Something is incredibly wrong in your relationship but you just can’t put a finger on it. You’re feeling inadequate and drained, and you’re consistently being told that it’s all your fault… Is there a term that explains what you’re going through? Yes, what you’re going through seems to be the classic case of gaslighting in relationships.
This toxic phenomenon is difficult to identify and even harder to put an end to. A partner who gaslights is unthinkably challenging. The damage they inflict is slow but steady. By the time you realize that something is amiss, your self-esteem has hit rock bottom and your relationship has turned as toxic as it can get.
It is natural to feel lost and powerless in such a situation. But it is possible to bounce back from this abyss and heal. How? Let’s find the answer to this and many other questions you may have on your mind with the help of counseling psychologist and therapist Neha Anand (MA, Counseling Psychology), founder-director of Bodhitre India and chief consultant counselor at Bhimrao Ambedkar University Health Centre.
She’s here to shed light on the workings of gaslighting and emotionally abusive relationships. Why are gaslighting phrases in relationships corrosive? Can you identify the red flags of emotional manipulation early on? How can one tackle gaslighting behavior in relationships and marriages? Is there a way for you to stop this toxic cycle? And what to do with a narcissist gaslighting you? Read on to find out…
What Does Gaslighting Mean In A Relationship?
A definition is the wisest first step on the path of awareness. Neha says, “So many people don’t know what gaslighting means. There’s a severe lack of awareness about what they’re experiencing regularly. We need to have more conversations around the subject. There has to be more exposure to platforms that discuss emotional abuse. Our best way forward is by educating ourselves collectively.”
Simply put, gaslighting is a form of manipulation and abuse where a person makes you doubt your reality. They put forth a false narrative that stands in direct contrast to your understanding of events. As a result, you begin to scrutinize your thought process and perception. Prolonged exposure to gaslighting behavior in relationships can cause a considerable amount of stress and damage to an individual’s psyche.
Neha explains, “People underestimate the repercussions of such manipulation. Gaslighting in relationships has a very long-lasting effect. And no one knows how to resolve these issues – What can be done with the emotional baggage? How do you recover from an unhealthy relationship? Because it hasn’t just changed your views on dating, partnership, etc. Your self-image has undergone a (negative) makeover.”
Why is it called gaslighting?
Interestingly, this term is derived from a movie title. The 1944 film Gaslight first shone the spotlight on the infamous manipulation we’re talking about. The plot of the movie serves to explain how people twist the truth to a dangerous extent. To put this theoretical explanation of this complex manipulation technique, let’s take up an example.
Josh and Rochelle have been dating for a few months. One day, Rochelle catches Josh sexting his colleague. A huge fight ensues where Josh turns the tables instantly. He blames Rochelle for his cyber-cheating – “I’ve been so stressed at work and you haven’t even noticed. I feel neglected in this relationship. When’s the last time we slept together, huh? I have needs and they aren’t being met.” A few moments later, Rochelle wonders, “Was it really me? I must’ve done something wrong…”
And just like that, Josh has not only wriggled out of taking any accountability for his actions but has placed blame on his partner instead. She too has second-guessed her comprehension and reaction to the situation. Such gaslighting in relationships examples can be found all around you. However, being at the receiving end of such trauma can be truly damaging. Let’s begin the preventive measures (or damage control, depending on your situation) by looking at the signs below. They’ll help you identify toxicity in the first go.
Related Reading: Manipulation In Relationships – 11 Subtle Signs You Are A Victim
7 Expert Tips To Identify Gaslighting Behavior
I have a feeling you’ll resonate with what’s coming next. Maybe you truly didn’t think this was wrong or have only recently realized the gravity of the situation. Perhaps you were in denial about where the relationship stands or wanted to look at the brighter side of things. No matter where you’re coming from, this knowledge is vital for you. Be honest with yourself as you dive into these signs of gaslighting behavior in relationships. It’s not going to be easy, I know.
An objective assessment is imperative for your emotional health. Analyze your partner’s conduct without any bias. The only way to solve a problem is to acknowledge that there is one. Here’s presenting the dead giveaways of gaslighting in relationships.
1. Gaslighting meaning in a relationship – your feelings are invalidated
Because each time you voice a problem, your partner dismisses it as unimportant. The gaslighting partner convinces you that you’re overreacting. Your hurt and pain are insignificant because the problem stems from you, not them. If you were to say, “I haven’t been happy in the relationship,” they would say, “What’s there to be unhappy about?” This is also an indicator of lack of empathy in the relationship.
Your emotions are trivialized each time you speak up. With time, you begin to feel that you’re a weak person who exaggerates everything. The response to your problems is judgment. Neha says, “There’s a lot of blame in each statement. And they all begin with ‘you’ – ‘you always overreact’ or ‘you’re never satisfied’. These generalizations begin to convince a person that the fault indeed lies within them.”
2. Why is it called gaslighting? You’re second-guessing things
Anyone would begin to question their sanity eventually. If I was told, every single day, that the way I see things or comprehend them is wrong, I’d take a hit to my self-esteem. Maybe, I’d think, their version of events is the correct one. Months of repetitive second-guessing would lead me to seek confirmation for my beliefs. Yes, manipulation can damage someone this badly.
If you’re dating a narcissist, you’re more likely to face this problem on a much bigger scale. With a narcissist gaslighting you, there will be no scope of being in a healthy relationship. Neha explains, “Narcissism is closely linked to low self-esteem. The inferiority complex coupled with the awareness of their own loopholes can result in a false unshakeable conviction that they are right. You will face gaslighting in relationships because of their issues.”
3. There’s a lack of accountability
A partner that gaslights won’t be anywhere close to the arena of accountability. The blame will almost always be displaced on you and they’ll get off scot-free. Moreover, they will express outrage at the mere idea of them having done something wrong. Like Lou Holtz said, “The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely to be the one who dropped it.”
A thumb rule of successful relationships is open communication (coming to that later) and assuming responsibility for mistakes. If you’re facing gaslighting in relationships, you’ll be the only one taking accountability… even for the mistakes you did not commit. See how harmful blame-shifting is?
4. Gaslighting phrases in relationships result in one-sided arguments
Manipulation is a one-way street. How can any argument or discussion be conducive when the partner’s focus lies on ‘winning’ the match? When couples in healthy relationships fight, they strive to solve the problem that is causing friction between them. The tug-of-war isn’t between the partners, it’s between them and the relationship issue.
In the case of gaslighting in relationships, you might want to resolve your issues but your partner certainly won’t. They’ll walk on the battleground (because every conversation with them is akin to war) and trample over your point of view. Their weapons will be phrases like “It’s all in your head.” Your partner dominates the argument entirely and conflict resolution is thrown out the window. You’re left wondering how to stop gaslighting in a relationship argument like this.
5. There’s a lot of guilt
The only trips you take these days are guilt trips. Because you’re always in the wrong, you’re always made to feel guilty. “Look what you made me do,” or “You’ve ruined my mood” are common guilt-inducing gaslighting phrases in relationships. Not only is the event in question your fault but also your partner’s reaction to it. You’re responsible for their anger and that’s that.
A reader from Baltimore wrote, “Guilt is so difficult to live with. I was anxious all the time, restless, and worried. I walked on eggshells around my ex because what if I hurt him again? It has taken me a very long time to realize how unhealthy things were. (You can’t think straight with a narcissist gaslighting you.) But I will say this – give yourself the benefit of the doubt before you begin to guilt yourself.” This is the gaslighting meaning in a relationship you MUST know.
Related Reading: Responding To Gaslighting – 9 Realistic Tips
6. The communication is poor
There’s little scope of open communication when your partner is disinterested in your version of things. In the absence of transparency and good listening, a relationship crumbles quickly. Partners begin assuming things, the resentment builds, and bitterness seeps in. Meaningful conversations strengthen the bond between two people; how can you negotiate your differences without talking and listening?
As John Powell wisely said, “Communication works for those who work at it.” Your one-sided attempts are laudable indeed, but if you want to change the state of your relationship, your partner will have to chip in.
7. Criticism reigns supreme when there’s gaslighting in relationships
Do you feel like you’re incompetent in the presence of your significant other? Are you tired of being told that you aren’t good enough? Do they incessantly keep criticizing everything you do? If the answer to these questions is a yes, your partner is gaslighting you. And mind you, this criticism is not constructive. It is condescending and puts you down.
Neha says, “When it all starts, the person facing gaslighting doesn’t identify that this is a problem. They think that maybe their partner has a right to criticize them; once this boundary is breached, the gaslighter gets a wider window to trespass. Eventually, they might shame their partner in the presence of company too. Emotional abuse often gets out of hand because a person failed to draw the line initially.”
This ought to have cleared things up significantly. But I think that examples are a wonderful way of grasping the workings of concepts. Take a look at these everyday examples of gaslighting phrases in relationships. You’ll see how things go wrong in the littlest of instances.
What’s amiss? Gaslighting in relationships examples
Here’s a hypothetical situation. You’ve made plans for date night with your partner on call. On account of some miscommunication, they’ve inferred that the dinner reservations are for 7:40 PM rather than 7:30 PM. They arrive a little late while you’re already there. In a matter-of-fact tone, you inform them that they’re late. What is their response?
Do they blame you for not being clear/loud enough on the phone? Or do they try and convince you that you said 7:40 indeed? Are they willing to own up to their error? If your partner is a gaslighter, they will go with Options A or B. Because the fault could never be theirs.
I once briefly dated a boy who made me understand how mild gaslighting in relationships works. Each time he faced a minor inconvenience on a date, he managed to peg it on me. For instance, if a cab wasn’t available near the restaurant, he would shade me for having chosen a place that was ‘out of the way’. I got out of it pretty quickly, but let this serve as a reminder of how nuanced and intricate gaslighting is.
And don’t get me wrong – there is such a thing as unintentional gaslighting in relationships. But no matter where it’s coming from, you are the one suffering because of it.
Neha elaborates, “It starts very subtly; no behavior is spontaneous. Things build on each other as they escalate. You don’t even realize the full import of such statements at first because you perceive them to be harmless. But they rarely are. Gaslighting in relationships is a long and continuous process. There’s a pattern in motion here, not a one-off incident.”
Ways To Shut Gaslighting In A Relationship
Now that you’ve understood the gaslighting in relationships examples, let’s do some troubleshooting. There are two ways of addressing the problem at hand – internally (self-work) and externally (seeking professional help). We’ll explore both of these routes in our upcoming segment and you’ll find a way you like. Don’t lose heart at all – fixing a toxic relationship is possible.
You must also know that healing operates on two levels – individual and collective. The former focuses on your growth and wellbeing, while the latter stresses the betterment of the relationship. Without further ado, let’s get right to the question of the hour – how to stop gaslighting in a relationship?
1. Detach yourself
What I mean to say is that you should stop being so reactive. If you respond to each instance of gaslighting in equal measure, you’ll experience burnout in a matter of days. Don’t take their remarks personally and ignore all the gaslighting phrases in relationships.
Neha astutely says, “If the gaslighting is affecting your productivity and health, you need to put some distance between your partner and you. Taking space is a good idea to analyze the situation objectively. Extract yourself from any environment that is hampering your well-being and resist the urge to give in to provocation.”
Related Reading: How To Fix A Toxic Relationship – 5 Best Ways
2. Be assertive and calm when you’re dealing with gaslighting in relationships
Boundary up! A partner that gaslights are bound to invade your personal space. They will make inappropriate remarks, derogatory statements, and ‘innocent’ jokes that take a dig at you. Be sure to draw a line and stop them in their tracks. An assertive (NOT aggressive) tone always does the trick. Never lose your composure either.
Neha says, “People who gaslight tend to throw light on their partner’s weaknesses only. This gets very disrespectful so you have to be very vigilant about setting emotional boundaries. Don’t tolerate insolence from your partners; call them out without any fear of hurting them. Don’t try to defend them with claims of ‘unintentional’ gaslighting in relationships.” This is exactly how to stop gaslighting in a relationship.
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3. Reach out to a mental health professional
Problems like gaslighting in relationships are often considered to be ‘private matters’. People don’t talk about them much or seek help. Be wiser than that. When you’re at the receiving end of constant manipulation and emotional abuse, your ability to see the red flags may get impaired.
If you can’t shake off the ‘something is amiss’ feeling, reach out to a mental health professional for help. They can help you see the problematic patterns you may have developed blind spots for. Work on the relationship with your partner with the guidance of a skilled counselor or at the very least work on your mental well-being. Some teamwork will take you a long way ahead.
Many people have emerged stronger from unhealthy relationships after approaching a counselor or therapist. At Bonobology, we have a licensed panel of professionals who can help you through this tumultuous phase in your relationship. We are here for you.
4. Self-care is a must
Do not let gaslighting behavior in relationships take a toll on your health. Be focused on yourself; eat healthy food, get a solid 8 hours of sleep, exercise a little, keep your surroundings (and yourself) clean, do your best at work, and socialize twice a week. Learn how to love yourself fully.
Make sure that your routine doesn’t revolve around your partner and the relationship. That’s a recipe for disaster. You’ve now understood the gaslighting meaning in a relationship too, so be on your guard and prioritize yourself. The narcissist gaslighting you is worrying about themselves only.
5. How to stop gaslighting in a relationship? Be objective in your evaluation
While one should never stand for emotional/psychological abuse, it is imperative to reassess the situation by yourself. Like Neha explained, make sure it’s a pattern you’re seeing, not a single incident. Check your facts before reaching a conclusion about your partner and the relationship. The last thing you want is to be blind to your own faults (if any).
Here we come to the end of our sojourn. You’re armed with enough knowledge to take on gaslighting in relationships. May you always speak your truth and may your relationships be healthy.