Gaslighting in Relationships: Signs and Prevention

Published on: 22 Nov 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
gaslighting, how to spot it

Updated on 9/26/2022

Although the term “gaslighting” is considered a fairly modern word, this type of psychological manipulation is anything but new. In fact, the term can actually be traced back to the 1940s film Gaslight — where an emotionally abusive husband makes his wife question her perception of reality through lies and deceit. After its release, this type of psychological manipulation was referred to simply as “gaslighting.” Unfortunately, gaslighting exists off the stage as well, and is often found in emotionally abusive relationships.

Often a sign of a one-sided relationship, gaslighting causes a toxic relationship because it breeds a sense of distrust, deceit, and confusion for the victim. The psychological influence gaslighting can have includes a long-term impact on both someone’s emotional, as well as psychological, well-being. 

We’re discussing what gaslighting means, answering the question what is gaslighting in a relationship, and sharing what signs to look for. We’ll also give you tips on what to do if you’re in a toxic, unhealthy relationship that involves gaslighting. Keep reading to learn more. 

What Does it Mean to Gaslight Someone in a Relationship?

While gaslighting is typically associated with romantic relationships, it’s something that can happen in work, platonic, or family relationships, too. In almost all situations of gaslighting, an abuser is trying to gain power over their victim — whether that’s a partner, a co-worker, a friend, or a family member. Once they gain that power they’re seeking, the manipulative tactics begin. 

There are several common manipulation tactics that emotional abusers use to gaslight people in their life. 

They minimize their victims’ feelings

By trivializing your emotions, an abuser can exert power over you. Often, they’ll say things like the following in an attempt to diminish and devalue your feelings:

  • You’re just paranoid
  • It’s no big deal
  • You’re overreacting
  • You are always so dramatic

They shift the blame

Abusers almost always shift the blame away from themselves, even if there’s no denying their guilt. If you confront them about something, they’ll usually switch the focus back to you, putting you on the defense. With blame-shifting, it’s not uncommon to begin truly believing that you’re at fault for everything. 

They lie

Lying is one of the foundations of gaslighting behavior, and even when presented with facts, someone who’s gaslighting you will desperately cling to their false tales. You might hear one of the following remarks:

  • You are making that up
  • That never happened
  • You’re imagining things

They deny any misconduct or wrongdoing 

Emotional abusers are infamous for denying that they did anything wrong. They do this to avoid taking responsibility for their poor, destructive choices and behaviors. Unfortunately, denying any wrongdoing often leaves you feeling as though any negative impact their behavior has on you is unwarranted and, worse, unimportant. 

They rewrite the truth (to benefit themselves)

People who gaslight are known for rewriting negative situations by (re)telling a story in their favor. The intention is to confuse you, so you’ll lose sight of the truth. 

For example, if your gaslighting partner gets mad at you for forgetting apples at the store, then knocks a grocery bag out of your arms, they might retell the story differently to make themselves look better. The revisionist version might sound something more like: you’re so clumsy that you dropped that bag on the driveway, and now all of that food is ruined! Good thing I was there to pick everything up! 

Signs of Gaslighting in Relationships

Being a victim of a gaslighting relationship can result in mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and addiction. Common signs someone is gaslighting include keeping information secret, being verbally abusive, cutting their victim off from their support system, and intentionally weakening them. 

“Gaslighting takes many forms in a relationship and leads to self-doubt and confusion. It’s crucial to reach out to friends, colleagues, family, or a licensed mental health professional for support and to get another perspective. You do not have to face this alone. Reaching out can make all the difference.”

Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH

It’s essential to know the signs of gaslighting so you can recognize them if they happen to you. If you’ve recently searched online for what is gaslighting in a relationship, you might already have a clear idea about what’s going on. If you’re still not sure, though, see if any of the signs below shed some light on your situation and relationship. 

You feel insecure

Insecurity in relationships means you often feel that you have to tiptoe around your partner, family member, or friend. In addition, you also feel increasingly high levels of self-doubt and have low self-esteem.

You feel confused

You feel confused about your abuser’s behavior, often wondering what you’ve done wrong. 

You apologize a lot

Gaslighting victims often feel the need to apologize for everything, even when things aren’t your fault. 

You question yourself

You begin to wonder if you remember past events correctly, so much so that you may not even bring up memories anymore for fear of being wrong. 

You wonder if you’re insane

An emotional abuser says things to make you feel like you’re always wrong, to the point where you might even begin to question your own sanity. 

You doubt your feelings

You try to convince yourself that the psychological manipulation you experience really isn’t that bad…maybe you’re just being too sensitive.

You feel alone

You assume that everyone thinks you’re weird, unlikeable, or maybe even unstable, just like your abusive partner says. This assumption makes you feel isolated and trapped.

You’re disappointed in yourself

You feel like you’re weak, but you know that you used to be more assertive. This realization can make you feel even more disappointed in yourself, because you’re not the person you used to be.

What to Do If You’re Being Gaslit by Your Significant Other

Knowing that you’re being gaslighted is one thing. Knowing what to do about it is quite another. The following tips are ways you can protect yourself, gain inner strength, and ultimately, if you need to, leave a destructive and unhealthy relationship. 

“Because gaslighting can cause such self-doubt and confusion, being able to step back and set boundaries, practice grounding techniques, talk with a trusted friend, and save evidence of interactions are all steps you can take to begin to address gaslighting and its impact. It’s important to remember this is not your fault. You did not cause it to happen and you can take steps toward healing.”

Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH

Take a break

It’s sometimes very helpful to take a necessary break from the intense feelings that gaslighting can evoke. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or grounding exercises, can be beneficial. However, a physical break may be best, depending on your situation. 

Set boundaries

Learn how to communicate in a relationship and set boundaries. Boundaries tell others what’s acceptable in a relationship. Setting clear boundaries lets your abuser know you won’t accept their unhealthy behaviors. 

Talk to your close circle

Allow your closest circle of friends to be brutally honest about your partner’s behavior. Ask them if they’ve noticed any changes in your mental or emotional health. Gaslighting in relationships can be hard to recognize when you’re in the middle of things, but close friends and family can often recognize what’s happening. 

Have compassion for yourself

When you’re feeling the effects of a toxic relationship because of gaslighting and emotional abuse, it’s hard to have self-compassion. However, this is the time to give yourself grace and the benefit of the doubt, as these will help you move forward in your decision-making. 

Save the evidence

Make sure that you save any bits of evidence such as text conversations, emails, or videos that show your gaslighting experiences. Keeping the evidence is important because, as a victim of gaslighting, you may question yourself. Having that evidence can remind you of your truth. 

End the relationship

It’s always okay to end a toxic relationship, regardless of whether it’s with a spouse, partner, family member, coworker, or friend. It may not always be easy, but sometimes ending the once romantic relationship can be the only way to stop the abuse and begin healing. 

Know the Signs & Shut it Down

It takes a really brave person to acknowledge that there’s a problem in a relationship, especially when that realization is in regard to psychological abuse. If you’ve ever wondered what is gaslighting in a relationship, hopefully, this article has helped you understand the signs. There are only a couple of ways to shut down gaslighting. 

First, stop all contact with the abuser 

When it comes to how to stop fighting in a relationship, by far, the easiest method is to end the relationship and stop all contact with them. While this is the most effective way to end psychological manipulation, we know that sometimes it’s not feasible. 

Limit contact

If ceasing all contact isn’t possible, then limit your contact with your abusive partner as much as you can. 

Don’t react

When they try to manipulate you, don’t react negatively (or at all, if you can manage). Avoiding adverse reactions can take back some of your control and power and may even temporarily stop the cycle of emotional abuse. 

Recognize your worth (and make sure your abuser sees it too)

If you decide to work on your relationship as a couple, make sure your partner is willing to recognize your worth and admit their behavior is problematic, damaging, and hurtful.

Take care of yourself — both physically and emotionally 

In addition to all the above, make sure that your emotional and physical well-being are priorities.

Remember, it takes a strong and confident person to recognize that their self-worth is more than what they’re getting out of the relationship. You are that strong. Whatever choice you make, therapy can always be a good option if you need help reevaluating your relationship, whether you’re moving forward together, or on your own. 

If you’re looking for help in dealing with someone who’s constantly gaslighting you, Talkspace is an online therapy platform that can be your first step in finding the support you need. When it comes to how to fix a broken relationship, with online couples counseling, our therapists are ready and willing to be there for you and your partner. We understand how damaging gaslighting can be, and we’re there to help you regain control of your life, whether that’s with your partner or not. 

Note: If you are a victim of domestic abuse or suspect you are, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 800-799-7233, or text SMART to 88788 to speak to someone today.

Sources:

1. Sweet P. The Sociology of Gaslighting. Am Sociol Rev. 2019;84(5):851-875. doi:10.1177/0003122419874843. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122419874843?journalCode=asra. Accessed July 15, 2022.

2. Petric D. Gaslighting And The Knot Theory Of Mind.; 2018. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327944201_Gaslighting_and_the_knot_theory_of_mind. Accessed July 15, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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