What Is Gaslighting—and How to Tell if You’re Experiencing It
Gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse that is much more common in relationships than you might think.
It took a long time before Natalie G., 40, knew there was something called gaslighting. The first sign that something was wrong with her relationship was so subtle that she almost missed it.
“Bill* and I had been engaged for a year and I knew something was really off but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” says Natalie. “The feeling was so persistent that I wanted to call off the engagement.”
Bill was able to talk her out of it, telling her nothing was wrong and it was all in her head, setting up a pattern that would make her doubt her own feelings and perception of reality over and over again during their 14-year marriage. Yet even though he was able to change her mind, deep down she still knew there was a problem. “I was diagnosed with depression, and looking back, I think my body was internalizing what was happening,” she says.
The couple was married in 2005, when they were both 24 years old, and over the next decade welcomed three children into their family. But while they looked picture-perfect on the outside, Natalie couldn’t shake that gnawing sense that something was terribly wrong.
What is gaslighting?
The word gaslighting comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight which portrays a husband who convinces his wife she’s going insane by manipulating the gas lights in their home. Today the term has taken on a broader meaning.
Gaslighting is when someone uses a series of manipulation and distraction tactics to distort the truth, making people question their own reality. This allows the gaslighter to control them, says Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, a psychotherapist and author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free.
“Gaslighting is brainwashing and is a type of emotional abuse and domestic violence,” Sarkis says. “It’s far more common that people think, partly because the victim is often unaware it’s happening.”
Natalie’s story is a perfect example of how insidious gaslighting can be in a relationship. “When I was in it, I didn’t have any idea, I just knew that I felt very badly a lot of the time, but now that I’m out of I see it so clearly,” she says.
Types of gaslighters
Although all gaslighting behaviour primarily looks the same, it doesn’t always stem from the same motivation. There are two types of people who tend to gaslight their romantic partners—those who learned the behaviour while growing up with dysfunctional family relationships and those who are born with a need to control others, Sarkis explains.
For the first type, gaslighting is largely a subconscious behaviour and they may not even know why they’re doing it. But for the second, more common, type, manipulating and hurting others is intentional and gives them a “high” and brings them pleasure.
“It’s helpful to know which type you’re dealing with because that will help you decide what to do next,” she says.
Signs you’re being gaslighted
It can be difficult to recognize gaslighting while you’re still in the relationship since gaslighting depends on you not trusting your own feelings, perceptions, and reality, says Wyatt Fisher, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and relationship counselor in Boulder, Colorado. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible and many people report that, like Natalie, they did have a sense that something was off.
The important thing is relearning to trust yourself and your own intuition about the relationship, he says. Read through these signs and if they start to sound familiar, you may be experiencing gaslighting.
You think you might be going crazy because you can’t remember things
The hallmark sign of gaslighting is that a person doubts their own memories and experiences to the point where they replace them with the version fabricated by their abuser, Sarkis says.
“I constantly thought I was going crazy,” Natalie says. “I would say I remembered something one way and he would always tell me that I just have a bad memory. He would say things like ‘I never said that’ or ‘You never told me’ and eventually I believed him.”
Your relationship started off very intense
“Gaslighting often starts with the victim being ‘love bombed’ by their partner, as a way to gain control and make you trust them,” Sarkis says. “Then, little by little, the gaslighter will start to pick them apart and criticize them.” This red flag shows up as early as the first date, with the gaslighter asking a lot of personal questions, pressing for intimacy very quickly, and giving lots of gifts or declarations of love, she says.
For Natalie, the gaslighting started right from the beginning when Bill, whom she saw as a friend, pursued her until she agreed to date him.
You’re told that “you’re too sensitive” or “you can’t take a joke”
If the victim protests the barrage of criticism, a gaslighter will dismiss their feelings by saying that they are too sensitive or their feelings are wrong, Fisher says. Natalie says her ex constantly criticized her skills as a mother.
“Things started to get really bad after the birth of our second child,” she says. “He would often say that by taking care of the kids’ needs I was choosing them over him and would make me feel really badly about doing what I felt like I needed to do to be a good mom.”
You feel detached and isolated
A feeling of detachment or separation from your real self can be a sign of gaslighting, Fisher says. “When we start feeling like something is wrong with us or like we are losing touch with reality we tend to turn inward, which makes us feel detached from others, which makes the symptoms even worse,” he says. Gaslighters will take advantage of this vicious cycle by encouraging you to doubt yourself.
You’re not allowed to hang out with your friends
Gaslighters will often try to physically isolate a partner from friends and loved ones as those people are the ones who could give them a reality check, proving the abuser wrong, Sarkis says. “This may take the form of shaming or guilting the victim into avoiding gatherings by saying they don’t like their friends or that their friends hate the gaslighter,” she says. “This behaviour can escalate to taking away their phone, their internet, their car keys and anything else that would allow them to communicate or escape.”
Natalie started to finally see what was happening when she was at a Thanksgiving dinner with her family and without Bill. “Bill was travelling for work and I was cooking with my mom and sister. They kept asking me questions about how I was feeling and about Bill,” she says. At first she avoided the questions but her sister kept digging. They had suspected for a while that she was being abused. “Finally, out of the depths of my soul, came the words, ‘I want a divorce.” As soon as I said it out loud I immediately felt free.”
You don’t know what you like or don’t like
Gaslighters like to control every aspect of their victim’s lives, including things like clothing choices and food preferences, Sarkis says. Eventually it can lead to the person becoming so dependent on the gaslighter that they don’t even know what they like or don’t like anymore. “If someone asks you what kind of ice cream you like and you immediately look at your partner for the answer, that’s a red flag,” she says.
You’re always apologizing
Saying you’re sorry is an essential part of a healthy relationship—but only when both partners do it. A red flag of gaslighting is when you constantly find yourself apologizing and sometimes you don’t even know why, Sarkis says. “Gaslighters make you feel responsible for their emotions and actions,” she explains. “Anything that goes wrong is your fault.”
House cleaning was a major trigger for Natalie’s ex-husband. “He always demanded a clean house when he came home from business trips but nothing I did was right,” she says. “If I busted my butt cleaning, he wouldn’t say anything. But if he came home and the house was a mess because life happened, he would point out everything that needed to be picked up. And I would have to apologize and then pick it up. He would never help because it wasn’t ‘his mess’.”
Your best is never good enough
“Gaslighters are often narcissists and need a constant supply of attention. However, even if you devote 100 percent of yourself to loving and taking care of them, it will never be enough. They will make you feel like you will never be good enough for them,” Sarkis says.
While this can manifest in many ways, one particularly common way is infidelity. “They often cheat as a way to fill that narcissistic need,” she says.
You’re accused of cheating
Projecting is a trademark move of gaslighters as it is another way to make you responsible for their behaviour, Sarkis says. “We often see gaslighters accusing their partners of cheating because they, themselves, are cheating,” she says.
You’re happier and more relaxed when your partner is gone
Feeling like you always have to walk on eggshells around your partner is a big sign that they are not an emotionally safe person to be around, Fisher says. When they’re not around you feel happier, more relaxed, and less worried.
“Bill was always on his best behaviour when we were with friends so I always enjoyed when we went out with friends because it meant that he would be the ‘good Bill’ and I wouldn’t have to be constantly on edge,” Natalie says. “He traveled all the time for work and when people asked if that bothered me, I’d say, ‘It’s good because when he’s gone I am in control and I don’t have to worry about him.”
You’re punished with the silent treatment
The silent treatment or rages (or alternating between the two) are the main ways gaslighters use to punish their partners and regain control over them, Sarkis says.
“Bill would use the silent treatment all the time,” Natalie says. “We were on a vacation and he never wanted any of the kids in our bed, but our youngest was having a hard time, so I let him snuggle and sleep in our bed. He got so angry that he left the bed and he didn’t talk to me for an entire week. He completely ignored me, like I wasn’t even there for a whole week!”
They accuse you of gaslighting them
In a darkly ironic twist, a favorite tactic of gaslighters is to accuse their victim of gaslighting them, Sarkis says. “The goal is to keep you so busy defending yourself and being emotionally distraught that you don’t have enough time to pay attention to the gaslighter’s own behaviour,” she says. “By accusing you, the gaslighter has bought themselves time.”
How to escape a gaslighting relationship
Some relationships where gaslighting is occurring can be saved, if the gaslighter is of the first type and is unaware of what they’re doing. “They must be able to recognize that what they are doing is wrong and be willing to work on it in therapy,” Sarkis says, adding that this scenario is rare.
Because most gaslighters are doing it intentionally, as a way to manipulate and gain power, they will not willingly give that up and the only way to stop it is to walk away, Fisher says. “The gaslighting is a symptom of a larger problem, this is not the type of person you should be in a relationship with,” he says.
Once you decide to leave you need to do it very carefully as it’s not uncommon for gaslighting to escalate to physical violence, Sarkis says. “Talk to your loved ones or a therapist and make a plan to leave safely,” she says. “Once you’ve left, you need to go full no-contact because they will try to ‘hoover’ you back in with promises and gifts.”
Going through the divorce was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but it was so worth it,” Natalie says. “Being divorced is so much easier than being married to someone who was gaslighting me. Now, I am in control, I am happy, and I trust myself. I’m not worried or sad anymore and when I remember something, I know it’s legit. That’s the best feeling.”
[*Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect identities.]