Gaslighting in Relationships
Published on 21st December, 2019 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
Rachel has been feeling that her relationship with her boyfriend, John, is not going very well recently. Rachel feels that John is getting more distant and when she brought this up with him, John blames her for “not committing enough to this relationship” and for being “too busy with work”. Rachel believes John’s words and felt that she should be putting in more effort into their relationship. Rachel apologises to John and increased her commitment to their relationship. Yet, John often cancels their dates and seems distracted when they meet. Rachel blames herself for not prioritizing John enough and vowed to work even harder to gain John’s approval.
What is ‘gaslighting’?
Rachel believed that she is the sole reason for the deteriorating relationship with John. Little does she know that she is another victim of gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of psychological aggression that manipulates the victim to doubt their own reality, intentions and beliefs. In a relationship, gaslighting can involve emotional manipulation and exertion of control over the other partner. As with the above scenario, John pushes the blame to Rachel for problems in their relationship, Rachel accepts the blame and concedes to John. Rachel’s self-esteem and emotions may be affected when she believes that she is the cause of the difficulties in the relationship. How exactly does gaslighting work and how can we explain for gaslighters’ behaviours?
One of the main motivations for gaslighters is to assert power and control over the victim. Gaslighting escalates in a gradual process, starting with gaslighters shirking responsibility and pushing the blame to victims for problems in their relationship. Self-doubt or guilt starts to creep in for victims and they start to believe that they are the ones truly at fault. This cycle of gaslighting continues when victims repeatedly concede and bear the blame for any issues.
In extreme cases, gaslighters may isolate their victims from any social support, forcing victims to completely rely on them to overcome their doubts, anxiety, or depression. This reliance allows for the abuser to further manipulate the victim and assert control over them. Victims would therefore typically give in and apologize when there is a disagreement. These reconciliation efforts further feed the gaslighter’s need for affirmation and enables him to shirk any personality responsibility from the issues in the relationship. Thus, the victim’s submission enables a vicious cycle of psychological abuse to perpetuate.
Unlike physical abuse, psychological forms of abuse, such as gaslighting, is hard to detect and may even be dismissed as trivial, harmless statements. Moreover, psychological abuse does not leave a visible scar on victims, enabling the perpetrator and even the victim to downplay the severity of psychological aggression. Over time, such abusive acts can take a toll on a victim’s mental wellbeing and yet, the victim finds it hard to extract themselves from this mentally torturous relationship. You can read more about how psychological aggression is potentially more damaging than physical aggression here.
Are you being gaslighted?
When gaslighting, the abuser seeks convince that the victim has perceived the situation wrongly so as to gain control over the victim. The abuser may even attempt to prove the victim’s perception of the situation to be inaccurate and that victim’s memory of the situation to be a work of his/her imagination. For example, Gass and Nicholas (1988) found that husbands who were involved in marital affairs may deny their partners’ accusations, attributing such accusations to a fault in memory, even if the victim has substantial proof to prove otherwise. The researchers also found that this gaslighting behaviour contributed to the distress experienced by their partners.
Here are some signs to help identify if you are a victim of gaslighting in your relationship:
1) Your partner often blames you
Gaslighters tend to absolve themselves from any blame and push it instead to victims (Stern, 2018). If you are a victim, you often feel being the one at fault, causing your self- worth to chip away everytime. Gaslights often make statements such as, “You’re being too sensitive.”, or “You are always imagining things.”, which reinforce your mindset that you are the one responsible for any problem in the relationship. As a result, you often find yourself apologising for your mistakes in an attempt to reconcile the relationship and seek reaffirmation from your partner. On the other hand, your partner hardly admits to his/her role in leading to the situation.
2) Your partner frequently dismisses your opinions
Gaslighters tend to dismiss their victims’ thoughts and comments, lowering victims’ sense of self-worth. The relationship does not feel safe and you often think twice before bringing up any topics of conversation, for fear of disappointing or angering your partner again. However, your desire for validation from your partner motivates you to keep trying to make the relationship work.
3) You run through a checklist in your head to anticipate anything you might have done wrong that day.
Gaslighters’ dismissive and derogatory comments crumble their victims’ self-worth, which compels victims to desire and seek for the gaslighter’s approval (Stern, 2018). You find yourself trying to do everything ‘right’, just so that your partner will not make further derogatory comments at you and deal another blow at your self-esteem.
4) You buy clothes for yourself, furnishings for your apartment, or other personal purchases with your partner in mind, thinking about what he/she would like
Your partner’s feelings and thoughts are prioritised over your own. The emotional abuse faced by victims of gaslighting wears down their sense of self and self-worth. You may believe that your worth comes from your partners and this thought pattern projects into everyday life, when even ‘buying things for me’ transforms into ‘buying things that my partner approves of’. Thus, you no longer live to make yourself happy, but rather to make your partner happy.
Extinguishing the Gaslight: Breaking Away from the Gaslighting Cycle
To break away from the cycle of gaslighting, it is important for victims to learn how to assert themselves and to seek validation from within by constantly reminding themselves that they deserve to be respected. You need to understand and remember that you are worth more than what your partner thinks of you. Evaluate your self-worth in other aspects (e.g. academic or career achievements, your relationship with your family, etc) instead of how your partner perceives you to break in the cycle of gaslighting.
Victims of gaslighting in abusive relationships often find themselves feeling confused about the statements made by their partners. Their confusion may be heightened further when other concerned individuals attempt to assure them that they are not at fault, such as by saying, “You are too nice to him” or “He doesn’t deserve your apology”. If this is consistent with your experience, consider journaling. Keep track of the reason why you chose a certain decision as well as your partner’s response to incidents or conflicts. This will enable you to evaluate long-term behavioural patterns and draw well-informed conclusions about your partner’s behaviour.
If you would like to reduce gaslighting by your partner, start by first identifying the unmet needs that underlie the behaviour. Gaslighters may not intend or be aware of their abusive behaviour. To them, it could be the way that they have been brought up which exposed them to maladaptive behavioural patterns that project into their adulthood. Confronting your partner would only to denial or further accusation. Most gaslighters are also victims of abuse and they require a supportive partner move on from the scars of their past. For example, one may not admit to his fault because doing so in the past had led to retaliation, or even loss of someone that he cared about very much. If this is the case for your partner, it is important for you to convey the message that you are not judging or abandoning him. When the heat is too much to take: walking away
It is important to recognise when to walk away from an abusive relationship that has proved to be too distressing for you. Considering that abusers tend to alternate between aggression and affection, victims tend to look past the bad and focus only on the good. However, when the relationship proves to be too distressing, it is okay to walk away. Leaving is a process that requires a lot of strength and determination to see through. Even after physically leaving an abusive relationship, victims suffer from attachment loss, which refers to the presence of feelings of attachment to the abuser that linger on after physical separation (Anderson & Saunders, 2003). Just remember that healing takes time and the sun will eventually shine after a storm.
If you suspect that you are a victim of gaslighting, try to distance yourself from your partner as much as possible and talk to someone. Seek help from a psychologist or counsellor and take steps to ensure your safety and wellbeing.
Arriaga, X. B., & Schkeryantz, E. L. (2015). Intimate relationships and personal distress: The invisible harm of psychological aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(10), 1332-1344. doi:10.1177/0146167215594123.
Anderson, D. K., & Saunders, D. G. (2003). Leaving an abusive partner: An empirical review of predictors, the process of leaving, and psychological well-being. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 4(2), 163-191.
Gass, G. Z., & Nichols, W. C. (1988). Gaslighting: A marital syndrome. Contemporary Family Therapy, 10(1), 3-16.
Stern, R. (2018). The Gaslight Effect: How to spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life. Harmony.
Article written with Jasmine Kuah. Jasmine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Jasmine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who wishes to help individuals improve their quality of life with better mental health. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.