Gaslighting in relationships happens all too frequently. And it’s one of the most insidious, damaging and secretive forms of manipulation a person can experience. When it exists in your marriage or significant other relationship, it can be especially devastating.
In this article, we’ll explore gaslighting in the context of romantic relationships. But, make no mistake about it—gaslighting takes place in more than just your significant other relationships. You can experience it from your parents, siblings, in-laws, co-workers, friends and virtually anyone you have a relationship and regular contact with.
Before going further, let’s answer the question, “What does gaslighting mean?”
What is Gaslighting in Relationships?
In her “Psychology Today” article entitled 11 Red Flags of Gaslighting in a Relationship, Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D. shares the following:
“Gaslighting is a slow form of brainwashing that makes a victim question their reality. Typical gaslighting techniques include denying something when there’s proof, projecting onto others, and telling blatant lies.”
This term originates from the 1944 movie called “Gaslight.” In the film, the husband (Gregory) regularly questions his wife’s perceptions (Paula) to gain power over her and make her feel like she’s going crazy. He knows if he can get her to question her sanity, then he’ll be able to control her in any way desired.
Gregory causes the gas lights in their house to dim and flicker. Paula brings up this observation, but Gregory denies her reality saying the lights are operating “correctly.” Thankfully, the manipulation only works for a while. A happy resolution results when Paula finally catches on to what’s happening and turns the tables on her gaslighting husband.
The movie was wildly popular when it came out and saw an unlikely surge in interest recently because it gives a living, breathing “gaslighting in relationships definition.”
Examples of Gaslighting in a Relationship
Gaslighting signs in a relationship are many. We generally aren’t talking about an isolated incident of manipulation. In gaslight relationships, there typically is an ongoing, concerted effort to undermine the other partner’s wellbeing and individuality.
It damages that person’s internal ability to trust their judgment, making it challenging to maintain a healthy sense of self-worth or think for themselves. The gaslighting symptoms that follow will help you determine if you could be experiencing gaslighting in your relationship.
Most people who go through extensive gaslighting attempts from their partners don’t realize what’s happening until a lot of damage has been done. It doesn’t make you foolish, weak or undiscerning if you struggle to catch on right away. This tactic is designed to create confusion and doubt.
Can you relate to any of these gaslighting signs?
Words and Actions Don’t Match
Your gaslighter believes the “right” words will be convincing to you. They expect to persuade you with their words but often their actions don’t match what they say. This can be experienced when a promise is made to get you to agree to a plan, and then the promise is broken once your co-operation with their plan has been achieved.
It is important to recognize that what they are saying means nothing: it is just talking. What they are doing is the issue.
Gaslighting victims regularly catch their partners in blatant, ridiculous lies. They tell these lies with a straight face. Over time, you’re not sure if anything they say is true.
Not knowing what’s true becomes destabilizing for the victim over time and gaslighters use this to their advantage; their goal being to keep you unsteady and off-kilter.
Attempts to Isolate You
The fewer close friends and family you have in your life, the easier you will be to control. Gaslighters use various ways to break down your close relationships, manufacture unnecessary conflict within them or become angry about your friendships. The fewer allies you have, the more pliable to their desires you’ll be.
Saying You’re “Crazy”
Calling you crazy allows the gaslighter to devalue you and make you, and others question you. Ironically, being treated like this for too long very well could make you feel and come across as emotionally unstable.
However, you are not the source of this instability if it exists, nor is it your fault. The goal of calling you crazy is first to make you doubt yourself (easier to control you). Secondly, gaslighters often spread the word around about you being “crazy” to those in your inner circle. The goal being, if you ever try to break free from these abusive patterns, those closest to you won’t believe you since the gaslighter will have already discredited you.
It’s way too easy and cruel to label someone as “crazy.” What does that mean exactly? No one really knows as it’s quite vague and hard for the accused to refute. We all just know we don’t want to be it. Without a deep understanding of mental health issues or gaslighting, some might assume it means “mentally unstable to the point of not being trustworthy.” Gaslighters love the elusiveness of this term. They need only hint at such a thing and incredible damage results.
If you find many of these gaslighting signs to be true in your significant other relationship, it’s doubtful you’re dealing with an isolated incident. Instead, you’ve faced relentless months and years of these tactics that broke you down over time.
Woven through the hours and days are these harmful interactions in all their sinister variety. And that’s what is so tragic about it. You gradually begin to doubt yourself and slip into a badly diminished version of yourself. It happens so slowly that it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you’re the problem or it’s not really happening. The dysfunction begins to feel normal even though it’s anything but.
A gaslighter accuses you of behaviour they engage in. They blame you for cheating when you clearly haven’t. They label you an abuser, greedy, disloyal, or lazy, among other possibilities. This is done to distract you from their own behaviour.
Gaslighters know that you’ll walk out the door and never come back if all interactions are negative. For this reason, they throw in positive reinforcement to keep you in a state of contradiction. These positive interactions weaken your resolve to stand up for yourself in the relationship – and telling yourself, “well it isn’t all bad.”
Gaslighting in Relationships—Wrapping It Up
Could you relate to any of these manipulation tactics? My hope is you couldn’t. But at the same time, I know many do. If you’re neck-deep in this stuff, you could quickly feel like there’s no way out, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Remember how I said knowledge is power? That’s your first step out. Our next article will discuss practical steps you can take if you find yourself in a relationship where gaslighting is present. And again, if you discover this manipulation in other areas besides a SO relationship, these tips can still be a lifeline.
In the meantime, are you concerned about gaslighting in your intimate relationship, or are there other challenges you need help with? If so, feel free to reach out to The Relationship Centre. Scheduling an appointment will only take a moment but can become a lasting step towards healing.