What is gaslighting? How to recognise it and how to respond

Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation technique that seeks to sow seeds of suspicion, discord, and doubt in one individual or group against another.

This article will explore how gaslighting occurs in romantic relationships.

vector image showing effects of gaslighting

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person attempts to make another person question their reality and sanity. The person can do this by denying that something was said or done or by treating the victim as if they are crazy. Gaslighting can also involve:

The abuser might deny saying or doing something, question the victim’s memory of an event, or pretend to forget what happened even if there is proof.

This can make the other person feel like they’re going crazy and make them doubt their judgement and sanity.

For example, Jack tells his partner that he has to work to pay for everything because Catherine stays at home all day and does nothing.

Reality check: Catherine runs her own small business, pays all the bills through her bank account, and has done so for the duration of her relationship with Jack. Jack works sporadically and rarely contributes to household bills. When Catherine tells Jack that his accusation is not true, that she always pays the bills and can prove it by checking payments coming out of her bank account, Jack says what are you talking about it, blah blah blah and tries to shut the conversation down.

When Catherine attempts to answer Jack’s question, ‘what are you talking about’, by reminding him, he accused her of lazing about all day and that he has to pay for everything; he gets mad and states that he never said that.

The focus of the initial disagreement then gets shifted onto an argument, trying to convince Jack that he did state that he has to pay for everything and accusing Catherine of doing nothing.

When Jack denies his accusations and denies that he said he has to pay for everything and tells Catherine that he never said it, this is gaslighting.

The first time this happens in a relationship, it might be nothing more than a confusing argument. But over time, a pattern develops and becomes more elaborate, which will negatively affect not only Catherine but also the relationship.

How gaslighting works

Gaslighting works by deliberately feeding false information to the other person and categorically denying something happened to make the other person question what they know to be true.

In the example above, this occurred when Jack fed false information to Catherine that she does nothing and he had to pay all the bills and then denied that he had ever said that.

In the example, Catherine can prove she pays bills, but she might question her memory of the event; did he really say that? Is she to blame for all the arguments that happen?

Arguments

There can be many arguments in a relationship where one person gaslights.

Most originate when the gas lighter categorically denies they said or did something.

An argument develops from the back-and-forth statements trying to prove or disprove what a person said or done.

Suppose you are in a relationship with a person who gaslights. In that case, you probably recognise these disagreements about who said what instead of being allowed time and space to address the original problem. The actual issue is rarely addressed as the function of gaslighting behaviour confuses and upsets the other person so much that nothing can be discussed in an adult and rational way.

They will then blame you for being dramatic, mad and creating arguments.

What are the signs that you are being gaslighted?

Why is it called gaslighting?

The term gaslighting was first used in the 1930s. It referred to the psychological abuse of someone in a relationship by denying that abuse had taken place or trying to make the victim doubt their memory. The term was popularised in the 1970s by the novel and film “The Accused”. The film tells the story of a woman whose husband gaslights.

How does gaslighting affect you?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser tries to control you by making you question your memory, perception of events and even your sanity.

This can make you feel on edge, like you are walking on eggshells.

You probably have to make excuses for your partner’s behaviour to family or friends.

You might stop discussing issues to avoid a confrontation or find that you can never have your emotional needs met. Each time the other person hurts, shouts or calls you derogatory names, it is easier to say nothing than risk another argument.

How can you respond to gaslighting?

Never get into an argument with the person who is gaslighting you. If you do, they up their game, shout louder, over the top of you or ignore you altogether.

Self-care is essential. Gaslighting can be emotionally draining, so taking care of yourself both physically and mentally is crucial. 

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