If you are made to question whether your version of reality ever happened, or if you have a partner who always refuses to validate your feelings, you may be experiencing gaslighting. Gaslighting behavior can manifest in many different ways, but generally, gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where an abuser makes someone question their sanity, reality, or experiences. The term is derived from the eerie 1940’s psychothriller “Gaslight,” in which the main character engages in manipulative behaviors to make his wife feel out of her mind. One of his keystone manipulations involves lowering and raising the gas lamps in their home, but when his wife inquires about the mysteriously dimming lights, he denies that they’ve changed at all.
“A gaslighter will twist their victim’s words and experiences as a method of gaining control, all while making their partner believe they’re in the wrong, often in spite of evidence to prove otherwise,” marriage and family therapist Kendra Doukas tells O.school.
According to Mac Stanley Cazeau, mental health counselor and founder of Therapy is for Everyone, gaslighting can also run the gamut from benign to severe. “It’s possible for someone to be gaslighting you without realizing it, without ill intention. If they’re willing to take accountability and apologize, that’s one end of the spectrum,” Cazeau says. “However, if you’re dating someone who is continuously finding new ways to manipulate you, break you down, or make you question your reality, that is the meanest sense of gaslighting and can be considered emotional abuse.”
Whether you’re curious about how to spot the signs of gaslighting, or think you might be experiencing it, bear in mind that this type of manipulation can happen in any relationship — from the platonic to the romantic. The first step toward addressing the issue is to be able to identify it in the first place.
Examples of gaslighting
By nature, gaslighting can be difficult to spot. But, there are signs you should be aware of if you’re trying to determine whether it’s happening to you. Here are some instances in which you might feel you are being gaslighted.
1. They start by telling lies
These aggressions may start with small, seemingly insignificant incidents as the gaslighter slowly shifts the power balance in their favor. Cazeau shares that the first warning sign is blatant lies. “If this person is telling you something you know is not true, but they’re able to say it with a straight face as though it’s a fact,” he explains. That’s gaslighting at its most basic form.
2. They trivialize your feelings
If your partner regularly says things like, “Are you really going to get angry over something so small?” or “You’re just too sensitive,” this is typical of gaslighting. Gaslighters often make the needs and feelings of their victims seem unimportant, often to the point that their partners actually believe it to be true.
3. They deny, deny, deny
Cazeau says to be wary if your partner denies things they’ve said when you know they said it.
Cazeau gives an example of this kind of gaslighting: “If they’ve told you they’re going to pick up your kids and fail to do so, a gaslighter may claim, ‘I never said that. Now, the kids will be left behind, and it’s all your fault.”
4. They weaponize the people closest to you
According to Doukas, gaslighting works better when the gaslighter has already worked to isolate their partner from an established support network, and their perception of reality.
“This way, the person being abused doesn’t have as many opportunities to check out their thoughts, feelings, and reality against others they trust,” she explains.
Cazeau advises to watch out for times your partner attempts to sway your opinion on friends or family members, by telling you things like, “Your best friend doesn’t like you very much. Your parents only tolerate you. I heard so-and-so has been talking poorly of you.”
5. They plant seeds of doubt about your self-worth
Gaslighters often prey on the self-esteem of their partners, believing they will be cherished more after the fact. As such, you can expect a gaslighting partner to gradually twist the narrative on the way you see yourself.
“For example, the abuser might plant a seed that their partner is ‘a bad parent.’ The abuser might go on to cite this any time their child throws a tantrum, or the school calls, etcetera,” Doukas explains to O.school. “If the partner being manipulated challenges this, the abuser will often greatly escalate and become more insistent about their claims.”
For the gaslighter, the goal is to convince the partner that what they’re claiming is true. This way, they get control over their partner and never have to take responsibility for their actions.
6. They exhibit signs of narcissism
In Cazeau’s work, he’s noticed a pattern between gaslighting and chronic narcissism. It makes sense: A narcissist is constantly seeking validation for their ego, and they struggle to accept blame or show empathy.
“It will never be a narcissist’s fault, not according to them,” he says. And when they put constant pressure on you to admit that you’re wrong and they’re right, that’s textbook gaslighting.
7. They have baggage they haven’t worked through
“Typically, the person who is gaslighting would rather manipulate or throw their partner under the bus than take ownership or explore their own negative emotions,” asserts Doukas. Doukas notes that this is why individuals with unresolved trauma or a past they have not confronted may be prone to cast blame elsewhere, leading to a tendency to gaslight.
8. They cannot take accountability for their actions
It’s important to notice your partner’s inability to take accountability for their actions when they start a fight, cause a problem, or hurt your feelings. If you’ve come into one too many arguments feeling justified in your anger, and walked away feeling like you are to blame, your partner may be gaslighting you.
“Trust your gut!” Doukas suggests. “If something feels bad, it generally is. Notice how your body responds in conflict with your partner versus conflict with others. Do you feel defeated before the discussion has even begun?”
How to deal with gaslighting
If any of the signs above resonate, take a deep breath, and consider Cazeau’s advice to take the first step in having a conversation about gaslighting with your partner.
“Tell that person: ‘I feel like I am being gaslighted, and I don’t like the way it’s making me feel,” he says. “Hopefully, this will create some clarity for your partner as they see how their behaviors are impacting you. That’s the hope.”
If you find yourself with a partner who is unable to self-reflect, communicate effectively, or make a necessary change, Cazeau suggests focusing on hard facts and evidence when confronting them. Find a way to keep a record of disagreements or issues, whether that be over email, text, or by taping important conversations. “That way, when your partner lies or denies they said something you know they said, you can point to the evidence and explain it’s an ongoing issue,” says Cazeau. “If they don’t understand, ask them if they need more prompts to remind them of what they’ve said or promised in the past.”
If these conversations don’t make a difference, Cazeau recommends finding a couples’ therapist who specializes in communication skills and can facilitate those hard talks (he especially recommends looking into a specialist who is Gottman certified). However, not all couples are interested in therapy, and it can be a long-term financial burden. In this case, Cazeau suggests checking out a three-day relationship workshop that focuses on communication skills, conflict management, and friendship.
“It has been found that couples with deep friendships tend to have better communication and a healthier relationship,” he says. “If the couple can have fun and spend some quality time together, then the need to gaslight or make one person feel like they’re always wrong may not be as prevalent.”
You might find that pairing one of these practices with reading a book together helps to strengthen your understanding of each other. Cazeau recommends starting with Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People and Break Free.
Additionally, Doukas suggests keeping good people in your orbit, being intentional about maintaining your friendships and checking your reality with people you trust as you work on things with your partner.
When to break up with a partner who is gaslighting you
Deciding to end a relationship because of gaslighting is ultimately your decision, but it might be time to break up if you find that your partner does not respond well to the idea that they are manipulating you, becomes aggressive, or unresponsive.
Recognizing that you are a victim in your partnership is an important first step towards healing from abuse. If you are being gaslighted and are considering terminating a relationship, the next steps involve coming to terms with your fears and working to understand the reality of what you’re experiencing. While Cazeau says the easy answer is to consult a therapist, this isn’t for everyone. Try journaling in order to understand how you’re feeling, assess your commitment to your relationship, and determine how much trust is there. Based on this “reality check on your relationship,” Cazeau says you’ll have the toolkit to decide on your next steps.
The bottom line
While gaslighting can run the gamut, ranging from small offenses to psychological abuse, one thing is for sure — it doesn’t feel good. Being able to identify what gaslighting is, recognizing the signs, and knowing how to proceed, can help you evaluate your relationship and determine if your partner is willing to change. If you think you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, there are resources out there to help. Doukas names therapy, a safehouse, or a domestic violence agency like The Hotline as a few places to reach out if you need support.