What Is Gaslighting in Relationships?
Gaslighting, or emotional manipulation that leads to self-doubt and a false perception of reality, is uniformly detrimental to a relationship. The term was coined after the 1944 film “Gaslight,” in which a husband intentionally breaks down his wife’s sanity, and has since remained at the forefront in the fields of relationship counseling and psychology.
Gaslighting can happen in any relationship, whether it's between parents and their children or professors and their students — but it’s very common in romantic relationships. The Active Times contacted marriage and family therapist Dr. Caroline Madden to discuss the common signs of gaslighting and the psychology behind this dangerous dynamic.
“Gaslighting happens when you trust your partner so much that you are willing to deny your own reality,” she told us via email.
The most common gaslighting Madden has seen is in instances of cheating. It is common for one to bring up that their partner is having an affair, only to be shut down and questioned, leading to self-doubt and insecurity.
“Your spider sense goes off that something isn’t quite right,” she wrote. “He usually calls when he is running late from work, but doesn’t now. He seems distracted a lot. You confront him and he gets angry and turns it around on you. You’ve been gaslighted.”
So what signs should you look for to identify gaslighting? According to Loveisrespect, an organization dedicated to ending relationship abuse, gaslighting can take several forms, each of which makes the victim question their own sanity. The five identifiable types of gaslighting include withholding, countering, blocking/diverting, trivializing and forgetting/denial.
This type of abuse occurs when the gaslighter pretends that they don’t understand their partner’s point, which allows them to effectively dismiss it. If you mention that you’re frustrated because your partner seems distant and they respond with “What does that even mean?” — this is an example of withholding.
If a gaslighter is invalidating their partner’s point by claiming the partner has a faulty memory, then they are countering. For example, if your partner comes home late from work and you question them, they might respond with “Your memory must be failing, because I get home at 8 p.m. every night.”
Blocking / Diverting
This technique is especially effective in making a victim question their sanity by changing the subject and dismissing their thought process. If you feel like your spouse isn’t helping out around the house enough, they may respond by changing the subject: “You’ve been spending too much time with your siblings. Did your brother put that thought in your head?” or “You’re acting delusional.”
This tactic makes the victim feel small by claiming that you are too sensitive or that a certain topic of conversation is childish or petty. If your partner asks if you’ve gained weight and you tell them you’re offended, they may say, “Why are you making this such a big deal? You need to grow a thicker skin.”
Forgetting / Denial
This tactic can be especially frustrating for a victim, as abusers will pretend that they have no memory of the situation that their partner is upset about. If you tell your partner that you are upset that they yelled at the kids last night, they may dismiss you by saying, “I didn’t raise my voice at all.”
According to Madden, many gaslighters eventually start to become delusional themselves, believing that the lies that they’re telling their spouse are true.
“There is a rabbit hole they begin to go down when they aren’t seeing reality clearly themselves,” she said. “You are getting close to the truth. If you find out they will have to end the affair, so they keep lying.”
Occasional arguments are just another component of a normal relationship, but if your partner is constantly denying the truth and delegitimizing your values during these arguments, this is a sure sign of an unhealthy relationship. Gaslighting isn’t the only toxic behavior you might see from your partner. There are other habits of toxic people you want to watch out for.