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What Is Gaslighting in Relationships?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on October 25, 2021

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in relationships. It happens when one person convinces their target that they're remembering things wrong or that they’re misinterpreting events. The gaslighter is trying to manipulate the other person and presents their own thoughts and feelings as the truth.

There are ways to recognize gaslighting as it's happening. However, it can be difficult to notice those signs when you're the one being manipulated. Below, you’ll learn how to recognize the signs of gaslighting and understand their impact on your mental health. 

What Is Gaslighting in Relationships?

Gaslighting is a common form of abuse in unhealthy relationships. It can happen in romantic relationships at any age — teenage relationships, adult engagements, and even marriage.

Gaslighting may not happen at the beginning of a relationship. The person doing it may first build trust, which is part of why gaslighting can go unrecognized for a long time.

Studies show that gaslighting happens when people use gender-based stereotypes and other inequalities against their victims to manipulate their reality. In relationships, gaslighting is common in domestic abuse

Gaslighting is an abusive tactic, meant to make you doubt your thoughts and feelings. It may start in small ways, then grow into a false sense of reality. It can occur in minor incidents, making it so it’s hard to notice there’s a problem at all, especially in a relationship where you trust your partner. 

A common example is when the gaslighter convinces their partner that their accomplishments and other relationships are unimportant. The goal is to make the abuser the most important person in their victim’s life. 

The Effects of Gaslighting

Gaslighting is bad for your mental health. It can make you doubt your sanity and make it difficult to tell truth from lies. It creates unhealthy, codependent relationships, and it may feel impossible to leave.

Losing trust. Recovering from gaslighting can be difficult. During this emotional abuse, all trust is lost. You may have a hard time identifying what is real and the truth.

Feeling like you're insane. When you’re being gaslit, your partner may use terms like “crazy” and “insane.” They're trying to make you question yourself. Being told that you’re “crazy” stigmatizes mental health. Your mental health is used against you as a weapon, and that can make you fear losing credibility with your friends and family. 

Difficulty getting treatment. Getting help for gaslighting can be a challenge if you don’t recognize the abuse. If you’ve been gaslit, your partner’s behavior may not seem wrong or dangerous. You may even feel grateful because they still care about you. People who gaslight will make their victim feel guilty or question their sanity if they try to seek help. 

Protecting Yourself

If you're experiencing gaslighting in your relationship, it isn’t your fault. It can be difficult to recognize, let alone keep gaslighting from happening. Knowing the signs and understanding that you’re not “insane” can help keep gaslighting from affecting your mental health. 

Warning signs of gaslighting. There are some common behaviors and traits that can help you know when someone is trying to gaslight you.

  • Tell white lies
  • Deny something even if you have proof
  • Make you doubt your own judgment 
  • Make you mistrust others or lose interest in people and things that take your attention away from them 
  • Wear you down and make you feel exhausted or hopeless

It’s hard, but you can leave an unhealthy relationship. Seeking help may let you heal faster. You can talk to your primary care provider or mental health professionals about getting treatment for being gaslit. 

Once you’re out of an abusive relationship, you can focus on reaffirming positivity in your life. It may be helpful to journal and write down what’s true as you know it. Surrounding yourself with people who validate you and your reality will help ground you. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Sociological Association: “The Sociology of Gaslighting.”

Europe’s Journal of Psychology: “Machiavellianism, Relationship Satisfaction, and Romantic Relationship Quality.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The Ethics of Manipulation.”

The Hotline: "A Deeper Look Into Gaslighting."

The Monist: “Gaslighting, Misogyny, and Psychological Oppression.”

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