Weddings

What Is Gaslighting in a Relationship?

Learn to recognize the signs of communication manipulation.

Valerie Nikolas
Valerie Nikolas
woman holding her phone and looking stressed
Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock

woman holding her phone and looking stressed
Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock

In the 1944 noir film Gas Light, Ingrid Bergman’s character is repeatedly told by her husband that her perception of reality is untrue. These interactions escalate, culminating in a scene where he convinces her that the lights she sees flickering in their house aren’t actually flickering. 

It may be a little hyperbolic, but anyone who’s been a victim of gaslighting can probably identify with this scenario on some level. “Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that’s so insidious you don’t recognize what’s happening,” says Robin Stern, PhD, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the book, The Gaslight Effect

Nowadays, gaslighting is a common phrase in everyday speech, but it wasn’t until Stern coined the term in her 2007 book that we began to put words to this confusing and emotionally damaging manipulative tactic. Read on to learn from her about what gaslighting is and what to do if you’ve been a victim. 

What Is Gaslighting? 

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where one person in a relationship lies or deflects to alter the other person’s perception of reality. “It’s sowing seeds of doubt in how another person sees themselves and the world,” says Stern. This can include trivializing or invalidating concerns that the other person brings up in order to divert responsibility or make themselves appear better. 

“Gaslighting leads the gaslightee to doubt their own perceptions and their own reality. Eventually they’ll think there’s something wrong with them,” says Gottman-certified therapist Karen Bridbord, PhD. “They start to feel disconnected from their own sanity,” says Stern. Over time, this leads to a “tattered self esteem and devolving sense of self.” 

A common example of gaslighting is if a girlfriend confronts her boyfriend about seeing flirty texts from another woman on his phone. The boyfriend could gaslight the girlfriend by deleting the texts and saying they never happened (countering), or accusing the girlfriend or being paranoid or possessive (deflecting). 

For a one-time example, this is called gaslighting. But if these lies continue to happen, and the gaslightee begins to believe them, that's the gaslight effect. “The gaslight effect happens over time when you allow another person to define your reality and erode your sense of judgement,” says Stern. Over time, the gaslight effect can really take a toll on a person’s mental health and well-being. 

Signs of Gaslighting

Gaslighting is inherently confusing because it makes you question your own sense of reality. If you’ve been in a situation like the one described above, you may have been a victim of gaslighting. Red flags that you're being gaslighted may include: 

  • Second-guessing yourself or your perceptions

  • Feeling confused or crazy 

  • Wondering if you’re too sensitive, too paranoid, or “too much”?

  • Apologizing often, even if you’re not sure why 

  • Having a feeling that something is wrong 

  • Lying to avoid putdown and reality twists

  • Having trouble making simple decisions

  • Feeling like you don’t recognize yourself 

If you identify with these statements, they could be warning signs that your partner is gaslighting you. The good news is, recognizing gaslighting is a critical step to improving the situation. “If you’re aware of what gaslighting is, it makes it easier to disengage,” says Stern. 

Who Gaslights? 

“There are people who are more prone to gaslighting others,” says Bridbord. “Gaslighting does tend to be more readily employed by people who have a personality disorder such as narcissism.” 

People who display other types of narcissistic behaviors are more likely to manipulate the worlds of those around them. However, Stern adds, “anyone can be a gaslighter.” 

Gaslighting is typically employed by people who have been gaslighted in the past, such as children who grew up with parents who did so. When a child is gaslighted by a parent, it can lead to trust issues that persist for a long time and manifest as gaslighting. 

“Kids’ personalities aren’t fully formed,” says Bridbord. “If there’s an adult who’s denying things, gaslighting can become deep-seated.” 

To that point, gaslighting doesn't just happen in romantic relationships. Gaslighting can happen in families, friendships, and workplaces, especially in relationships that already have an existing power dynamic that's skewed towards one person.

What to Do if You've Been a Victim of Gaslighting 

A one-off instance of gaslighting may not necessarily be a sign of a chronic problem. However, when employed persistently over time, gaslighting can be a form of emotional abuse that’s incredibly harmful to the victim’s mental health and sense of well-being. 

If you suspect your partner may be gaslighting you, write down conversations you have to track where the conversation pivots and starts to become a power struggle. Gather your social support. It can be beneficial to have someone outside the relationship who can flag instances of gaslighting that you may not remember accurately. 

Coming to terms with being a victim of the gaslight effect can be upsetting and take a toll on your sense of self-worth. “Treatment is really warranted if you’ve been gaslighted for long period of time,” says Bridbord. “People become very angry and upset that they someone else define their reality. That’s why it’s so important to get treatment.”

With proper therapy and desire to change, some gaslighters can reform their ways. However, the broken trust typically means the gaslightee will want to end the relationship. 

"It's important to be in a place where your integrity and your clear sight is more important than holding on to the relationship” says Stern. “Be prepared to disengage."

Some gaslighting relationships, such as those with family members and coworkers, may be harder to leave. For those situations, Stern recommends self-regulation strategies that level the playing field. “If it’s a power struggle, it’s important that you empower yourself to opt out.”

Refusing to engage with a false narrative can empower a victim of gaslighting. It’s an act of self-care that can restore your confidence and sense of self. 

Remember, “you have the power to disengage,” says Stern. “That’s where you take your power back.”

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