslighting in relationships? How can you tell if you’re a victim of this manipulative form of emotional abuse?
Knowing the signs of gaslighting—whether you suspect your partner is gaslighting you or not—is important, because the signs can be quite subtle and difficult to pinpoint.
What is gaslighting in relationships?
Simply stated, gaslighting is emotional abuse and is a tactic used by batterers to control their partner. In essence, it is an attempt to make the other person question and doubt their own sanity.
It’s a very manipulative tactic that people use for their own gain. By making the other person feel and look crazy, the gaslighter manipulates the partner for their own personal gain or benefit.
Being able to distinguish between true gaslighting vs. a few negative behaviors or reactions from our partner is absolutely critical. It is very important that we make a distinction between:
1. Gaslighting as part of a larger picture of dominance, control, words, and “intimate terrorism.”
2. Behaviors from our partners that might be dismissing or discounting of our reality.
Even several acts of dismissing or discounting perceptions or opinions may not necessarily be gaslighting. If it is true gaslighting then the behavior is a clear example of emotional and psychological abuse. One person is systematically and with harmful intent trying to make their partner go insane or seriously doubt their own grasp on reality. Gaslighting, in its original form, is usually a part of what we call characterological abuse.
Where did the word “gaslighting” come from?
The term ‘gaslighting’ came from the 1944 movie where a husband deliberately and systematically manipulated reality to make his wife mistrust her own sanity and perceptions in order to drive her crazy so he could take over her estate. There was clear and premeditated intent here to drive her over the edge. Today, that term is used much more loosely and is often used to denote when one person is making another person doubt their perceptions, knowledge, or opinions.
Why is gaslighting in relationships so harmful?
The key ingredient here is intent to control, manipulate, and subjugate one’s intimate partner. If this is the case, then the perpetrator of gaslighting is acting sadistically—in other words, they are deliberately damaging someone’s psyche without any care for the consequences on the victim. This is what makes true gaslighting harmful in marriages.
Even when it is done on a one-time basis, gaslighting holds the potential to destroy trust between partners. For example, out of desperation, a person may gaslight their partner to cover up an affair or some other major betrayal. A one-time incident of gaslighting can totally destroy trust in the relationship because the partner who discovers they were gaslit, may be shocked that the perpetrator could do such a thing. Ultimately, they will not feel safe in the relationship, and this lack of safety makes it impossible for the marriage to continue without couples counseling.
Gaslighting is often used in tandem with other types of emotional and/or physical abuse. The abuser is attempting to control the other person and gaslighting can often be one tactic, but likely it is in combination with other types of emotional abuse—such as isolating the victim, making sure they don’t have access to their own money, making sure they are cut off from family and friends, and not allowing them to work. In this dynamic where gaslighting can be present, there is no partnership or equality.
What motivates partners to gaslight their significant other?
Sometimes partners who gaslight on a one-time basis or during a brief period in a relationship, find themselves caught up in a betrayal they never imagined would happen—like an affair or something financial. Such partners fear their partner will leave if they learn the truth and do not know how to approach their partner to own the betrayal and recover from it. However, when gaslighting is a pattern, the partner who gaslights typically has a very narcissistic or antisocial personality.
If gaslighting is part of a whole set of behaviors that are designed to control and dominate, then the motivation to gaslight comes from that larger purpose: to have power over another human being. Among characterologically abusive partners, one motivation might be “hostile dependency” (i.e. I am going to make you feel so crazy, weak, or unworthy that you won’t leave me because you will begin to believe no one can love you the way I do). Another type of abusive partner might have anti-social, or what is often called “malignant narcissistic” traits (i.e. “It is my way or the highway and I don’t care who I have to destroy to have my way.”)
Gaslighting is part of a system of battery, which is an attempt to control one’s partner. And while that effort to control may be out of fear of abandonment, or a deep need to keep their partner in their lives, they are going about it in a hurtful and abusive manner.
11 Signs of Gaslighting in Relationships
Here are some of the key signs of gaslighting in relationships:
How to Tell if Your Partner is Gaslighting You: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself
Go beyond the specific signs of gaslighting in relationships and asking yourself these questions:
Can relationships heal from gaslighting?
Partners may be able to recover the relationship through scheduling intensive couples counseling to help them to create transparency and restore a sense of safety in their relationship. If gaslighting is a major pattern in the relationship, be prepared for a challenge.
If the gaslighting partner is able to own their betrayal, express sincere remorse, and help create transparency and restore safety in the relationship, the partners are poised to discover why their relationship was vulnerable to betrayal and to build a better relationship. This is healing for both partners.
It’s also important to keep in mind that what one person calls gaslighting can often be their partner’s argumentative nature, their air of superiority, or their judgmental tendency. Many scientists, doctors, and other highly educated and skilled people have a hard time being humble in relationships or knowing how to have egalitarian relationships. They may not intend harm on purpose and are often surprised when their partners get angry and hurt by their remarks. In these situations, healing is indeed possible.
When the person engaging in the gaslighting behavior is genuinely concerned about the impact they are having on their partner, are willing to look at their own contribution to the problem, and want to learn healthier ways of communicating in intimate relationships, then healing is possible and they have a good chance of building a flourishing relationship with the help of a relationship counselor.
If gaslighting is a pattern, then the perpetrator has to be open to very intensive individual therapy. It will take years to treat the personality disorder that led to this disturbing pattern of behavior. In the meantime, the couple will also need intensive couples therapy. In addition, the therapy may need to be supported by external measures that help ensure safety, such as polygraph tests. However, perpetrators generally are not receptive to participate in this type of treatment. This is why repair and recovery from gaslighting can be challenging—because the partner who needs long-term intensive treatment may not agree to it.
How to stay safe if you think you’re a victim of gaslighting:
Gaslighting is often a tactic used by abusers who are characterologically violent. With characterological violence, there is a clear victim and perpetrator—there is no admittance of wrongdoing on the abuser’s part and they often blame their partner for making them explode into violence. This is an unsafe dynamic.
Leaving an abusive relationship can be very dangerous. This is when a spike in violence can occur which is why a safety plan and a well-thought-out escape plan needs to be in place. Seek help if you are in this position, or even if you think you may be.
Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit them online.
If you are experiencing gaslighting in your relationship, or unsure if the behavior truly is gaslighting, I can help. I provide couples counseling services in a safe and private setting to not only provide tools and assistance to help heal your marriage, but to also bring healing to you on an individual level. Please contact me today: click here.