What Is Gaslighting? How To Know If You're Experiencing It In A Relationship
When you're in a relationship with someone you love, the last thing you'd expect is for them to gaslight you. Here are a few signs you can look out for to determine if you're a victim of gaslighting in your relationship, plus tips to help you navigate it.
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What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that involves making someone question their own reality, feelings, and experiences of events, in order to maintain control over that person. The origin of the term can be traced to a British play in which an abusive husband manipulates the surroundings and events with the goal of making his wife question her reality.
"Gaslighting at its core is always about self-preservation and the maintenance of power/control—namely, the power/control to construct a narrative that keeps the gaslighter in the 'right' and their partner in the 'wrong,'" therapist Aki Rosenberg, LMFT, tells mbg.
Examples of gaslighting.
Gaslighting involves the covert use of mind games that make it difficult to know if you are even experiencing gaslighting, and that is the point.
According to licensed therapist Alyssa "Lia" Mancao, LCSW, common examples of gaslighting phrases include:
- "You're making things up."
- "That never happened."
- "You're being dramatic."
- "You're blowing things out of proportion."
What you'll notice in every situation of gaslighting is the gaslighter avoiding taking responsibility for their own role in the relationship.
Here's a real-life gaslighting example: Lupe and Sam are a couple whose friendship blossomed into dating. Soon after they started their romantic relationship, Lupe noticed Sam wasn't actually spending a lot of time with her one-on-one. When they were out together, Sam would also treat Lupe as if they were still platonic friends and flirt with other people. This made Lupe confused and prompted her to initiate a conversation about their developing relationship.
When Lupe brought up her concerns, Sam became upset. His reaction was, "You're acting like I don't care about you at all," and "Am I a bad person for trying to make new friends?" Sam deflected his behavior and spun their fight into a narrative that Lupe was in fact the one causing problems in the relationship by bringing any of this up in the first place. Lupe left the conversation confused, wondering why she was so sensitive and if she really was just self-sabotaging her own relationship.
Signs of gaslighting in a relationship:
You find yourself doubting your reality.
Every relationship has its challenges, and sometimes that means confronting your own behaviors. However, when you second-guess yourself to the point where you feel like you're "losing it," that's a major sign of gaslighting.
"The most destructive thing about gaslighting is that it makes it difficult to trust yourself," Rosenberg explains. This can happen over time, so it's not easy to detect immediately, but if you constantly find yourself asking "Am I losing it?" or saying "I'm not sure if what I'm feeling is valid," that's a big indicator of being gaslighted.
Your partner is dismissive of your feelings.
When you bring up a concern or share your feelings with your partner, they may convince you that you're the one mistaken or that you're overthinking. In the context of a healthy relationship, your partner will listen to your concerns and address them. Clinical therapist Alexis Sutton tells mbg that partners who gaslight will sometimes say, "You're too sensitive" or "You don't have a right to feel that way." Some partners will even deny events that happened.
They never let you talk during a conflict.
When you're in the middle of an argument with them, you might feel like they're constantly cutting you off and not letting you explain your point of view. "If you find yourself recording your conversations or writing long emails to get your point across because you can never get a word in when you speak to a person, you're probably experiencing gaslighting," Sutton adds.
Your partner doesn't apologize when you express hurt.
If you share with your partner that you are hurt and they lack empathy, that is a red flag. "If your partner doesn't apologize when you express hurt but convinces you that you shouldn't think what you are thinking or feel how you are feeling," that's a telltale sign of gaslighting, says Rosenberg. She explains that if a partner is never willing to take accountability for their actions and "you exhaust yourself, trying to justify your feelings in order for your partner to determine whether or not they are valid," you are being gaslit by your partner.
Your partner blames you or outside circumstances.
If you notice that your partner often blames you when conflict arises or blames their own actions on outside factors, that is a sign of gaslighting. Sutton explains that people who gaslight might "change the topic to something you have done instead of addressing what they have done." Papin and Jackson add that some partners may take it as far as belittling you, calling you "too sensitive" as a way to avoid taking accountability for themselves.
You start believing that you're just not working hard enough in your relationship.
At some point in your relationship, you may begin to believe that you are not doing enough. Your partner has denied, minimized, or placed the blame on you when you've tried to voice your concerns. Over time this can cause you to internalize those messages to the point where you believe that it is your fault. "This is objectively impossible," Rosenberg reminds. "In a healthy relationship, both partners will make mistakes, and both partners will apologize when they are in the wrong. If it's one-sided all the time, it's an indication that the relationship dynamic is organized around themes of power and control."
Using your voice brings about feelings of guilt.
Your relationship may get to the point where sharing any of your feelings becomes incredibly difficult to do. If the thought of bringing up a concern or sharing your true feelings starts making you feel guilty, therapist Mariel Buquè, Ph.D., says that's a sign that "there is control at the center of your relationship, which is a key marker of gaslighting." She recommends paying attention to if you are feeling suppressed or "if you are feeling voiceless in your relationship," as that is a sign of being gaslit.
Why do people gaslight?
"Gaslighting can make the perpetrator feel more powerful and in control," Papin and Jackson explain. A person who gaslights might not have the capacity to sit with their emotions or self-reflect and may even have feelings of low self-worth that they are uncomfortable dealing with. In some cases, gaslighting is used by someone psychologists would identify as a narcissist, where the person has no sense of remorse for their actions or empathy for their partner.
Gaslighting can be done either consciously or unconsciously, they add. Although gaslighting is never justified, there are some people who may not realize they are even doing it. Some people consistently rely on gaslighting as a tactic to maintain control in relationships, so they might not realize how harmful it is. "Some folks have been gaslighting those around them for so long that it's a second-nature survival strategy," Papin and Jackson explain.
They and Rosenberg also drew parallels between gaslighting in relationships and larger social issues. Papin and Jackson note that gaslighting "can often intersect with misogyny and white supremacy. These intersections have often excused and encouraged gaslighting behavior to maintain positions of power. Gaslighting is a common method to keep power structures in place and oppress folks who have less access to support and resources."
These power dynamics can show up within intimate relationships as well. "The more privilege one has, the more their experience gets centralized as 'normal' or 'correct,'" Rosenberg explains. "Gaslighting can show up in relationships as the more privileged partner discounting the experiences of the less privileged partner."
How to stop gaslighting in a relationship:
Seek support to affirm your experience.
The therapists agreed that seeking support from trusted people outside of your relationship is crucial to helping you feel validated and affirmed in your experience. "Because gaslighting is so invalidating and manipulative, reminders and empathy can feel deeply supportive," Papin and Jackson explain. "You might turn to a trusted friend, or a therapist, if you have access to one."
You can choose to confront your partner about their gaslighting.
There is a chance that your partner does not realize they are gaslighting you. In this case, Buquè suggests it may be worthwhile to help them understand what gaslighting is, how they are enacting it, and how it makes you feel. "It, unfortunately, places the burden of proof and teaching on the person that's being hurt by gaslighting, but it can actually make a difference in them deciding to shift their ways in the service of removing toxic patterns from the relationship," she explains.
If you're dealing with a narcissist, confronting them is futile.
It's unlikely that a toxic person will admit to manipulating the relationship in order to have a sense of control. If you are experiencing gaslighting in the moment, Sutton recommends removing yourself from the situation: "Don't engage. If possible, end the conversation. Gaslighters aren't interested in your perspective or feelings," and it would take you more energy and suffering to try to convince them otherwise.
Leave the relationship if gaslighting persists.
If that gaslighting is pervasive and confronting your partner is not an option, do consider leaving the relationship. Sutton urges that if your partner becomes enraged while they are gaslighting you or puts you in danger, it is even more imperative that you consider ending the relationship altogether. This may not be easy, but it may be a necessary step toward feeling safe.
Notice the patterns.
"Regardless of if you choose to stay or go, develop an understanding of your own attachment patterns," Rosenberg recommends. "Sometimes we legitimately can't see this behavior coming, but often, when we look back on a bad relationship, we recognize all the red flags and gut instincts we overrode in the hopes of receiving love and connection."
Recognize it is not up to you to stop the gaslighting.
The experts all shared this sentiment: Gaslighting is never your fault. Even though your partner may have convinced you that the toxic pattern is because of you, it is never your responsibility to stop the gaslighting from happening. In a healthy relationship, both partners are accountable to their own behaviors, and when it comes to gaslighting, the person doing it must have a willingness to change.
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Jayda Shuavarnnasri, M.A., also known as Sex Positive Asian Auntie, is a queer Southeast Asian sexual wellness educator. She has a bachelor's degree in Human Services from California State University at Fullerton and a master's degree in Peace and Justice from the University of San Diego, specializing in social justice and gender inequity. She's also a certified sex educator through San Francisco Sex Information.
Jayda has also trained and worked as a Rape Crisis Counselor through San Francisco Women Against Rape and other organizations throughout southern California and the Bay area. She continues to advocate for survivors of sexual assault by aligning her work with trauma-informed practices.
As an educator, the topics that excite her most are sexual exploration, transformative justice, and non-traditional relationships. When not talking about sex, you can also find her drawing visual notes during social justice workshops. You can follow her work on Instagram.