Gaslighting in Relationships
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse or psychological manipulation where one individual makes the other question or second-guess their perceptions, memories and feelings. It can take place in any context, but is most often used in the context of emotionally abusive romantic relationships.
Gaslighting in intimate relationships
Being on the receiving end of gaslighting can feel infuriating and confusing, but it is the most damaging when the individual inflicting it is your partner. In a relationship, gaslighting can range from something as small as being convinced that you’re the one always losing the house keys, to a severe situation where one partner is forced to question what is real and what is not. It is so significantly harmful that it has also been dubbed ‘romantic terrorism’. It should, however, be noted that even in relatively less severe situations, gaslighting can be highly detrimental to romantic relationships.
The Stages of being gaslighted in relationships
Stern (2007) explained the three stages of being gaslighted in intimate relationships. These are as follows:
During the first stage, the gaslighting behaviour seems bizarre or odd to you. Your partner may leave you feeling confused and angry, or may accuse or criticise you, but in this stage, you still believe you are right and do not question your perspective. The primary signs of gaslighting often go unnoticed in relationships.
In the next stage, as the name suggests, you defend yourself against the gaslighter’s manipulation. You may gather evidence and try and prove your point of view. By this stage, you no longer feel sure if you will be believed or supported.
The last stage is the most challenging, where you no longer recognise yourself, and feel a lack of hope and joy. You may feel isolated, and believe you cannot do things right anymore. By accepting the negative view of yourself that your partner has created, you may experience a drop in your self-esteem. You may also feel exhausted, and stop trying to defend yourself.
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Signs of being gaslighted in relationships
– Your partner denies things that you are sure happened.
– You think twice before bringing up topics that concern you about the relationship
– Your partner reverses the blame when you bring your concerns to them.
– You are continuously questioning the validity of your memories and perceptions of different events.
– Your partner minimizes or is dismissive of what you are feeling.
– You start believing you’re not working hard enough in the relationship
– You never get a chance to talk when in a conflict with your partner.
– You feel confused, anxious, low, and unable to focus
– You feel like you are constantly overreacting or are “too sensitive”.
– You find it hard to speak up or express your emotions in the relationship
– You feel alone and powerless
– You wonder what is wrong with you
Examples of gaslighting in a relationship
Using love as a defence
To justify their behaviour, gaslighters may claim that you don’t love them equally if you disagree with what they say or do. A statement along the lines of using love as a defence would be, “I only did it because I love you.”
Gaslighters may use verbal abuse or insults to make you believe that you are unlovable, and hence must stay in a relationship with them to ever be loved. Insults like “crazy” or “dramatic” aim to make you second-guess your reality and sanity.
Typical in the context of cheating, gaslighters may accuse you of being paranoid to deflect the responsibility of the issue at hand. These accusations are made with the hopes that you will no longer trust your own instincts.
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How to deal with being gaslighted in your relationship
Prioritize yourself. There may be different reasons for your partner’s gaslighting behaviour, but these reasons are not your problem. Your primary goal should be to look after your own mental and physical well-being.
Identify whether the discussion you are having with your partner is a power struggle or a genuine conversation. If it is genuine, both partners listen and acknowledge one another. In a power struggle, one partner puts the other down while the other tries to defend themself. In the case of the latter, disengage. Choose to be out of the conversation.
If the gaslighting is out of hand, ending the relationship, while challenging, can be the most effective way to end the emotional and psychological abuse.
Moving on from relationships where you were a victim of gaslighting is a long process. Give yourself the time and space to remember what it felt like to trust yourself and rely on yourself for your memories. Therapy can be helpful – especially support groups, or group therapy, where you can interact with others having had similar experiences. This can help some of the feelings of loneliness and isolation. Counsellors or psychologists specializing in dealing with abusive relationships can equip you with specific techniques and coping skills.
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Stern, R. (2007). The gaslight effect. New York: Morgan Road Books.