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What Is Gaslighting in a Relationship?

2 Experts Explain What Gaslighting Looks Like in a Relationship

You've probably heard the term "gaslighting." Originating from the 1944 film Gaslight, the movie tells the story of an emotionally abusive relationship where a husband slowly manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane. Since the movie's release, the term has been used to describe repetitive and persistent abuse that's used as a tool to shift the power dynamic in a relationship.

To help us understand the cycle of gaslighting and the toll it can take on someone's mental health, we spoke to Melanie Tsesler, a relationship psychotherapist, and Amber Gordon, a marriage and family therapist.

What Is Gaslighting and Where Does It Stem From?

Like in the film Gaslight, gaslighting happens when a person makes an effort to manipulate and control a situation or relationship, and can result in emotional and psychological abuse of their partner. "It's a tactic used to get someone to start questioning their reality," explained Melanie Tsesler, adding that "it often makes them feel as though they are at fault."

The root of this behavior? She explains that individuals use gaslighting to gain control of a relationship as they may have unresolved issues of childhood trauma, or narcissism.

Amber Gordon explained that once a partner has introduced gaslighting into a relationship, and is successful in using it as a manipulation technique, they will perpetuate a cycle. That means the gaslighting behavior will likely continue and could even get worse over time and be repeated longterm. But, despite the different dynamics that naturally exist in every relationship and the severity of gaslighting potentially taking place, there is a typical cycle that gaslighting will often take.

What Is the Cycle of Gaslighting?

1. Lies and Accusations

Recognizing the signs of gaslighting can be difficult in a relationship, especially when codependency is a large factor. Tsesler explained that the general cycle of gaslighting starts with lies that are used against the accuser. Some examples provided by Gordan include phrases like "I never said that," "It's your fault," "You're remembering things wrong," and, "I'm sorry you feel this way." All of these comments help to dismantle the valid feelings of the person on the receiving end. By targeting these accusations, the fault of the issue is disregarded, allowing the gaslighter to continue using the tactic in future incidents.

2. Repeated Behavior

Due to past accepted behaviors in the relationship, like letting the comments above slide on more than one occasion, Gordon indicates that it is common for the person who is gaslighting their partner to increase the severity of their behavior over time. As gaslighting becomes more frequent, individuals in these relationships become blinded to their occurrences. "Often, people are unaware that gaslighting [is taking place] because it is a subtle and indirect form of manipulation," said Gordon. Dismissing or simply not identifying red flags essentially allows this behavior to continue.

3. Insecurities and Self-Doubt

When confronted, gaslighters often wear down their victim to make them feel insecure and inadequate. How does this impact the victim of gaslighting? Gordan said that gaslightees question the severity of the situation, which leads to self-doubt and can destabilize their mental health. Due to the nature of gaslighting, "victims will often start to believe that their experiences are not valid and that they should not trust their feelings because the abuser has manipulated them into believing they are not true," Gordon explained.

4. Reassurance and Codependency

When the victim starts realizing the red flags in their relationship, the gaslighter will usually backtrack and console their partner. This is a turning point that allows the cycle to continue working. "The victim gets a bit of praise, and they both enter into this codependency where they may not believe they're being gaslit," Tseler said. "Most individuals don't realize they are in this pattern until a long time after, perhaps years in the making. By then, their self-esteem is usually worn down, resulting in them believing they aren't worthy of anything better, so they stay [in the relationship]."

This increase in codependency makes it much harder for individuals to remove themselves from the situation and distance themselves from their gaslighting partner. Because the victim is reassured of their relationship, this allows the gaslighter to continue controlling the relationship — officially shifting the power dynamic.

5. Maintaining Control

The cycle continues through the means of keeping control, which the gaslighter maintains through continuous lies while manipulating the gaslightee — essentially stunting their ability to leave the relationship. By doing so, the victim remains powerless and enwrapped in a bubble of self-doubt and insecurities.

How Does This Affect Someone's Mental Health?

The severity of gaslighting can greatly impact the victim's perception of themselves and the formulation of their identity. As the gaslighter starts to wear down their partner's self-esteem, this stifles their ability to discern between reality and facts. As indicated in the cycle, insecurities and self-doubt become the gaslightee's identity. This leads them to question their sanity and increases the difficulty of removing themselves from this cycle in their relationship, despite fully understanding the mental health repercussions. Gordan explained that individuals who have experienced gaslighting will often suffer from decreased self-esteem, self-image issues, anxiety, and depression as a result of this type of manipulation.

How Do You Approach a Significant Other Who Is Gaslighting You?

Being mindful of how you feel in a relationship and how you're being made to feel in a relationship is key. "I always get a partner to state exactly how they feel by using an 'I feel' statement," said Tsesler. "This allows their significant other to understand how their actions have made them feel."

According to Gordan, establishing boundaries is incredibly important, not just in intimate settings, but also in friendships, family, and work relationships. "Simply put, boundaries indicate what's OK, and what's not OK," she explained. "As soon as you start noticing manipulation or gaslighting type of behavior, it's important to take a step back and see if this is something your partner is willing to seek help to fix."

How Should I Approach a Friend Who I Think May Be in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship?

Being patient is essential when talking to a friend who might be in an abusive relationship. "Pointing out gaslighting when someone isn't ready to acknowledge the relationship's nature can cause them to pull away from you and not talk to you about their relationship," said Gordan. She suggests that you avoid asking probing questions, and instead, ask how they feel in their relationship. "You can ask questions like 'how do you feel when they speak to you in that way?' or ask them, 'if my partner was treating me that way, what advice would you give me?'"

Gordan and Tsesler both explained that gaslighters can manipulate their significant other into thinking they're exaggerating the situation's severity. Because of this, most people we care about that are in emotionally abusive relationships are not always aware of what's occurring. We can help them acknowledge how they feel and support them in realizing that the relationship is an emotionally abusive one.

You don't want your friend to feel judged or unsupported for being in an abusive relationship. Being a good friend means giving them space to process what's happening, and providing guidance during times of struggle. Both Gordon and Tsesler also encourage victims to reach out for help and support from mental health professionals for their own healing.

If you feel you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship, please seek visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1-800-799-SAFE.

Image Source: Getty / Peter Dazeley
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