Gaslighting In Relationships: What It Looks Like & How To Detect It
It’s not you, it’s them.
Romantic relationships can be wonderful. Feeling that initial spark and connection can send your mind and heart on quite a trip. However, it can also cloud your judgement and make certain red flags hard to spot. Take, for instance, gaslighting in relationships, behaviors that are often difficult to spot off the bat. After all, how can the person you’re in love with want to cause you any emotional harm, right?
Before delving deeper into spotting this toxic behavior, one must first understand what gaslighting actually is. Essentially, it’s a form of manipulation and emotional abuse that basically deflects blame and ownership away from oneself onto another person. “It is used to avoid shame and the responsibility of poor choices or negative behaviors,” Allison Forti, associate teaching professor and associate director of the Department of Counseling Online Programs at Wake Forest University, tells TZR in an email. “Someone using gaslighting techniques is seeking to have power and control over their partner and they do this by creating seeds of doubt in their partner’s perception of events, reality, and memories.” Over time, this can chip away at the receiving partner’s identity and self-worth.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, says it can be difficult for someone to tell if they are in a relationship with someone who’s gaslighting or manipulating them. “The gaslighter is an expert at making the ‘victim’ feel like they don’t know which end is up,” she tells TZR in an email. “They are masters at creating self-doubt. Although they can be physically abusive, even if they are not, the emotional abuse makes it difficult for the [victim] to discern if they are being gaslit.” The gaslighter thrives on keeping others off-balance and insecure with constant psychological manipulation and distortion of the truth, she explains. “This keeps the victim constantly questioning or blaming themselves, which is the exact goal of the gaslighter,” she says.
Another reason this type of behavior is so hard to detect is because the perpetrator is typically very charming. “They may shower their partner with gifts, attention, and compliments,” says Forti of a gaslighter’s common characteristics. “This can feel intoxicating for a person on the receiving end. However, underneath all of this charm is an ulterior motive of manipulation and control.”
So how does one protect themselves from such toxicity? Ahead, our experts sound off on what to look for in these master manipulators known as gaslighters and how to respond if you’re already dealing with one.
Signs Of Gaslighting
Dr. Hafeez says the gaslighter usually exhibits telltale signs. So while you may think something’s all in your head and you brush it off, think about how often certain behavior occurs and how it makes you feel. Hafeez says someone who’s gaslighting might do things like: claim you did or said things you are sure you didn’t; laugh, reject, or scoff at your recollection of events; when you express concerns or needs, they label you as “crazy” or “too sensitive”; cast doubts to others about your “sanity” and overall state of mind or behavior; distort events or situations to shift the blame to you; and always insist they are correct and refuse to hear facts or your side of a story. Forti adds that gaslighters may also blatantly lie, deny memory of an event or action they actually recall, break promises, divert attention toward their partner and away from themselves, or project what they said or did onto their partner, thereby accusing them of lying or being deceitful.
In action, Hafeez says the gaslighter may tell you things like: “Perhaps that's what you heard in your mind, but it's not what I said,” “It was just a joke…,” or “You have a very active imagination.” It’s important to take note of whether these behaviors are showing up often in your relationship.
How Gaslighting Makes You Feel
Now that you know how the gaslighter may act, how does a gaslighting victim act? “People who experience gaslighting often feel confused and anxious,” says Forti. “Even when they have proof something happened, gaslighting can be so effective that they start to doubt themselves. In more extreme cases, some people may start to lose their sense of self and experience psychological trauma.” She says there are several signs you can watch for, including: frequently apologizing and not understanding why; feeling dismissed; second-guessing yourself; doubting your recollections of events; not trusting your perceptions; and feeling as though you are losing your mind. “Being able to identify signs of gaslighting can help minimize the negative effects,” she says. “Recipients of gaslighting should use these signs as a reminder to ground themselves in the present moment and stay connected to their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.”
In action, experiencing gaslighting can manifest in various ways, Forti explains. For instance, let’s say you suspect your partner is having an affair and you confront them about suspicious text messages or receipts. They say, “You must be imagining things. I think you need professional help for your paranoia.” Or your partner goes on a spending spree, and when you confront them about the credit card bill, they say, “You are being so dramatic. Clearly, you are imagining things. I didn’t spend that much money.” Or your significant other may tell you to “Stop being so sensitive” when you explain how forgetting your birthday hurt your feelings. Your partner then gets defensive and emphasizes your fabricated wrongdoings. And, somehow, you are left apologizing for things you didn’t do, in addition to feeling confused, sad, and dismissed.
The Correlation Between Gaslighting And Narcissism
Hafeez notes that there is a correlation between gaslighting and narcissism. “While both negative pathologies have their own characteristics, they share common behavioral traits that stem from narcissism,” she says. “A narcissist deceives and exaggerates to bolster their fragile self-worth while a gaslighter does so to exert control and domination. Both groups engage in frequent lies about themselves and others. Their modus operandi is to boost themselves by putting others down.”
Therapist Cynthia Eddings, who specializes in narcissistic abuse and authored The Narcissism Recovery Journal, agrees. “If you have been in (or are in) a relationship with a narcissist, you have experienced trauma — gaslighting is psychological and emotional abuse,” she tells TZR. “It damages your self-esteem, distorts your self-perception, and leaves you with the sick feeling of shame.” She says that someone with high narcissistic traits needs to maintain their sense of superiority by keeping others in a disempowered position.
“The fear of failure and humiliation drives the manipulative behaviors in these individuals,” adds Eddings. “Therefore, when they can have someone under their controlling spell, the feeling of power covers up their insecurity and shame.” Hafeez adds that both gaslighters and narcissists have surprisingly thin skin and react poorly to criticism or being called out for their actions. “They both portray idealized and edited versions of themselves to the outside world to disguise their insecurities,” she says. “In addition, they both attempt to evade social norms and rules, feeling they are ‘above’ them.”
It Can Take Time To Notice A Gaslighter
Gaslighting is not always obvious to recipients because it can begin slowly, Forti notes. For example, your partner says you never cook nice meals for them. You remind them you cooked three times this week. They say you didn’t. “You are left scratching your head and feeling crazy because surely they would not lie about something so obvious and mundane,” she says. “You know you cooked three times this week. Wait — did you? When examples like this occur over months and years, the psychological impact is cumulative and devastating. However, sometimes it begins slowly and subtly, catching recipients off-guard until it’s too late and they have lost trust in their perception of reality.”
Eddings adds that people with high narcissistic traits can be extremely charming and skilled at making their partner fawn for their attention with false promises and love bombing. But the process of gaslighting is slow. “The manipulative behavior changes over time, so the victim often isn't aware of the abuse unless a friend or family member expresses concern,” she says. “If you have self-esteem issues, you likely seek validation outside yourself, therefore missing your intuition's messages that tell you something is not right. Also, if you are concerned with being agreeable and well-liked — i.e., a people-pleaser — you are likely to excuse or miss rude and hurtful behavior.”
So I’m In A Relationship With A Gaslighter... What Next?
Okay, so all the signs are adding up and you realize you may be in a relationship with a gaslighter. What now? For starters, if the relationship has become harmful or toxic, Forti suggests minimizing contact, setting firmer boundaries, or ending the relationship. Hafeez warns that confronting the gaslighter can often prove fruitless and lead to more of the same manipulation and accusations. “If there is a chance that the relationship can be saved, the gaslighter will agree to couples therapy to understand their behavior and the effect it is having on the victim and the relationship.” But, in the end, only you know if it’s a relationship worth the time and effort of trying to save.
If you do decide to opt for the couples therapy, Eddings says to proceed with caution. “Stay away from couples therapy unless you have a couples therapist skilled with working with narcissism in a relationship,” she says. “A narcissist can use the vulnerability you expose in the therapy session to hurt you later. The charms of your narcissistic partner can easily manipulate an unskilled therapist, and you will likely walk out of therapy with your partner and affirming that all the problems in the relationship are your fault.” At the end of the day, she says to listen to your instincts — even if that means ending the relationship. “You have a right to your feelings — to be seen, understood, and loved for who you are.”
Forti says it’s also important to show yourself some compassion. “Take time to heal by rebuilding trust in yourself and your confidence,” she says. “Develop healthy boundaries and seek counseling to process what happened.” She also says keeping a journal of what was said or what occurred will help you stay grounded in reality when your partner twists the truth and challenges your recollection of events. “It’s also important to stay connected to yourself by grounding in the present moment and owning your thoughts, feelings, and experiences,” she says. “Remind the gaslighter and yourself, ‘That isn’t my experience’ or ‘I am allowed to have my feelings and thoughts.’”