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What Is Gaslighting in a Relationship?

An expert weighs in on how to spot gaslighting

You've probably heard the term "gaslighting" being thrown around by now, but do you know what it means and how to spot the signs? 

Simply put, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that manipulates someone into questioning their own sanity or beliefs.

Gaslighting can happen in all types of relationships, but it’s most common in romantic relationships — especially abusive ones.

Although the term has entered modern vernacular, it’s more than just a trendy word and shouldn’t be taken lightly. So, what is gaslighting in a relationship? Keep reading for examples of gaslighting in a relationship, and how to know if your partner is gaslighting you.  

What is gaslighting?

“Gaslighting is a form of psychological control that can be very dangerous in relationships, therefore knowing the signs of gaslighting is important,” explains relationship scientist and therapist Dr. Marisa T. Cohen⁠

“Gaslighting is dangerous and can erode a person’s self-esteem, autonomy, and trust in themselves,” she adds. “Additionally, those who gaslight will often cajole their victims into staying in the relationship with flattery and the promise to strengthen and improve their bond, making it even more challenging for the victim to free themselves of the situation.”⁠

The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1940’s psychological thriller Gaslight. In the movie, the main character, Gregory, tries to convince his wife Paula that the flickering gas light and the footsteps she hears from the attic are all in her imagination — when in reality they weren’t. 

Gregory was manipulating Paula into thinking she was crazy with the goal of having her committed to a hospital so that he could steal her family jewels. While it’s unlikely that that same scenario would happen in real life, the intent of gaslighting is the same: to confuse and control someone. 

“Sociologist Paige Sweet notes that gaslighting is rooted in social inequalities and occurs within power-laden, intimate relationships,” explains Dr. Cohen. 

“The person who is being manipulated, or the victim of the gaslighting, may start to question their own thoughts, perceptions, or sanity, which can be extremely unsettling and even dangerous. It can lead to psychological control from the partner and is a form of psychological and emotional abuse. As such, understanding what it is and why it’s so harmful is important.” ⁠

What are signs of gaslighting in a relationship? ⁠

Recognizing the warning signs of gaslighting is important as it can help you remove yourself from a dangerous situation. However, gaslighting can be hard to recognize when it’s happening to you.

As a sustained form of emotional manipulation, it’s not always easy to pick up on — especially from someone you love, who is supposed to love you back. 

Gaslighting can manifest in many different ways (some more severe than others), but below are some common examples of gaslighting in a relationship: ⁠

  1. Your partner discredits your memory of a situation or event, telling you that it didn’t happen or that you’re not remembering correctly. Your partner will also fail to apoligize and never take accountability for their actions. Instead, they might say, “I’m sorry that you think I hurt you,” or “that never happened.” 

  2. Your partner negates your accounts and doesn’t let you talk during an argument. For example, they might say, “I should have known you would take this the wrong way,” or “you completely misinterpreted the situation.” While disagreements are inevitable among couples — and can be tricky to navigate — all relationships need healthy conflict resolution to succeed.  

  3. Your partner attacks your character, belittles your accomplishments, plays on your vulnerabilities, or undermines your emotions. In a healthy relationship, your partner will listen to and address your concerns. However. a gaslighter will often accuse their victim of being paranoid. For example, they may say “you’re overreacting,” or “you’re being too sensitive.” They may routinely call you insults like "dramatic," "hysterical," or "crazy.” 

  4. Your partner isolates you from your friends and family and causes you to be more dependent on them instead. They want you to feel like they’re the only one who likes or understands you. One example of this said verbally would be: "You're crazy — even your friends think so." ⁠

How to know if you're being gaslighted 

  • You often feel confused or like you’re losing your mind

  • You’re always apologizing even though you did nothing wrong 

  • You’re unhappy or lonely in your relationship 

  • You feel unsafe

  • You feel inadequate or insecure — as if you’re not good enough for your partner

  • You’re constantly doubting yourself and second-guessing your judgment

  • You feel anxious or on edge.

Individually, these signs might indicate other issues, but collectively they could mean you’re being gaslit.

“If you or someone you love is the victim of gaslighting, it's important to immediately seek out professional support,” says Dr. Cohen.

“Call a therapist or crisis hotline. It's also important to reach out to trusted family and friends to re-establish connections and create a support network.”

If your partner is gaslighting you, confronting them might be futile. If you spot patters of gaslighting, the best thing to do according to Dr. Cohen is to remove yourself from the situation and seek outside support. 

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