This provides the space every relationship needs for people to be vulnerable with one another, for life-giving accountability to occur, and thus for the relationship to thrive. Disagreements do occur within relationships, and when those occur it is important for both parties to hear one another out and not negate each other’s perceptions of the situation.
Several things can severely undermine a relationship, as well as do a lot of emotional damage to people in those relationships. One such pernicious thing is gaslighting in relationships. “Gaslighting” is a term that has gained currency in the last few years. What is it, what does it look like, and how does it affect relationships?
What is “gaslighting?”
Sometimes things are exactly as they seem. You saw what you saw, and it’s exactly what it looked like. Yes, your partner did withdraw large amounts of money from your joint account, and they are staying out later than usual with friends. Yes, your partner was sexting with someone other than you.
Gaslighting is basically when someone wants you to doubt that you saw and heard what you saw and heard. When someone is gaslighting you, they want you to disbelieve your intuition and your senses, and instead believe their version of events as true.
It is a distortion of reality, and an emotionally damaging one at that, because of the distress it causes. Gaslighting is often used in relationships to control others by convincing them that they are wrong about something even if they aren’t.
Sure, sometimes we need context to fully understand an event. Gaslighting goes beyond this to deny reality in an attempt to control the other person. Gaslighting sows doubt in other people about whether they can trust their own feelings,memory, or judgment.
It can happen in intimate relationships, but it can also happen within communities and societies as well. No one is immune to gaslighting, and it can have a devastating effect on a person’s self-esteem and sense of confidence, even calling their sanity into question in extreme cases.
How do you know if someone is gaslighting you?
Gaslighting shows up in various ways, but you can tell if you’re being gaslit in a relationship if, among other things:
- your feelings are trivialized
- a person says and does things, and then denies it
- if they insist an event did or did not happen, even though it’s not true
- you frequently make excuses about your partner’s behavior
- you are always apologizing
The effect that this has on a person is that they begin to lose confidence in themselves, begin feeling anxious, apologize often because they think things are always their fault, and so on. The person begins to doubt their own emotional reactions, often wondering if they’re responding appropriately to their partner and no longer feeling like themselves.
As gaslighting robs a person of a clear sense of themselves, this all has an incredibly disorienting effect for the person being gaslit. It enables the gaslighter to exercise control over the other person, taking away their sense of agency.
What does gaslighting look like in relationships?
Gaslighting is a specific type of toxic relationship, whether it’s with an intimate partner, in the workplace, or even at a broader societal scale. It has various negative effects on relationships, and it manifests in several ways.
In a relationship, gaslighting allows one person to have control over the other by eliciting feelings of insecurity and anxiety in them. The gaslighter shapes the narrative and possesses the power to define reality for the other person. If they get to define what is real or not, they have the power to grant approval, acceptance, and safety to the other person, and that imbalance in the relationship can devolve into codependency.
“Codependency” is where one partner relies emotionally or psychologically on their partner. In the workplace, if your boss or a co-worker is gaslighting you, that can severely undermine your confidence to leave an unhealthy work situation, to ask for better working conditions or to be treated with respect and so much more.
When the power dynamic in a relationship skews toward one person, and they get to determine what is real or isn’t, it follows that there will be low accountability. If your partner is spending more money than they should, or if they are being emotionally and sexually inappropriate with another person and you call them to account, it’s easy for a gaslighter to deny it and simply say you’re imagining things. The imbalance in power often means one party doesn’t feel entitled to question the other, and the gaslighter can simply bully their partner into silence.
One-sided sensitivity and listening
In a gaslighting situation, usually only one of you is listening and being sensitive to the other. The gaslighter often dismisses the other person with words such as, “You’re being too sensitive,” “You’re being paranoid,” “You’re imagining things,” “You’re overreacting,” “It’s not a huge deal,” “You’re being insecure,” “You’re hysterical,” “You’re being dramatic,” “You know your memory isn’t that great; I don’t think that ever happened,” and so on.
The effect of all this is that the concerns and feelings of the other person are dismissed by the gaslighter. The victim is left feeling like there’s something wrong with them, that maybe they are too sensitive. Ultimately, in a gaslighting situation, one person is doing the listening and paying attention to the other person’s perspective while the other simply dismisses their concerns, and that is not a healthy way to relate to one another.
Dealing with gaslighting in relationships
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that severely undermines other people. Gaslighting in relationships can have long-lasting effects if it isn’t dealt with. If you’re in a relationship where you’re being gaslighted, it can devolve into a codependent situation, which is an unhealthy pattern of relating to another person.
Recognizing that you’re being gaslighted is a great first step towards dealing with it. It’s useful to talk with family and friends who can provide you with a trusted and objective perspective on your situation if you think you’re being gaslit.
Journaling can also be a useful tool to give you emotional distance from a situation, then later revisit it with a more objective eye. This can help you establish whether your reaction and perceptions were appropriate at the moment, and to begin building up your self-awareness and self-reliance.
An important step to overcoming gaslighting in relationships is rebuilding your self-reliance by recognizing that you do not need external validation to define your reality. It requires a significant shift in your thought patterns and behavior to begin reasserting yourself, feel your feelings, and be willing to rely on your own senses, especially when it contradicts what the gaslighter is saying. That greater emotional self-awareness is key to growing in your ability to validate yourself and your perceptions.
When a person gaslights someone, they may not even be aware that they are doing it. It can emerge from their own insecurities, past patterns of behavior they observed when they were growing up, or personality disorders such as narcissism.
A person may be gaslighting others to avoid being challenged or admit being wrong. Whether it is intentional or not, gaslighting is an inappropriate way for people to relate to one another. The gaslighter must understand that it is not okay to behave that way and to begin finding new ways of communicating.
If you are in an intimate relationship with someone who is gaslighting you, getting the help of a counselor will help you and your partner see and understand your patterns of relating, allowing you to develop better ways of communicating. In some cases, you need to be willing to walk away from the situation if there are no signs of change.
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