cw: abuse and abusive relationships.
What is gaslighting?
The textbook definition of gaslighting is an abuse technique used in long term relationships, where one partner manipulates the other into questioning their memory, sanity, or perception of reality. It places the abused partner in a position of vulnerability, where they don’t trust their own opinions or thoughts, and can only rely on their abusive partner to dictate what reality looks like.
This is obviously hugely dangerous.
It leads to a complete breakdown of a support network: one of the first things that an abusive partner will destabilize is trust or reliance on anyone other than them. They make it so their partner believes that only their abuser can help them, can fix the problems in their life, can be trusted.
It opens the door for more abuse: if a person doesn’t trust their own judgement, and they come to rely entirely on their partner, it’s easy to sexually, emotionally, or physically abuse them further, and convince them that what is happening isn’t abuse.
It can cause mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. If the abused partner has existing mental health problems, it can exacerbate those illnesses or cause episodes of instability.
It leads to codependency: the abuser will emotionally take advantage of their partner and force them to do all of the work in the relationship, while convincing their partner that it’s a healthy relationship, or the only relationship they’re able to be in.
How does someone gaslight their partner?
Gaslighting usually starts small. An abuser will question their partner’s memory about little things, or lie to them about things that happened between them. They’ll even call their partner a liar, or accuse them of trying to manipulate them. This makes them start to question their own memory. An abuser will also question their partner’s judgement or decision making abilities, and convince them that they make bad decisions. They’ll tell them that their endeavors are unlikely to work out, and call that being “helpful” or “realistic”.
They may start questioning the motives and behaviors of their partner’s friends by telling them that their friends’ behavior is unacceptable, or that they’re just pretending to like them. They may lie, and make up stories about poor treatment from their partner’s friends. This connects to questioning their partner’s judgment, by making them feel like they don’t actually know or can’t actually trust their friends.
Sometimes abusers will set up circumstances to be able to call their partner “forgetful” or “crazy” – they may hide their partner’s keys, or other possessions, and force their partner to think that they misplaced that object. They may move things around, and pretend that those things have always been there. They may delete records from their phone or their partner’s phone, and call their memory of the communication into question.
These things don’t always look malicious at the time – people who are actually forgetful or clumsy, or have other “acceptable” quirks know that joking about it happens quite a lot in healthy relationships. I act as external memory for one of my partners, and it’s not a dangerous dynamic. We even laugh about it together. An abuser will laugh fondly every time their partner is tearing apart the house, looking for a lost blouse that they’ve actually hidden, just like a healthy partner might.
But it leads to their partner accepting their new identity as someone who is forgetful and unreliable, and force them to joke around about it, as if it’s a charming quirk and not a symptom of abuse. And then when their partner abuses them or lies to them in the future, they’ll question their own feelings and memories, without their partner even needing to lift a finger.
Gaslighting is a practice designed to make someone vulnerable and more easily preyed upon or taken advantage of. It’s not always combined with other physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in the future –gaslighting *is* emotional abuse, and it paves the way for a deeply imbalanced relationship.
What are signs of being in a relationship with someone who is gaslighting you?
– Feeling like you used to be happier before you were in this relationship, but not being able to identify why.
– Increased concerns that your friends and loved ones don’t actually care about you.
– Frequently questioning your own judgment or memory.
– Feeling like you can’t rely on anyone but your partner.
If you begin to see these signs in your relationship, it’s a strong sign that your relationship is somewhere between unhealthy and abusive. You relationship definitely needs to change, and might need to end.
While gaslighting is a deliberate, planned abuse tactic, sometimes actions that look and act exactly like gaslighting can occur in a relationship. Someone may not be deliberately abusive when they question their partner’s recollection of facts, badmouth their friends, or question their judgment. It certainly is a sign of an unhealthy relationship, no matter what! But these things could occur when someone genuinely remembers things differently, doesn’t like their partner’s friends, and thinks their partner has bad judgment. It’s unkind of them to call it out and make their partner feel uncomfortable, but it may not be deliberately abusive.
If that’s the case, there’s a pretty easy fix.
If someone feels like their partner is constantly questioning them, teasing them, tearing them down and ruining their confidence… ask them to stop. Say, “hey, it makes me feel really yucky when you tease me for being forgetful. Can you just leave it, when we remember things differently? Can you not call me out every single time?” If they apologize and stop – actually stop – it’s likely that it was an unkind habit of theirs, as opposed to deliberate manipulation.
Again, even an accidental set of unkind or upsetting behaviors can still make a relationship unhealthy or abusive. Most abusers don’t twirl their mustaches and think “mwahaha, I’m an abuser, this is great.” They think they’re right, and they’re owed what they’re taking, and they’re justified in what they’re doing. So while the term “gaslighting” refers to deliberate mental and emotional breakdown through lies and manipulation, many things look like gaslighting, and are worth modifying or ending a relationship over.
Next up: why it’s so easy to be gaslit in a relationship & gaslighting in online conversations and short term interactions.