Coercion. Confusion. Perceived insanity. When the person who is closest to you is doing everything in their power to make you think that your basic instincts, feelings, and sanity are wrong, how can you continue trusting anything at all?
Gaslighting in relationships can be one of the most difficult experiences a person might experience.
In this article, we discuss gaslighting – what it is, why it happens, why people become gaslighters, and strategies to escape these manipulative relationships.
What is Gaslighting?
The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play known as Gas Light, in which a husband slowly convinces his wife that she is insane by dimming their gas-powered lights and denying that he dimmed it.
While gaslighting can be observed in all kinds of relationships – the work relationship between an employer and an employee, the parental relationship between a parent and a child, or even the societal relationship between a politician and his or her constituents – gaslighting is perhaps most dangerous when observed in a romantic relationship.
For gaslighting to occur, there must be a strict power dynamic in the relationship: one person with more power and one person with less.
This is why gaslighting is commonly seen in relationships between employer-employee and parent-child, as the power dynamic is inherent in the association.
But for a romantic partnership, gaslighting can be more difficult to observe and admit, as there is an assumed equal power dynamic between two partners.
But the power imbalance is a necessity in gaslighting, which is partly why it occurs in romantic partnerships: one partner assuming power over the other, without directly seizing it.
But what is gaslighting exactly? Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that strips the victim of their feelings of sanity and stability through slow and calculated manipulation. Gaslighting has three main characteristics and purposes:
1) Undermining the weaker partner: The victimized partner is undermined in various ways – their feelings, beliefs, and even facts that they observe are “wrong”, making them question their own sanity
2) Strategic intent: There is a strategic intent in how the gaslighter operates, pulling back and apologizing just enough to further confuse their victim. They know when to stop and when to continue for maximum effect
3) Manipulating reality through denial and confusion: There is a focus on manipulation in the gaslighter’s tactics, but the purpose is simply to confuse, making it more difficult for the victim to identify as there is no clear direction
Gaslighting can be difficult to identify. A victim’s best chance at identifying gaslighting is in its earliest stages, as this is before the reality distortion and psychological and emotional abuse have thoroughly kicked in.
But seeing the early stages while they occur can be nearly impossible.
You might be reluctant to admit that your partner’s negative behavior is a sign of something serious like gaslighting, or you might just think it’s a normal part of any relationship.
Here are some signs that you are experiencing gaslighting:
– You often wonder if you are a worthy partner
– You no longer trust yourself with even the most basic decisions
– You often tell small white lies to your partner because you’re afraid of being put-down for the truth
– You have a confusing feeling that something is wrong in the relationship but you can’t pin it down
– You lie to your friends and family about your partner’s behavior
– You don’t remember the last time you were truly happy
– You find yourself constantly apologizing for things you don’t understand
– You feel lost, crazy, confused, and emotionally undeveloped, particularly during arguments
– You are constantly asking yourself: “Am I too much of a baby? Am I too sensitive?”
All of these feelings revolve around a single theme: questioning your own foundational reality; your sanity, instincts, and feelings.
When you no longer feel like you can trust your own mind, you have completely lost yourself to your partner.
Identifying Gaslighting in a Relationship: Gaslighting or…
It’s important to understand that not all negative behavior in a relationship should be attributed to gaslighting.
The more you understand the differences between gaslighting and other negative behaviors that might occur in romantic relationships, the more accurately and quickly you can process whether your partner is gaslighting you or not.
– Manipulation: While manipulation plays a major role in gaslighting, manipulation itself shouldn’t be confused with gaslighting. Manipulation can be considered as simply influence – influencing a person to do or believe something. There needs to be the intent to take power over that person through the influence; when this occurs, manipulation evolves into gaslighting.
– Narcissism: Narcissism is more of a personality disorder, while gaslighting is the active behavior. A narcissist might come off as a jerk who repels people, but they will pull them back in when they feel the need to fill the narcissist void. A gaslighter does this simply because he feels that this is the right way to act in a relationship.
– Obsessive Attachment: Many victims like to think that their gaslighting partner is just “too attached” to them, which is why their behavior might come off as a bit extreme. To tell the difference, you want to observe the way they treated you on the first date. Were you love bombed, in which they speak unfavorably about other people in their life, but bombard you with love? That’s the first step of any gaslighting relationship.
– General Bad Behavior: People in bad relationships might start to see gaslighting in everything their partner does, but how do you know the difference between general bad behavior and a true gaslighting situation? Simple: try to see if there’s a pattern to the negative behavior. Is it the same pattern over and over again, or is there something more chaotic to it? Gaslighters work in patterns, whether they realize it or not.
Why Do Partners Become Gaslighters?
Gaslighting can be a painful reality to accept. When it first starts to sink in that we might be trapped in a relationship with a partner who gaslights, it’s our first instinct as the victimized partner to deny and ignore those signs.
We don’t want to believe that the person we’ve fallen in love with is abusing us, emotionally and psychologically. And that’s understandable.
But the most important truth any victim trapped in a gaslighting relationship needs to understand is this: it’s not your fault, and it’s not necessarily your partner’s fault either.
While movies and TV shows might make emotional abusers seem like every action is calculated and planned, the reality is that this is very rarely the case. In most situations, people simply fall into the role of gaslighter.
The Gaslighting Scenario: Conflict Resolution at Its Worst
So why do romantic partners become gaslighters? The first and foremost answer is that gaslighting is not a direct form of emotional and psychological abuse, because the main intent isn’t to abuse the victim.
The main intent of gaslighting is to resolve conflicts in the easiest way possible, and this involves two steps: neutralizing the aggressor (the partner) and justifying the self.
Gaslighting is a form of conflict resolution, developed out of emotional immaturity (the immaturity to be aware of the manipulation) and laziness (the laziness to actively change their own negative behavior).
Let’s dissect a common scenario. A male gaslighter comes home late at night, and his partner asks why.
The gaslighter might have been doing something his partner wouldn’t like, and is thus reluctant to admit it. Maybe he was out cheating, drinking, gambling, or any number of things.
The gaslighter finds himself stuck in a situation he wasn’t prepared to face. But he feels that the easiest way out of it is to find fault in his partner. So he asks: “Why are you still awake? Do you not trust me?”, or he can also ask, “Why do I always have to be so punctual in this relationship? Why are you so uptight?”
Suddenly the situation is reversed. The gaslighter now feels empowered by his own fictional victimized role in the relationship.
He pushes his accusations: his partner’s paranoia, her lack of trust, her uptightness. The initial conflict – him being late with no explanation – becomes overshadowed and eventually forgotten, because his accusations are now a greater issue.
A fight ensues as the partner attempts to keep the conversation on track.
The gaslighter might then proceed to accuse her of not listening to him or understanding him.
Eventually, she backs down and asks herself: Was I wrong? Am I wrong for feeling the way I feel? She tries to think back to her initial anger or frustration at her partner’s late arrival, and then becomes confused when trying to compare it to her current reality.
Gaslighting: Neutralize and Justify
For the gaslighter, the conflict is resolved. They get to go to bed thinking that they had a productive discussion and the relationship is the better for it.
Not only is their initial transgression forgotten, but it is also justified – they wouldn’t be out late avoiding their partner if their partner could just fix her issues, which caused the latest fight.
The partner’s anger at the gaslighter’s late arrival was neutralized by reversing the argument onto the partner’s faults (real or not), and the gaslighter was able to justify himself by this self-victimization.
The partner’s reality is manipulated and distorted, and the gaslighter becomes empowered.
But this brings us back to the question: why do people become gaslighters?
While it’s obviously an easy method of conflict resolution for the gaslighter, the manipulation and distortion should be equally obvious and thus unjustifiable. However, people continue to gaslight and become gaslighters.
Here are the most likely reasons:
1) They’ve Been Gaslit Before
You can be born an extrovert, you can be born an introvert, but you can’t be born as a gaslighter.
Gaslighting shouldn’t be confused with personality traits, because it isn’t; gaslighting is a combination of behaviors and techniques that an individually actively engages in to achieve a desired goal.
This means that gaslighting is a learned habit, something they might have grown up around. It might have been a relationship with a teacher, a parent, an older friend, or even an early romantic partner.
They also might have experienced it secondhand, by witnessing a father doing it to a mother, or a playground bully doing it to another kid.
As kids, we often pick up the behaviors and habits we see around us. Gaslighting is effective, easy to execute, and difficult to identify as a toxic behavior – for a susceptible child, there is no reason to avoid adopting it.
2) They Don’t Know That They’re Doing It
Gaslighting is a cognitive strategy more than an active behavioral habit. It’s not something that can be actively taught, because the actual techniques don’t matter – what matters is the desired goal, and the thought process that leads to a person believing that gaslighting techniques are normal behavior.
Once a child is convinced that the gaslighting thought process is normal, they will come up with their own natural techniques to enforce their desires.
This means that for the gaslighter, it might feel like what they are doing is natural rather than something they picked up, because they modify and personalize actions and reactions to fit their own situations.
In other words, they have no idea that they’re doing it; they’re just doing what feels normal.
3) They Need to Feel Empowered
An interesting commonality that can be seen in romantic relationships between gaslighters and their partners is the personality types that fall into the two categories.
People who end up in relationships with gaslighters are generally those who possess some if not all of the following characteristics:
– Willing to help those in need
– Physically small or weak
Gaslighters tend to seek out romantic partners whom they can easily subdue, fulfilling their need to feel empowered. This doesn’t necessarily mean that gaslighters thrive off of abusing weaker individuals, but rather that they know these people will be easier to work with.
Stages of a Gaslighting Relationship
– Stage 1: Lies and Exaggerations: When the gaslighting begins, it starts with small lies and exaggerations that the partner might just wave off as banter or jokes. The gaslighter creates an untrue narrative about their victim, leaving the victim on the defense.
– Stage 2: Dependence Creation: The gaslighter then slowly evolves the relationship into one where the victim needs them more than the gaslighter needs them. This can be financially, emotionally, or socially; maybe the gaslighter makes more money, or the gaslighter convinces the victim that their relationship is the only good thing in their life, or that they have no friends or family who care about them. This puts the gaslighter in the ultimate seat of power: the power to take all their happiness away if they desire.
– Stage 3: Wearing Out: Through various techniques and tactics, the gaslighter keeps the victim on the defensive, where the victim is constantly asked to question their reality to avoid or deescalate seemingly unnecessary conflicts. They start asking themselves the questions: Am I the problem? Am I wrong? Am I crazy? Eventually, they become convinced that they are.
– Stage 4: Control Through Hope: The gaslighter finally keeps the relationship going by controlling it with just enough false hope to keep their victim superficially happy. The constant stream of coercion and manipulation keeps the victim insecure and broken, but just enough kindness every now and then is presented to keep them staying.
Technique 1: Witholding
Situation: The gaslighter pretends that they don’t understand or refuse to engage in what their partner is saying.
“You are making this all up!”
“Where is this even coming from?”
“Shut up with this nonsense!”
Technique 2: Countering
Situation: The gaslighter outright states that something that their partner knows to be true, isn’t true.
“You have terrible memory.”
“That’s not how it happened at all.”
“You’re remembering it the wrong way!”
Technique 3: Trivializing
Situation: The gaslighter makes the victim feel that their feelings are wrong or too intense, making them feel ashamed for feeling the way they do.
“You are way too sensitive, you know that?”
“Why are you getting so mad over something so meaningless?”
“Other people wouldn’t act this way!”
Technique 4: Repetitive Questioning
Situation: The gaslighter asks again and again if their partner is absolutely sure about what they think, eventually making them doubt it.
“Are you positive about that?”
“Do you really think that would happen? That’s insane.”
“No one would believe you, that isn’t true.”
Technique 5: Diverting
Situation: The gaslighter diverts the victim’s questions or confrontation to an unrelated source, making them question their own sanity.
“You got this idea from a book/movie!”
“Who told you this? Was it that idiot friend of yours?”
“Your imagination has been so wild ever since…”
Why It’s So Difficult to Leave
If you find yourself stuck in a relationship with a gaslighter, remember: your best option is to leave, and they will do everything to make you feel that you shouldn’t.
Gaslighters understand your brain more than you do, because you no longer trust the emotions and feelings that are instinctive to you.
Once they start feeling that you might be catching on to them, gaslighters begin setting the foundations to keep you feeling committed, loyal, and dependent towards the relationship, to the point that leaving it feels impossible
Here are some ways gaslighters keep their partners attached:
– They apologize when they know they’ve gone too far, but their apologies always have certain conditions, making you feel like you caused their bad behavior
– They will be great to your friends and family, making you feel ashamed to ask for help because nobody sees them the way you do
– They will never directly admit to any issues that they might have caused, and keep the conversation going until they convince you that whatever they did wrong wasn’t as big as you thought
– They string you along with hope, making you feel that the relationship has finally turned a corner and things are going to get better
– They know how to use your insecurities against you. They will make you doubt your personality and your arguments by using things against you, such as your friends, family, job, experiences, and more
How to Escape a Gaslighting Partner
Escaping a gaslighting partner involves more than just physically getting away from them.
You have to accept that you have been conditioned emotionally and psychologically by your partner, and escaping it means changing the way your instincts have been modified by their coercion. Read the following steps to truly detach your mind from a gaslighting relationship:
1) Identify the situation: Understand that there is a problem, figure out what the problem is, and accept that it is happening to you. Nothing will change if you don’t start by accepting what you have fallen into.
2) Separate fact and fiction: Your world has been distorted, and you have been convinced that things that were true actually weren’t. Sit down, take a breath, and figure out how much of what you believe is true, and how much isn’t.
3) Try to see the power struggle: Gaslighting is all about power, nothing else. Look at the relationship you have with your partner, and recognize the power dynamic and power struggle between you two.
4) Visualize yourself out: Escaping a gaslighting relationship means being able to convince your mind that it is okay to live a life without the relationship. Practice mental exercises where you imagine what your life would be and what you would be if you didn’t have this relationship with you. Make sure that this visualization is positive, hopeful, and light.
5) Start feeling again: A long-term side effect of gaslighting is losing the ability to trust in your instinctive feelings. Track your feelings down – the first ones that occur, not the ones you think you should have – and let your mind feel them out. Understand your moods without the influence of your partner, and remember how you used to feel about things.
6) Tell yourself it’s okay to leave: Gaslighters tend to target individuals who have their own complexes; people who can’t help but help and heal those around them. This is why you might feel so guilty leaving someone that is very obviously broken. But tell yourself: it’s okay to leave. It’s time to prioritize you.
7) Seek help: Your reality is no longer something you can trust. It’s time to seek out help from people you knew before your relationship: your friends and family. Cling onto them and allow them to help you realign yourself with the mind you used to have.
8) Trust your feelings more than your mind: Gaslighters succeed by redefining what right and wrong are in their victim’s mind. You have to accept that your mind isn’t the best place right now, so you have to go with your gut, your feelings for now. Trust what you feel more than what you think – it will help you realize the lies your gaslighter has made you believe.
9) You can’t change someone who won’t change: One of the last things you need to accept is that if your partner is unwilling to change, you can’t make them change. It’s not your responsibility to change their mind, especially when they don’t want to.
10) Love yourself: Be kind to yourself. Accept that you have gone through an enormous ordeal involving a huge amount of pain. It’s time that you fix that, and you fix that by prioritizing you.
Trust Yourself – Rediscovering Your Mind
Gaslighting can be a terrifying ordeal.
Losing yourself in your own mind, being suffocated by a partner whose greatest goal is to make you stop trusting your own thoughts and feelings. For many victims of gaslighting, the effects can continue for months if not years after the end of the relationship.
To truly recover, a victim of gaslighting must learn to trust themselves again. Accept that your senses and your mind are capable of perceiving and understanding the truth.
Learn to feel what your mind is feeling, and process that information without the insecurity and self-doubt that your partner drove into you.
Only then can you finally be done with the gaslighting in your life, and become fully ready to move on.
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