What Is Gaslighting in Relationships? An Expert Explains

Updated 09/08/19
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You're probably familiar with the term gaslighting—but what is it exactly? Simply put, it's a manipulative tactic used to shift the power dynamic in a healthy relationship such that one person has complete control over the other. To gain insight into the psychology behind this toxic relationship dynamic, we asked psychotherapist Jeremy Bergen, MS, LCPC, to weigh in.

What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of sustained psychological manipulation that causes the victim to question or doubt his or her sanity, judgement, and memories.

"At its heart, gaslighting is emotional abuse," explains Bergen. "It's a tactic one partner uses in an effort to exert power over, gain control over, and inflict emotional damage on the other." According to Bergen, "Gaslighting is such a malicious form of emotional abuse because it causes you to question your experiences, so it can be difficult to identify the warning signs."

Ahead, Bergen breaks down the psychology behind gaslighting in relationships, including how to identify the warning signs, how to understand the reasoning behind this venomous behavior, and how to navigate the next steps.

gaslighting in relationships
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4 Signs You're Being Gaslighted


They make you question your perception of reality.

The major warning sign of gaslighting is that "your partner challenges your perception of situations, of yourself, of your thoughts, of your feelings, of their behavior," explains Bergen. "One of the big warning signs is this persistent sense that what you saw, you didn't really see. And what you experienced, you didn't really experience. What you felt, you didn't really feel."

They persistently and blatantly lie to you.

According to Bergen, "Their lies are designed to be manipulative for control." If you think your partner may be gaslighting you, Bergen suggests asking yourself questions such as Does my partner consistently make me question my thoughts and experience of things? Do I catch them in lies?

They make you feel insecure by breaking you down.

In order to gain control and power, a gaslighter will harp on the gaslighted's insecurities. To help determine if your partner is breaking you down, Bergen suggests asking yourself, Is this person saying things that are designed to make me feel bad? Is the level of criticism pervasive in that sense of they're going at the same thing consistently?

They try to alienate you from people who care about you.

"They do this because they want to control the narrative," Bergen explains. "They want to separate these relationships, so they'll cause conflict."

It's not advised to talk to your partner about feeling like you're being gaslit, because they're going to tell you that what you're seeing isn't what you're actually seeing.

Why Gaslighting Happens

People seek power and control in relationships for a wide variety of reasons, so the rationalizations for gaslighting vary from case to case. However, there are a few patterns, Bergen shares.

They believe this is the only way to sustain the relationship.

"In some cases, gaslighting is a way to try to keep somebody who you want to be in a relationship with around in a very abusive way—there's this notion that this is the only way to sustain the relationship," says Bergen.

They feel better about themselves by having control over someone else.

"Sometimes, there's a genuine sense of, 'If I'm controlling other people, then I feel better about where I'm at,' and that search for power is something that expresses itself in the relationship," explains Bergen.

They just enjoy the power and control.

According to Bergen, there's "a decent amount of research that shows there are people who genuinely find pleasure in having control or over others."

What to Do if They're Gaslighting You

The first step in recovering from gaslighting is to commit to breaking the cycle of abuse. Don't allow your plans to be derailed by your abuser, who will likely ramp up his or her manipulations upon recognizing your intent to escape the relationship. Prepare yourself for this, and likewise aim to stay one step ahead in the pattern so that you're able to remain as disassociated as possible. Here are some additional tips that may help:

Seek help from someone outside the relationship.

First and foremost, "it's not advised to talk to your partner about feeling like you're being gaslit, because they're going to tell you that what you're seeing isn't what you're actually seeing," says Bergen. They want to maintain control in the power dynamic.

Instead, turn to friend, family member, or trusted coworker to validate your feelings. This won't be easy, as a byproduct of gaslighting is the feeling of isolation; the victim has been manipulated to believe that their abuser is the only one who truly understands them. Realize that this isn't the case, and seek out a confidant who can help you assess the situation, corroborate your memories, and/or confirm that something's not right.

Approach your recovery like a marathon, not a sprint.

While speaking with a loved one is therapeutic, you might need the counsel of an impartial third party (think psychologist or therapist) to not only guide you out of the smoke and mirrors, but to help ensure you don't slip back into the cycle of abuse, no matter the nature of the relationship in question—romantic, familial, platonic, professional, or otherwise.

Considering couples' therapy with your partner? Go for it, but be sure to book your own, private sessions, too. And remember: Long-term, regular therapy with a qualified professional might be necessary to equip you with the tools needed to break free from (or at least distance yourself from) a toxic relationship. After all, building a sturdy bridge between your past missteps and your future successes is unlikely to happen in a single session.

Focus on you.

One unfortunate effect of gaslighting is that it causes the victim to lose his or her sense of self. This, coupled with the aftershocks of a breakup (even if the split is from a family member or a friend), can create the perfect conditions for wallowing. Still, it's important to ditch your couch-and-sweatpants habit before it becomes routine. "Create space internally, mentally, emotionally, and then externally by engaging with people outside the relationship," advises Bergen.

Get out of your rut—and reclaim your identity—by partaking in activities that you love or once loved. Go for a hike, scribble in a journal, cook up some comfort food ... whatever it takes to make you feel whole again. Direct some much-needed attention to any relationships that may have been on the back burner, and open yourself up to meeting new people, too. A shared interest is always a great ice breaker, so think about signing up for a workshop, class, retreat, or other opportunity to combine a pastime with socialization.

Trust your gut.

Now and always, resolve to heed your intuition and follow your instincts. "The internal step, in terms of what to do if you feel like you're being gaslit, is to make the commitment to yourself that you do not have to question your thoughts, feelings, perceptions about anything," advises Bergen. "That is a choice that you make as an individual to reassess a situation that nobody is allowed to re-narrate anything for you." In other words, your emotions, thoughts, and memories should never be subject to debate—period.

Might we suggest Cheryl Strayed's book of letters? It's truly soul-expanding.

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