What Does Gaslighting Mean

Women's Dating

What Does “Gaslighting” Mean in Relationships? Tactics, Blame, and Your Self-Esteem

Karen Belz

Written by: Karen Belz

Karen Belz

Over the last 10 years, Karen Belz has written for dating and lifestyle sites such as Zoosk, Bolde, and Elite Singles. She started her career as a professional writer by helping launch HelloGiggles in 2011. Karen graduated from Millersville University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Broadcasting with a minor in Print Media Studies. She is now happily married and believes that healthy communication is the key to all successful relationships. You can follow her on Threads @karenbelz.

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Edited by: Lillian Castro

Lillian Castro

Lillian Guevara-Castro brings more than 30 years of journalism experience to ensure DatingAdvice articles have been edited for overall clarity, accuracy, and reader engagement. She has worked at The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Gwinnett Daily News, and The Gainesville Sun covering lifestyle topics.

Reviewed by: Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks

Amber Brooks is a dating and relationship expert who has penned over 1,800 lifestyle articles in the last decade, and she still never tires of interviewing dating professionals and featuring actionable advice for singles. She has been quoted by the Washington Times, Cosmopolitan, The New York Post, and AskMen.

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“Gaslighting” is a popular term when it comes to relationship issues — but this buzzword can be misunderstood and misused. Gaslighting isn’t merely lying to or disagreeing with a partner. Gaslighting is psychological manipulation meant to make someone doubt their life experiences and question their thoughts. It’s a form of abuse that can lead to anxiety, depression, and extremely low self-esteem.

The term “gaslighting” has lately become quite prominent in headlines and conversations about relationships. The phrase as we know it today first appeared in 1938 in a play called ‘Gas Light,’ which was written by British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton. The thriller told the story of a man who deceived his wife so he could steal from her. 

gaslighting

People in unhappy relationships may wonder if they’ve been gaslit. The New Yorker has gone so far as to call the term a “ubiquitous cultural diagnosis.” Relationships can crumble if suspicions undermine the trust between two people.

Here are ways to tell if you’ve been gaslit or if your partner is simply an incompatible match or poor communicator.

Definition | Tactics | Examples | Signs | Psychological Impact | Recovery

What Gaslighting Looks Like

It can take a long time to recognize gaslighting behavior for what it is because abusive partners create an environment of false information. Gaslighters bombard people with mistruths that cause them to question their judgment.

Oftentimes these relationships start off seemingly healthy — the gaslighter makes their victim feel safe and secure, and may even lovebomb them in the early days. Building an emotional relationship quickly can make the victim feel as if they can trust their partner. The gaslighter’s narrative may start with positive lies: “We’re not like other couples” and “no one else understands our connection.”

common gaslighting tactics

The goal is to control another person’s reality. The abuser will manipulate their significant other and take control of how they think and feel. 

The lies start small and grow more pervasive over time. “You’re forgetful” becomes “you don’t remember it as well as I do.”

Abusers often spread rumors about their partner to family and friends to undercut those relationships as well. The name of the game is self-doubt. The more falsehoods the victim hears, the more they’ll start doubting their truth and their memories. 

Common Tactics Used

Gaslighters follow certain patterns in their relationships. If you know the gaslighting tactics to expect, you can nip the bad behavior in the bud.

Denial and Distortion of Reality

If you’ve built trust in someone, it can be easy to believe the story they spin. While it’s true that sometimes two people see things from a different perspective, a gaslighter will exert coercive control to undercut their victim and invalidate their point of view. 

Blame Shifting

blame shifting

Blame shifting is a gaslighting tactic that comes out in times of conflict. This form of verbal abuse paints the abuser to be the innocent party and makes the victim feel guilt and shame for no legitimate reason. If your significant other never seems to be at fault for anything, you may be dealing with a blame shifter. When confronted, the abuser will seek to pin the issue onto you by saying things like “Obviously, it was a joke” or “You’re blowing it out of proportion.”  

Trivializing Concerns

Let’s say you bring a pressing matter to your partner, and they disregard your feelings — or worse, make it seem as if the way you expressed your concerns is the real problem. Maybe they say you’re being overly dramatic or combative. Gaslighters can make it seem as if there’s never a good time to address what’s bothering you. If you tiptoe around important conversations with your partner, they’re effectively trivializing your feelings. You should never assume that a valid concern is too minor to bring to the table. If it bothers you, it matters. 

Undermining Confidence and Self-Esteem

undermining

Partners should never knock each other down. If you’re excited about a job presentation or a personal project, a supportive partner should share those positive feelings. A gaslighter will prey on your fears and insecurities, causing you to wonder if you’re good enough.

Abusive partners try to sap away any confidence their significant other may have by focusing on the negatives over the positives. A gaslighter may say things like “You’re lucky I put up with you” and insinuate that your happiness is reliant on their presence. High self-esteem has plenty of advantages in life, so this type of abuse may affect your career, friendships, and mental health.

Examples of Gaslighting Scenarios

Seeing gaslighting take place in a movie, book, or documentary can help us better understand how it can present itself in a relationship. 

examples of gaslighting

“The Girl on the Train” offers an extreme example of gaslighting, where a husband makes up lies to cover an affair. He uses his wife’s alcoholism as a smokescreen, telling her she was too drunk to remember certain events. He causes her to wonder if she’s going insane because he dismisses and denies things she sees. No spoilers, but it gets pretty wild once she realizes the truth.

Keep in mind that gaslighting comments can be subtle and worsen over time. A gaslighting partner may make their victim feel like they need to “calm down.” They’ll discount their victim’s emotions as “seeking attention” or “blowing it out of proportion.” A loving partner may take these critiques at face value and believe they’re in the wrong for expressing themselves. 

gaslighting can begin subtly

One real-life example of gaslighting was the response that Brock Turner’s family and friends had to his rape charges in 2016. In a letter presented to the court, one of his acquaintances wrote, “I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten [plus] years of his life on the decision of a girl, who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank, to press charges against him.”

Brock Turner chose to sexually assault an unconscious woman, but this character reference turns the table to accuse the victim. Leslie Rasmussen, who penned the letter, was unaware of the circumstances that may have caused Brock’s victim to black out parts of the encounter.

Brock’s father also downplayed the severity of his son’s actions by trying to make it look as if the victim was asking for the attack to take place. Near the end of his letter, he claimed that Brock shouldn’t have to face severe consequences for “20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life.”

gaslighting enables abuse

These letters attempt to paint an abuser in a better light. In the eyes of his supporters, Brock’s poor actions were excusable. This is why many victims of sexual abuse and assault don’t come forward — they’re afraid that maybe they were “asking for it” by consuming alcohol or dressing a certain way. These ideas give predators the power to hurt people and get away with it. 

Recognizing Toxic Behavior

One of the reasons why gaslighting often goes undetected is because it’s subtle. Knowing the red flags can make it much easier to recognize toxic behavior. 

lies

A common sign of gaslighting abuse is constantly telling blatant lies. Sometimes, the lies feel so smooth and effortless that you might wonder if your partner believes them. But don’t fall into the trap of trusting your partner’s memory more than your own.

Your partner may call you forgetful and swear they told you they were meeting up with an ex – but if you don’t remember that conversation, you should trust your memory over another person’s claims.

Denial is another hallmark of gaslighting behavior. Even if you remember a chain of events happening, you may encounter pushback from an abusive partner. Look out for gaslighting phrases like these:

  • “Are you sure you’re not making that up?” 
  • “How can you believe I’d say that?”
  • “Don’t you think you’re blowing this out of proportion?”

A gaslighter will talk a good game – but their actions show their true intentions. He may say he’s concerned and wants to help, but he never shows up when he’s needed. She may claim she wants to change, but she repeats the same toxic patterns.

denial

An abusive partner’s lack of effort in the relationship may make you feel like you’re not worth the trouble. Or maybe the lack of consistency is destroying your inner calm. Taken as a whole, a gaslighter’s actions bring you more anxiety than comfort and safety.

One day they may shower you with gifts and compliments that build you up, but then they tear you down the next day with criticism and accusations. Gaslighters make sure you never know where you stand with them. 

Lopsided Power Dynamics

Couples in healthy relationships work hard to create a balance of power that is fair and equal. 

An abusive partner, on the other hand, wants all the power in the relationship. They use manipulating tactics to stay in control as much as possible.

healthy relationships

For example, if the gaslighter has a higher income or more friends than their partner, that creates room for taking advantage and swaying opinions. The imbalance of power may lead to unhealthy situations where the victim feels dependent and unable to leave.

Questioning Yourself

It’s crucial to trust your instincts. If you have a sinking suspicion something is off, you’re likely right. A gaslighter will try to make you doubt your judgment, and if they already are a significant part of your life, it may be easier to believe them than to take action. However, it’s important to stay true to yourself and settle for nothing less than a supportive partner and healthy relationship.

Wearing you down is a gaslighting tactic to gain control. They don’t want you to use logical thought or form your own opinions. And they definitely don’t want you fact-checking them. 

gaslighting isolates

Abusive partners slowly but surely separate you from the friends and family members who have your back and will tell you the truth. 

If a romantic partner suggests you cut off a friend or family member, you should question their intentions. Someone who loves you would never sever your relationship with a parent, sibling, or best friend. 

Psychological Impact 

After leaving a relationship with a gaslighter, the psychological effects may linger and impact future relationships.

gaslighting is emotional abuse

You may lose your trust in people or avoid romantic relationships altogether. Unfortunately, these responses are normal, especially if you’ve been in an abusive relationship for some time. 

Anxiety and PTSD 

Many victims of gaslighting become stuck in a toxic relationship because they love their partner and feel connected to them. The imprint of their abuser may stay with them for years and have a significant impact on other romantic relationships.

PTSD

Victims of gaslighting typically experience mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They may worry about falling into a gaslighting situation again and bail at the first sign of conflict in a new relationship. 

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that impacts people who experience or witness trauma. Someone who went through a gaslighting relationship may relive the worst moments and feel trapped by self-doubt. It can make it hard to move forward and live without fear or dread.

Depression and Isolation

As mentioned previously, gaslighters often separate their victims from close friends and family members, especially those who offer mental or emotional support.

depression

This is a form of control that can leave the victim feeling lonely and isolated. It’s common for a gaslit victim to become depressed without realizing why. They may not be capable of seeing the negative impact their abusive partner has had on their life. 

Michelle Riba, MD, MS, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, explained to Michigan Medicine, “Over time, you begin to believe that there is something wrong with you because one of the most important people in your life is telling you this.”

Difficulty Trusting New Partners

If you’ve been gaslit in a prior relationship, it can be tough to open your heart to someone new.

difficulty trusting new partners

You may go online and assume the worst of every Tinder match. Little foibles may appear to you as red flags, and you may cut off conversations and dates preemptively out of fear of getting hurt again.

It’s not fair to project abuse onto a new partner, so try to recognize your biases and keep an open mind, even if you feel skeptical at heart. 

Breaking the Cycle by Seeking Support

If you’re recovering from a toxic or abusive relationship, you need to take proactive steps to regain your footing. Find empowerment in learning more about gaslighting. Focus on friendships and family relationships that give you joy. Create a journal to identify your feelings and hopes for the future. 

previous experiences with gaslighting

Going to therapy, seeking legal recourse, or involving law enforcement might be a good idea too, depending on the circumstances. Your health and safety is a top priority, and it’s important to seek support wherever you need it most as you move forward.

Practice Self-Care

It can be easy to fall for the falsehoods of a gaslighter. Your victimhood has no bearing on your character.

self care

As you uncouple from a gaslighting relationship, practice self-care and give yourself grace.

Take time to enjoy your favorite pastimes or travel to fun places. You can invest in yourself to create happy moments in this new chapter in life.

Rely on the Support of Loved Ones

Reaching out to family and friends is a great recovery step. Your loved ones want you to succeed and will be proud that you’re getting yourself out of a harmful situation. 

support system

Remember, you’re not alone. Gaslighting is one of the most common forms of psychological abuse that people experience. Per Forbes, the National Domestic Violence Hotline states that 74% of adult female victims of domestic violence said they’ve experienced signs of gaslighting from a past or current relationship. Your friends and family may have been through a similar experience and understand what you’re going through.

Set Boundaries and Assert Yourself

After getting space from an abusive situation, it’s paramount to reclaim your identity. Remember, you were a full person before your relationship with your mental abuser. Even if you don’t feel that way now, it’s possible to get back to a happier and lighter state. 

set boundaries

Learn how to stand up for yourself and set personal boundaries. 

If you’ve been gaslit in your career, remember that you are a valuable employee, and you shouldn’t be blamed for other people’s mistakes. It may be a good time to look for other jobs where you feel heard and don’t have to deal with workplace gaslighting

Seek Professional Help

Individual and couples therapy can be crucial to recovering from an abusive relationship or gaslighting experience. Keep in mind that the impact of gaslighting can run deep.

therapy

Professional therapists and counselors have the tools to help survivors navigate trauma and start a new path forward. 

A therapist won’t judge you or cast doubt on your experience — their goal is to help you feel better and move on with confidence and understanding. 

Sometimes it takes time to find the right fit in a therapist who makes you feel safe and comfortable, but it’s a worthwhile experience when you have professional guidance you can trust. 

Gaslighting Is a Form of Emotional Abuse

Gaslighting is not a minor faux pas or miscommunication. It is emotional abuse and should be taken seriously. You should never be with a person who undermines you or makes you feel like you can’t trust your own judgment. You deserve to be with a romantic partner who will treat you with respect and bring out the best in you.

You do not have to tolerate gaslighting behavior in your relationship. Talk to your partner about your concerns, and if that conversation turns into a blame game, it might be time to hit the gas and leave this relationship in the rearview.