What Is Gaslighting in a Relationship?
Read on to explore the meaning of the term “gaslighting” in the context of a relationship.
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Is Gaslighting Just Another Word for Manipulation?
Gaslighting has become a widely used term in popular culture, but it is nothing new. The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which a husband tries to trick his wife into believing she’s having a mental breakdown.
Since then, the term gaslighting has been used to describe a brainwashing technique commonly used by narcissists, cult leaders, and abusive partners.
In relationships, gaslighting is used to put one partner in a position of dependency and the other in a position of power. Tactics are used to make someone else look unstable or irrational.
According to Grand Valley State University’s Associate Professor, Andrew D. Spear, gaslighting is used by a type of abuser who needs their victim to agree with them.1 It is used as a form of manipulation, but it is a specific and rarer technique for controlling another person.
Manipulation Versus Gaslighting
Children learn to manipulate parents at an early age—they cry, pout, smile, or use their best manners to get things they want. You can also see marketing experts and salespeople manipulating consumers to buy their goods. However, none of these things are gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a pattern of behavior that goes beyond influencing someone to take a specific action. The National Domestic Violence Hotline lists five gaslighting tactics that are different from general manipulation:2
- Withholding: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
- Countering: “You’re wrong. You don’t remember correctly.”
- Blocking/Changing the Subject: “Who gave you that crazy idea?”
- Trivializing: “You’re too sensitive. You get angry over little things.”
- Forgetting/Denial: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You made that up.”
These early signs can seem harmless at first, but they are part of a bigger pattern of gaslighting, emotional abuse, and domestic violence.
If you are in a relationship with someone who uses these tactics or constantly says things that make you second-guess yourself, you may be a victim of gaslighting. Speak with a therapist or call the Domestic Violence Hotline for information and support.
How Gaslighting Works: Techniques Used by Gaslighters
Gaslighting is effective because it confuses the victim so they no longer feel they can trust their own thoughts, memories, and feelings. Therefore, it is difficult for people to recognize when someone uses these techniques on them. In fact, a person who is adept at gaslighting and manipulation knows how to build trust so that their lies will be believed later.
Psychology Today refers to this tactic as love bombing—using a combination of praising and confiding gaslighting behaviors to establish a strong connection before any physical intimacy occurs. Once a gaslighter manipulates someone into having strong feelings for them, they can begin the next phase of gaslighting and manipulation.3
Watch out for the following clear signs of gaslighting in a relationship:4
Lying about unimportant things is one of the earliest signs of being gaslighted. If a person can get someone to accept a blatant lie, they have set a precedent for telling more lies in the future.
Early in the relationship, the lies will be small things, like what the other partner was wearing the first time they met or that the partner told them something they know they never said. The point is not necessarily to “get away with” the lies but to keep the other person unsteady.
Denying Facts Even When There Is Proof
For example, they know their partner said they would pick them up from work. Their friend even remembers the conversation and confirms the statement; however, the gaslighter denies ever making such a promise.
Gaslighting in arguments starts small. The first time something like this happens, the person who was gaslighted may feel certain they are right. Still, as similar incidents follow more frequently, they begin questioning their reality and rely on the abuser’s version of events instead.
A person who wants to gaslight others is always on the lookout for information they can use against someone. For instance, if a victim shares their fears of being an inadequate parent, the gaslighter will find ways to point out incidents of bad parenting subtly. If a victim talks about feelings of unworthiness, the gaslighter will point out negative traits.
These tactics are used to chip away at self-esteem and confidence.
Gaslighting a person is done purposefully and gradually over time. Small lies that slowly get bigger and unkind comments that get bolder are common.
The goal of the gaslighter is to slowly turn up the heat so that the other does not notice the gaslighting abuse symptoms until they are under their control.
Words and Actions that Don’t Match
One way for someone to recognize they are being gaslighted is to pay attention to that person’s deeds more than their words. Thus, when a partner’s words and actions frequently don’t align, it may be gaslighting.
Giving Plenty of Praise
Throwing in frequent praise and statements of positive reinforcements is part of the overall plan to keep people confused. This praise often comes after negative or dishonest statements and makes others rethink their opinion of them.
People who gaslight in relationships understand that they need to weaken others for their tactics to work. They may convince someone that trusted friends are lying or tell their friends that they are the one who is lying. Gaslighters try to weaken their partner’s connections with work, family, and social circles to increase their dependence on them.
How to Respond to Gaslighting in Relationships
Gaslighting can be difficult to detect, which is why many victims are hesitant to leave a relationship that seems good otherwise.
If someone suspects they are being gaslighted, they should consider taking the following steps:
- Tell other people what is happening—not just one person, but many
- Do not allow the abuser to cut them off from family and friends—stay in touch with their support system
- Keep a journal of events to refresh their memory on the facts if they get confused
- Speak with a relationship or mental health expert about gaslighting symptoms
Gaslighting is often a lead-in to domestic violence. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that 74% of adult female domestic violence survivors report experiencing signs of gaslighting from their abusive partner.1
The stereotype that women are irrational and overemotional can work to an abuser’s advantage; however, gaslighting, psychological abuse, and abuse of power are found in all types of romantic relationships regardless of gender or sexual orientation.