Table of Contents
- What is gaslighting?
- Ways Gaslighting Occurs
- Unintentional Gaslighting
- Semi-Intentional Gaslighting
- Intentional Gaslighting
- When Can Gaslighting Occur?
- Stages of Gaslighting Behavior in Relationships
- How do you know if you are a victim of malicious gaslighting?
- What to do if you suspect your partner is maliciously gaslighting you
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a term coined to describe a series of manipulative behavior resulting in emotional and mental abuse which causes the targeted individual to begin questioning their actions, feelings, emotions, and sanity. The term derives from a play in the 1930’s where a husband successfully drove his wife mad through constantly altering the lighting in their house and denying that there was any change. Over time, the wife becomes so doubtful of her own perceptions that she comes to rely on her husband for everything.
Gaslighting is a form of abuse which allows the abuser to exhibit power in a relationship. Often, as with most forms of abuse, the behaviors of gaslighting start small and gradually increase. In most cases, the goal of the abuser is to eventually cause their partner or target to feel so unsure of their own abilities to make judgments or trust their emotions that they are forced to rely on their abuser. In many cases, this is an attempt to coerce the target into staying in the relationship.
Ways Gaslighting Occurs
Gaslighting techniques come in many forms. Some of the ways that the abuser begins engaging in their manipulative behavior include:
- Denial – the abuser may simply outright deny a fact from their partner. They may state that something they said was not said or that they did not engage in an action their target saw them doing.
- Forgetting – The abuser will seem to forget all negatively perceived behaviors. This technique is often used in conjunction with denial as they can deny the action or words using the forgetting excuse.
- Downplaying – The abuser will often make their target feel as though their reactions are overdramatic or unnecessary. They will ask questions or make statements alleging that their target should not be reacting in such a manner as the cause is unjustified.
- Redirection – The abuser insinuates that the target’s feelings are invalid as they derive from some alternate source, such as a family member or friend.
- Obstructive Reaction – The abuser will simply ignore the target’s feelings by changing the subject or walking away without comment as if nothing has been said.
- Concealment – The abuser will disengage from listening to their target or seem not to understand what their target is trying to explain.
- Opposition – The abuser will argue with their target’s experience even when the target has described the event or feeling with accuracy.
- Secrecy – The abuser will engage in a behavior in a secret manner, then avoid their target identifying the source of where the event originated.
Gaslighting techniques are more often used in conjunction with another. For example, an abusive partner may use obstructive reaction, denial, and redirection when faced with a single event their partner is bringing up.
Gaslighting techniques are used in such a way to overthrow the target’s reality and perception. Once gaslighting begins, the target begins to experience a space for self-doubt, having been constantly discredited or argued by their partner.
The pattern of gaslighting behavior is to perpetuate a cycle of abuse and then affection so that their partner is oblivious to the manipulation. They will engage in the techniques long enough to allow their partner’s self-esteem to become diminished, they lovingly start to create a false sense of security about the relationship. This second phase is often short-lived, and the cycle of abuse begins again.
Surprisingly, a moderate percentage of the population has or will use some form of gaslighting behavior. However, most do so without awareness that they are engaging in this form of manipulation. Parents can be guilty of using gaslighting behavior as a way to divert unwanted behavior, such as overcoming picky eating habits. In these cases, the individual engaging in the tactics are typically unaware that they are altering their target’s reality as no intentional harm is caused or wanted.
For a large percentage of individuals who use gaslighting techniques, it is done as a defense mechanism. It is a way to counteract an event where the individual is accused of being incorrect, wrong or malicious. In some cases, semi-intentional gaslighting is a product of knowing that an expected response or behavior is desired by others. An individual may deny feeling sad or hopeless or cheating on their diet to their fitness instructor to avoid the reactions that they expect will accompany the truth. Like unintentional gaslighting, there is often a lack of awareness of their behavior or if they are aware of their actions, the intent is not to create confusion or harm.
A small percentage of those gas lighters are fully aware of their behavior and have a specified goal of control and power in view. This form of gaslighting is often malicious and is the most dangerous method of this behavior. These individuals seek a two-fold goal; one is to exhibit control over their target’s feelings and behaviors and the other is to deceptively engage in emotional abuse to destroy the target’s confidence and self-esteem without recognition.
These individuals are often those diagnosed or exhibiting signs of narcissistic or sociopathic behaviors. They may have a general disregard for the feelings of others and the consequences of their own actions. Their primary motivation is to exhibit power over others. For those with narcissistic personality disorders, gaslighting can provide the abuser with the ability to feel superior as their tactics are often not discovered by those around them. The behavior enables them to feel smarter and more socially adept than their target.
When Can Gaslighting Occur?
Gaslighting behaviors can occur in any type of relationship. There are instances of gaslighting behaviors in politics, religion, romantic relationships, familial relationships and even in social circles. Propaganda, a form of manipulative marketing often found in politics, is commonly associated with gaslighting behaviors as the goal is to alter the target populations reality into believing something else is the truth. In any relationship where your experiences, emotions, reality or perceptions have been questioned by someone else, it is possible gaslighting has occurred.
Gaslighting is often a common behavior in relationships where there is a history of physical abuse. The abuser will use these techniques to discredit or diminish their violent behavior, making their target believe that the violence is a direct result of something he or she caused. This type of behavior can also be commonly found in relationships where substance abuse is present, although in some cases the abuser will simply not remember their actions or words due to the impairment of the substance.
Stages of Gaslighting Behavior in Relationships
Gaslighting typically begins in small, unnoticeable ways and gradually increases in severity and occurrence. In many instances, the relationship seems to suffer from problems typical to all relationships. However, the abuser in the relationship has a need to not only make their target feel as though they are wrong but also come to believe that the abuser is right. There are three stages of gaslighting.
- Stage 1- During this stage, the abuser will incite or contribute to arguments that have no resolution. Often these arguments will be about their targets feelings, emotions or experiences, which cannot be resolved due to the abuser’s attempts to get their target to begin questioning themselves. In this stage, the target will still have a conviction of their own experiences and perceptions but will be willing to engage in arguing these in futile attempts to receive the agreement or approval of their abuser.
- Stage 2- In this stage, the arguments continue, but the target has typically begun to consider their abuser’s perspective as the right one. The target’s goal becomes one devoted to the approval or agreement of their abuser so that they feel validated and worthwhile. The abuser’s perspective begins to become something the target needs to change because it may reflect negatively on the target’s overall self.
- Stage 3- During this stage, the target becomes so diminished that they question every thought and emotion. They often avoid arguments or bringing up discussions with their abuser because they are seeking the cause as some fault in their own character. The need to understand the abuser’s perspective becomes important and making decisions becomes impossible for fear that they are wrong. Each critique from the abuser becomes a point of drive for the target. They become determined to change or alter their behavior and emotional responses in order to avoid future criticisms.
How do you know if you are a victim of malicious gaslighting?
- You find yourself constantly questioning or second-guessing your own perception of reality.
- You’re overly apologetic to your partner because they make you feel you should be apologizing.
- You find yourself in numerous situations where you experience confusion or that you are crazy.
- You make excuses for your partner’s behavior (ex. “I must have thought I said that” or “They didn’t hear me”).
- You begin to feel as though you are overly sensitive to everything.
- Your partner diminishes your feelings or experiences through non-argumentative ways. (ex. “I was joking” or “You’re so sensitive”).
- Your partner constantly criticizes you to the point you begin to repeat these critiques to yourself.
- You feel as though you must walk on eggshells around your partner, concealing your true emotions and thoughts.
- You start to believe that everyone around you feels the same way about you as your partner.
- You begin to feel the inability to make decisions due to your experiences of ‘always being wrong’.
- You believe you are not a good partner or that you do not have worth in your relationship.
- You have difficulty finding joy in your relationship, even when you seem to have it all.
- You remember being a different person before the relationship, one with confidence and joy.
- You begin to withdraw from family and friends to avoid feeling the need to explain or justify your partner’s behavior.
- You may feel threatened or insecure around your partner for fear of their criticism or hurtful behavior.
What to do if you suspect your partner is maliciously gaslighting you
When gaslighting becomes so severe in a relationship that the target comes to rely fully on the abuser for everything, the target’s reality has been altered in such a way that it becomes dangerous. The abuser may use threats of the relationship ending or even suicide to continue to maintain control over the target.
If your partner is gaslighting you to control your behavior and thoughts, find a way to leave the relationship. In some instances, relationships with abuse can be resolved through therapy and professional assistance. However, individuals who engage in malicious gaslighting as a form of control and abuse often will not participate in these activities, leaving the target to feel isolated and alone. The abuser will use threats to attempt to avoid changing the relationship as they are aware that their behavior is malevolent and controlling.
It is imperative to understand that if you are the target, your experiences, emotions, and reality are important. No one deserves to be told what they should be experiencing or feeling. You are not to blame for your abuser’s behavior or any actions they may threaten if you attempt to disengage from the relationship. Your experiences and emotions are true, valid, and have always been. It is the malicious actions of power and control from your abuser that have made you question your worth. If you have been the target of a manipulative, spiteful gaslighting, seek the assistance of a professional counselor and get away from your abuser as soon as possible.