What Is Gaslighting? 11 Subtle Signs of Gaslighting To Look For in Your Relationship
Plus, next steps to take.
Parade/December 22, 2022
By Maryn Liles
What is gaslighting in relationships, and how can you tell if you’re a victim of this manipulative form of emotional abuse?
Knowing the signs of gaslighting—whether you suspect your partner is gaslighting you or not—is important, because often, they can be quite subtle and difficult to pinpoint until you know exactly what signs of gaslighting you’re looking for.
Parade spoke to three Gottman-certified relationship experts to ask what gaslighting is and what subtle signs of gaslighting we should be wary of in relationships.
What is gaslighting in relationships?
“Gaslighting is emotional abuse,” says Stacy Hubbard, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Gottman Therapist and Master Trainer. “[It’s] a tactic used by batterers to control their partner. In essence, it is an attempt to make the other person question and doubt their own sanity.”
Mike McNulty, PhD, Master Trainer for The Gottman Institute and Founder of The Chicago Relationship Center, adds, “It’s a very manipulative tactic that people use for their own gain. By making the other person feel and look crazy, the gaslighter manipulates the partner for their own personal gain or benefit.”
However, being able to distinguish between true gaslighting vs. a few negative behaviors or reactions from our partner is critical, says Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D., a Master Trainer for the Gottman Institute and founder of the Austin-based Center for Relationships. “It is really important that we make a distinction between 1) gaslighting that is part of a larger picture of dominance, control, and “intimate terrorism” and words and, 2) behaviors from our partners that might be dismissing or discounting of our reality. One, or even several, acts of dismissing or discounting my perceptions or opinion may not necessarily be gaslighting,” she cautions.
“If it is true gaslighting then the behavior is a clear example of emotional and psychological abuse. One person is systematically and with harmful intent trying to make their partner go insane or seriously doubt their own grasp on reality,” Meunier says. “Gaslighting, in its original form, is usually a part of what we call characterological abuse based on Dr. Gottman’s research on domestic violence,” she explains—which you can read more about in Dr. Gottman’s book, When Men Batter Women.
Where did the word “gaslighting” come from?
“The term ‘gaslighting’ came from the 1944 movie where a husband deliberately and systematically manipulated reality to make his wife mistrust her own sanity and perceptions in order to drive her crazy so he could take over her estate,” explains Meunier. “There was clear and premeditated intent here to drive her over the edge. Today, that term is used much more loosely and is often used to denote when one person is making another person doubt their perceptions, knowledge, or opinions,” she adds.
Why is gaslighting in relationships so harmful?
“The key ingredient here is intent to control, manipulate and subjugate one’s intimate partner. If this is the case, then the perpetrator of gaslighting is acting sadistically—in other words, they are deliberately damaging someone’s psyche without any care for the consequences on the victim,” says Meunier. ” This is what makes true gaslighting harmful in relationships.”
McNulty adds, “Even when it is done on a one-time basis, gaslighting holds potential to destroy trust between partners. For example, out of desperation, a person may gaslight their partner to cover up an affair or some other major betrayal. A one-time incident of gaslighting can totally destroy trust in the relationship because the partner who discovers they were gaslit, may be shocked that perpetrator could do such a thing.” Ultimately, he explains, “They will not feel safe in the relationship, and this lack of safety makes it impossible for the relationship to continue.”
What’s more, “Gaslighting is often used in tandem with other types of emotional and/or physical abuse,” Hubbard warns. “The abuser is attempting to control the other person and gaslighting can often be one tactic, but likely it is in combination with other types of emotional abuse—such as isolating the victim, making sure they don’t have access to their own money, making sure they are cut off from family and friends, not allowing them to work. In this dynamic where gaslighting can be present, there is no partnership or equality.”
Related: Here Are the Four Horsemen Behaviors Coined by John Gottman That Will Ruin Your Marriage—Plus, How to Avoid Them
What motivates partners to gaslight their significant other?
“Sometimes partners who gaslight on a one-time basis or during a brief period in a relationship, find themselves caught up in a betrayal they never imagined would happen—like an affair or something financial,” says McNulty. “Such partners fear their partner will leave if they learn the truth, and do not know how to approach their partner to own the betrayal and recover from it,” he explains. However, “When gaslighting is a pattern, the partner who gaslights typically has a very narcissistic or antisocial personality,” McNulty adds.
“If gaslighting is part of a whole set of behaviors that are designed to control and dominate, then the motivation to gaslight comes from that larger purpose: to have power over another human being,” explains Meunier. “Among characterologically abusive partners, one motivation might be ‘hostile dependency’ (i.e. I am going to make you feel so crazy, weak or unworthy that you won’t leave me because you will begin to believe no one can love you the way I do). Another type of abusive partner might have anti-social, or what is often called ‘malignant narcissistic,’ traits (i.e. It is my way or the highway, and I don’t care who I have to destroy to have my way).”
Ultimately, “Gaslighting is part of a system of battery, which is an attempt to control one’s partner,” says Hubbard. And while “that effort to control may be out of fear of abandonment, or a deep need to keep their partner in their lives, they are going about in a hurtful and abusive manner.”
11 signs of gaslighting in relationships
Here are some of the key signs of gaslighting in relationships:
You constantly question your reality—even on small things, like where you left your keys or what time you said you’d be somewhere.
You feel like you have no control over how you live your life—like not being able to do the dishes or laundry the way you like because your partner insists that things must be done their way.
You get shot down or called names whenever you express an opinion your partner doesn’t like—often leading to an irrational argument designed to confuse you and steal your peace of mind.
You question your self-worth—because your partner is constantly putting you down or attacking your character.
You feel like your partner is toying with you or playing games—as if your partner gets satisfaction out of making you feel crazy or stupid.
You’re suspicious that your partner is betraying you—whether it’s by hiding their spending habits from you or actually having an affair.
You have no control over money—which is yet another way your gaslighting partner can manipulate you and control your behavior.
Your partner makes up flimsy excuses when confronted—giving you poor explanations that don’t make sense or can’t be verified.
You feel isolated from friends and family—because your partner enlists support from others to make you feel crazy and alone.
Your partner never answers your questions directly—in fact, they’ll often deflect your concern by turning the focus around and attacking you instead.
You feel like you’re being watched at all times—often having to justify where you were and who you were with.
Related: 13 Ways to Grow Stronger as a Couple—According to Relationship Expert Dr. John Gottman’s Advice
How to tell if your partner is gaslighting you—4 questions to ask yourself
Meunier suggests going beyond the specific signs of gaslighting in relationships and asking yourself these questions:
Across the whole relationship, does my partner systematically and regularly control, manipulate, and try to reduce my self-worth or autonomy?
Does the gaslighting become one of many ways in which I am made to feel I am stupid, crazy, or irrational and therefore not to be trusted or given rights within the relationship?
When my partner discounts, dismisses or mocks my perceptions and reality, does this go along with a host of other behaviors and incidents when my partner prevents me from making my own decisions, having authority over my own space, my children, my work, my money, or my friends and relatives?
When I am told my perceptions and opinions are wrong or dumb, does it make me feel small and unworthy, and do I feel like this in a lot of different ways in this relationship
Can relationships heal from gaslighting?
“If gaslighting is not a pattern, the partners may be able to recover the relationship through seeking treatment—intensive couples treatment that helps them to create transparency and restore a sense of safety in their relationship,” says McNulty. “In this case, if the gaslighting partner is able to own their betrayal, express sincere remorse, and help create transparency and restore safety in the relationship, the partners are poised to discover why their relationship was vulnerable to betrayal and to build a better relationship. This is healing for both partners.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that “what one person calls gaslighting can often be their partner’s argumentative nature, their air of superiority, or their judgmental tendency,” cautions Meuiner. “Many scientists, doctors, and other highly educated and skilled people have a hard time being humble in relationships or knowing how to have egalitarian relationships. They may not intend harm on purpose and are often surprised when their partners get angry and hurt by their remarks. In these situations, healing is indeed possible. When the person engaging in the gaslighting behavior is genuinely concerned about the impact they are having on the partner, willing to look at their own contribution to the problem, and are willing to learn healthier ways of communicating in intimate relationships, then healing is possible and they have a good chance of building a flourishing relationship with the help of a relationship counselor.”
However, “If gaslighting is a pattern, then the perpetrator has to be open to very intensive individual therapy. It will take years to treat the personality disorder that led to this disturbing pattern of behavior. In the meantime, the couple will also need intensive couples therapy. In addition, the therapy will need to be supported by external measures that help ensure safety, such as polygraph tests,” McNulty emphasizes, to protect the victim. However, “Perpetrators generally are not receptive to participate in this type of treatment.” That’s why “repair and recovery from the gaslighting is generally unworkable,” he says.
Meunier agrees: “If the gaslighting is part of characterological abuse, it is very difficult to imagine that healing is possible. It would take a huge awakening on the part of the perpetrator to realize their behavior has damaged another human being’s psychological well-being and that they want to learn healthy relationship and intimacy skills.” Bluntly stated: “This is highly unlikely,” she says.
How to stay safe, if you think you’re a victim of gaslighting:
“Gaslighting is often a tactic used by abusers who are characterologically violent,” says Hubbard. “With characterological violence, there is a clear victim and perpetrator—there is not admittance of wrongdoing on the abuser’s part and, in fact, they often blame their partner for making them explode into violence. This is an unsafe dynamic,” she warns.
However, “Leaving an abusive relationship is very dangerous. This is when a spike in violence can occur or the abuser can stalk and kill their victim if they leave—so we are always aware of the risks of leaving,” she warns. “A safety plan and a well-thought-out escape plan needs to be in place. Seek help if you are in this position, or even if you think you may be.”