Dr. Maria D. Reyes
Have you ever had those moments, when you wonder whether you turned the downstairs light out, or as you pull out of the driveway you seriously doubt whether you put food out for the family pet, or you forget why you’re in a room even though you know you didn’t just wander in?
However, when it comes to gaslighting in relationships, it’s anything but harmless. Gaslighting can take place within intimate relationships, but it can also happen within other types of relationships. The term has gained currency in the last few years, and it has often been used in conversations about politics and politicians. But what is “gaslighting?”
“Gaslighting” is a term that’s connected to a movie made around the middle of the last century. In it, one of the characters is convinced and manipulated in subtle ways to begin questioning her reality and to start thinking she’s losing her mind. Gaslighting is about control. Some people want to retain control in relationships and one way they do that is by undermining the other person in the relationship.
When someone gaslights you, they make you question your recollection of events, minimize your concerns, and make you doubt yourself, your worth, and your judgment. All this allows the gaslighter to remain unchecked, unaccountable, and in control.
Gaslighting can take place within a political space too, as when lies, denials, or manipulated information is used to control people, or in organizations by hiding information or undermining whistleblowers. Parents can also gaslight their children, usually to get them to obey.
Examples of Gaslighting in Relationships
Gaslighting in relationships often starts in small, subtle ways. Gaslighters may shower you with gifts and affection in the beginning. The gaslighting often escalates quickly once the relationship is established. Because of the subtlety of gaslighting, it’s often difficult to give concrete examples of it.
When you have a conversation with someone, it sometimes happens that you remember it one way and they remember it another way. Maybe they did say they are allergic to fish, and you confused them with someone else. Perhaps you had agreed to something but forgot because you were having a busy week.
It happens to all of us. But if you begin to see a pattern emerging in your relationship with this one person where you feel or are made to feel like you’re constantly misremembering things, or that you’re blowing things out of proportion, that should set your warning bells off to the possibility of gaslighting.
Examples of gaslighting include the following statements that make you doubt your memory, perceptions, or judgment. These will tend to isolate you from others or make you feel like you’re overreacting to a situation, or they deflect blame from the person who is responsible for their own actions.
Gaslighting can also take the form of statements intended to dismiss or minimize your feelings and concerns. They may make you question your reality. The effect of it all is to keep you on your back foot, and for the other person to take and retain control. Below are some examples of gaslighting statements and actions:
“That never happened; you have a bad memory.” This denies what happened and makes the person begin questioning their memory.
“Are you sure about that? You never remember things how they happened.”
“I never cheated on you. you’re just paranoid.” This deflects attention and allows the gaslighter to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
“Why are you making things up?” The effect of this is to make it seem as if there is no issue; the other person is thus only “seeing things” that aren’t there, which makes them question their reality.
Giving the silent treatment. When a person acts like you are not there, that can seem to invalidate and erase your presence, making you invisible.
“No one will ever love you except me.” This can end up isolating someone from their friends and loved ones, in addition to making them have a low opinion of themselves. Abusers often use this line of attack to create dependence on them.
“That’s probably another hare-brained idea you got from your friends.” This both dismisses the person’s thoughts and disparages their friends in one fell swoop. It makes it seem that the person can’t think for themselves and that their friends aren’t a positive influence. Such statements can also tend toward isolating a person from their support network.
“You made me do this.” This deflects responsibility and denies accountability.
“You sound crazy.” Such a statement may make you question your reality and feelings.
“You’re being too sensitive, as usual.” This is dismissive of your feelings, denying their legitimacy.
“Why are you overreacting? It’s not that big a deal.” This also minimizes what a person is feeling and how seriously they are taking a situation.
“You’re just trying to start a fight.” This casts the gaslighter as a victim and the other person as being unnecessarily fractious.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Such a statement seeks to completely invalidate what is being said, and often deflects accountability.
Effects of Gaslighting
A relationship is a space grounded in mutual trust and equal dignity for both parties. When the person you trust makes you feel like you’re going out of your mind, that your perception of reality can’t be trusted, and that your judgment is below par, it can have deep consequences on emotional and mental health, among other things. Gaslighting can have the following effects:
- It can cause depression and anxiety, especially when the gaslighting is part of other instances or a wider pattern of abuse in the relationship.
- It confuses you, making you second-guess yourself and begin trusting other’s perceptions before your own. This can affect other areas of your life, such as at work where you’re required to make judgment calls every day.
- Gaslighting undermines your ability to make decisions because you begin doubting your perceptions.
- It may make you question yourself and your feelings. Downplaying the validity of your feelings may make way for further abuse in the relationship. And when that abuse is questioned, it too can be denied.
- Gaslighting can deprive you of joy and a sense of self-worth.
- It undermines your willingness to stand up for yourself or call out the abuser.
- Make you withdraw from others and become isolated.
- It can make you apologize to the gaslighter when they should be the ones apologizing. That means the relationship doesn’t have mutual accountability.
Dealing with Gaslighting in Relationships
If you are in a situation where gaslighting is occurring or suspect it is occurring, one key step is to recognize what is happening. If your gut is telling you that something doesn’t feel right, trust it. It flies against what the gaslighter has been telling you to do, but it’s important to take that step. Trusting yourself and your perceptions is a good first step, and you may need help with it.
Talk with someone outside of the relationship that you trust. An outside perspective is invaluable to remind you of your worth and to back up the fact that something isn’t quite right. Whether it’s a trusted friend or a therapist, be sure to share what’s going on with them.
Another way to begin dealing with gaslighting in relationships is to find a safe way to document and gather evidence such as a diary, memos, or pictures to have physical and objective evidence that you aren’t imagining things. Do this safely and wisely, as things can escalate when gaslighters are caught out or called out.
Lastly, in many cases the gaslighter isn’t willing to own up to their patterns of psychological control and manipulation, so be willing to walk away from the relationship. Sometimes the only way to deal with gaslighting is to walk away from the relationship. This is often easier said than done, but it is an option worth considering.
As you consider things and make your exit plan, think carefully about how you leave. Make your exit plan, talk with a trusted loved one, your pastor, or your therapist, and once you decide to leave, cut off contact with the gaslighter so you don’t get drawn back into the relationship.
“Emotions are Strange”, Courtesy of Adrian Swancar, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Woman at Bottom of Staircase”, Courtesy of Natalya Letunova, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Woman Crying”, Courtesy of Kevin Laminto, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “It takes grace to remain kind in cruel situations.”, Courtesy of Maddi Bazzocco, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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