A couple of weeks ago my partner asked me what gaslighting was and to provide some examples which leads me to writing this article.
When the person who is closest to you is doing anything to make you think that your basic instincts, feelings, and sanity are wrong, how can you continue trusting anything at all, especially your own intuition?
Gaslighting in relationships can be one of the most difficult experiences a person might have and its sly nature can sometimes go undetected — until after the fact.
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.
For gaslighting to occur, there must be a strict power dynamic in the relationship: one person with more power and one person with less. Someone who calls the shots and the other person who complies.
For a romantic partnership, gaslighting can be more difficult to observe and admit, as there is an assumed equal power dynamic between two partners that is observed from outsiders. 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 and instincts. This often shows up as “something isn’t right about what they’re saying” “this doesn’t feel right”
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 and backing them into a corner where they can no longer function.
What Does Gaslighting Look Like?
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 behaviour is a sign of something serious like gaslighting, or you might just think it’s a normal part of any relationship. Before you know it you find yourself justifying your partners behaviour and opinions when brought to question.
Here are some signs that you are experiencing gaslighting:
– You often wonder if you are a worthy partner. You think you’re not good enough
– You no longer trust yourself with even the most basic decisions. Making decisions causes you great anxiety.
– You often tell small white lies to your partner because you’re afraid of being put-down for the truth. Don’t rock the boat to ensure you keep the balance.
– You have a confusing feeling that something is wrong in the relationship or in a certain situation but you can’t pin it down
– You lie to your friends and family about your partner’s behaviour often defending their choices and views
– You find yourself constantly apologizing for things you don’t understand or reasons you’re not sure of. All you know is that you have to apologize.
– You feel lost, crazy, confused, and emotionally undeveloped or exhausted, particularly during arguments. You’ve been talked in circles with relentless pushing until you have no energy left mentally or emotionally
– You are constantly asking yourself: “what is wrong with me? what is in me that I have to fix?”
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.
Could It Be Something Else?
It’s important to understand that not all negative behaviour in a relationship should be attributed to gaslighting.
The more you understand the differences between gaslighting and other negative behaviours 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.
– Obsessive Attachment: Many victims like to think that their gaslighting partner is just “too attached” or just “loves them so much they want them to be better”
– General Bad Behaviour: People in relationships might start to see gaslighting in some things their partner does, but how do you know the difference between general bad behaviour and a true gaslighting situation? Simple: try to see if there’s a pattern to the negative behaviour. 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. It’s a difficult thing to admit that you’ve been abused in some form by someone you love. 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 for anyone in a gaslighting relationship needs to understand is this: it’s not your fault, and it’s not necessarily your partner’s fault either. In most situations people just fall into the role of the gaslighter without even knowing it.
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. Most gaslighters aren’t even aware of their position. They typically assume the “I’m right” role.
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 behaviour. It’s easier to pin that onto your partner).
In a scenario where a fight ensues, the partner attempts to keep the conversation on track. The gaslighter might then proceed to accuse him/her of not listening to him/her or understanding, outright putting blame onto the bewildered partner.
Eventually, the accused (gaslightee) backs down and asks: Was I wrong? Am I wrong for feeling the way I feel? Something is not right here but he/she seems pretty adamant that he/she is right.
The gaslightee then becomes confused when trying to compare it to his/her current reality and instincts.
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 and better yet, their partner is a better person for it.
Not only is their initial transgression forgotten, but it is also justified — they wouldn’t be having these discussions in the first place if their partner could just fix his/her issues, which caused the latest fight. Typically the gaslighter takes the role of victim here without listening to the views and thoughts of their partner.
The partner’s reality is manipulated and distorted, and the gaslighter then 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 behaviours and techniques that an individual 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 behaviours and habits we see around us. Gaslighting is effective, easy to execute, and difficult to identify as a toxic behaviour — 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 behavioural 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 behaviour.
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:
– Submissive/conflict avoidant
– Willing to help those in need
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.
How the Gaslighter Works
Dependence Creation: The gaslighter 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 and are unable to connect with anyone but them. This puts the gaslighter in the ultimate seat of power: “You are better with me and because of me and your other relationships show your inability to connect.”
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?What did I say? What did I do wrong? Eventually, they become convinced that they are the problem.
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 and furthermore believing that they couldn’t survive without their partner.
Technique 1: Witholding
Situation: The gaslighter pretends that they don’t understand or refuse to engage in what their partner is saying.
Technique 2: Countering
Situation: The gaslighter outright states that something that their partner knows to be true, isn’t true.
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.
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.
Technique 5: Diverting
Situation: The gaslighter diverts the victim’s questions or confrontation to an unrelated source, making them question their own sanity.
Why It’s So Difficult to Leave
If you find yourself 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 behaviour. “it’s because of your actions/inaction that I have to be this way”
– 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. Outwardly they’ll be on a pedestal but behind closed doors it’s different.
– 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 your wrongdoing or that you were the key factor or reason for THEIR behaviour
– 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, past hurts and failures 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 and vice versa. 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. If you automatically jump to “it’s my fault, what did I do, what could I do better” sit down and really try to feel it out.
6) Tell yourself it’s okay to leave: Gaslighters tend to target individuals who have their own complexes; people who can’t get help but help and heal those around them. This is why you might feel so guilty leaving someone that is very obviously broken. It’s part of their narrative that keeps you stuck, you need to rescue them or put up with more because of their brokenness. 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’s right and wrong in their victim’s mind in very black and white terms. 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 covert ordeal and it often sneaks up on you.
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 and often into other relationships.
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.
Until next time,
*with help from hackspirit*