Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Who Do You Trust?
“Gaslighting” is a term that originated from an old movie, where a woman lived with a man in a home with old-fashioned gas lights. The man was trying to drive the woman crazy.
He would consistently turn the lights dimmer and dimmer in their home but denied that it was dimmer and pretended that the light was normal — and the woman began to doubt her own senses. Over time, she went insane.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting, in modern parlance, refers to being made to doubt your own feelings, thoughts, intuition, and judgment when they are, in fact, reliable sources of information that you should trust.
The classic example is in the case of infidelity. One partner will start to become suspicious of their spouse's late nights working, unavailability during work trips, or odd calls to their phone.
However, when they confront the straying spouse, they're told things like, “You're insecure,” or “You're crazy,” or “Just because your father cheated on your mother you think all men are dogs.”
Or my favorite, the righteously indignant, “How dare you suggest something so horrible, I'm trying to earn a living for our family and working my tail off, and now you come at me with this?!?”
The net result is that when someone is actually being victimized by their partner, they are made to feel not just that they're being ridiculous, but wrong. This leads people who are being gaslit not just to doubt themselves, but to feel ashamed of how “crazy” they are. (When, in fact, their own judgment is actually a more reliable source of trustworthy information than their partner is.)
Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship
1. Feeling like you're always wrong. The ringer for gaslighting is when you attempt to check something out, (i.e., “Were you drinking tonight?” or “You're home three hours late, where were you?”) or express your concerns about something, and your partner gets very angry with you and turns things back on you so that you feel ashamed and inappropriate for having asked.
2. The sudden onset of really bad feelings. If you begin feeling uncharacteristically anxious, depressed, ashamed, or stupid after starting a new-ish relationship it's a big red flag that emotional abuse is happening.
Feeling increasingly bad about yourself, or more doubtful of your own judgment is a sign that you're in a toxic relationship where gaslighting is happening. Many times, people in these situations feel increasingly anxious, and even become depressed.
They begin to believe that it's their own mental health issues that are the source of the relationship problems, as opposed to the toxic relationship that they are having bad feelings about. (Pointing out your oh-so-many-and-very-serious “mental health issues” is a go-to weapon of many gaslighters).
However, once these “mentally unstable” people they leave these manipulative relationships they often discover that they're just fine. It was the relationship that was making them feel anxious and terrible about themselves.
3. You're defending your partner, a lot. Another important sign that you're being gaslighted by your partner is when you tell your friends or family about something that you've been made to feel is “abnormal” for being concerned about, but they react in the same way that you did originally before you were led to believe your feelings were wrong or disordered in some way. (That your partner is actually in the wrong).
If this is happening and you find yourself frequently defending your partner from family and friends and explaining to them that no, really, you were the one in the wrong (again)… you may be the victim of gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a Form of Emotional Abuse
Gaslighting is not a quirk; it's abusive behavior that cannot continue if the goal is a healthy, sustainable relationship. For example, to the great frustration of domestic violence counselors, victims of domestic violence have a very hard time leaving their abusers. Many times, they go back.
The reason for this is that, as a rule, the victims blame themselves for the abuse they are experiencing because their abuser has made them believe they are at fault. Their own feelings and judgment about their worth, what love should look like, and how they should be treated has been gaslighted out of existence by their abuser.
Furthermore, the hallmark of abusive relationships is isolation. The reason abusers must isolate their victims is that effective gaslighting requires that the person being made to doubt themselves is looking to their abuser for “the truth.” If independent third parties start weighing in to support the perspective of the gaslight-ee, the abuser loses power and control over their victim.
Gaslighting often commonly happens in situations where one partner is actively abusing a substance or has a behavioral addiction. In addition to hiding and lying about their attachment to unhealthy substances or behaviors, addicts will often counter-attack when confronted. They blame their questioning partner for being out of line to question them or their “lifestyle choices.” This leads their partners to doubt their own judgment and start believing they are “too controlling” or “too uptight,” etc, which allows the addict more freedom.
Stop Gaslighting From Happening in Your Relationship
If you're in a relationship where you're being gaslighted it's critical that you get the support of other people. A great therapist, a supportive friend, or even better, a good support group can help you get the outside perspective you need to reinforce your own good judgment.
The experience of gaslighting is being made to doubt yourself (when you're actually spot on). The antidote is to have other people around you who can look, with you, at the situation and say, “No, you're right, it is actually dark in here.” With that outside perspective you can begin to trust yourself again, and also view your partner's manipulations for what they are: Efforts to mislead and control you, by making you mistrust your own judgment.
The answer is not couples counseling. The path forward is not changing your partner; it's strengthening yourself.
Trust yourself, and do not make excuses for other people's bad behavior. Your love and patience will not heal anyone — only they can do that. If you're in a relationship and feeling bad about what's happening but being made to feel that you're wrong for feeling that way, run the situation past some friends or your therapist to get outside perspective.
Remember that you deserve to be treated with love and respect and to surround yourself with people who make you feel better about yourself — not worse.
All the best,