Gaslighting behaviour –
what’s healthy and what’s not?

Gaslighting: You may not even know that you’ve been a victim of it. These subtle gaslighting behaviours erode confidence and create greater vulnerability and dependency in partnerships. 

Trudy* was 20 and halfway through a degree in marketing she felt ambivalent about. She had struggled to find her direction and was at odds with her friendship group who all seemed to be more confident about their choices.

She fell in love with Pete*, who managed a local hardware store and saw his future in retail. He said she didn’t have to finish uni to be successful, and if she was ambivalent, to throw it in and earn money instead. He helped her get a job in the florist next to his hardware store, and said they could travel to work together.

Pete said she needed to see her friends less, because her intuition that she and they were on different paths was probably correct. He said he valued that she was a bit shy and withdrawn and not so “flashy” as it showed modesty and commitment to their relationship.

He said that while not many men would like her being the size and shape that she was, that he could appreciate her uniqueness. When they spent time with her family, he criticised them and framed their motivations as sinister. Within a year Trudy was avoiding them and her friends to spend more time with Pete.

She knew that she was less confident than before they met, but put that down to her own inadequacies. After all, Pete seemed to feel very good about himself. He always validated her worries and reassured her that he would help her. S–o she persisted with the relationship as the thought of being single and alone now was scarier than ever.

What is gaslighting behaviour?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation or abuse in which a person sows seeds of doubt in another, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment. The term originates from the 1944 film Gaslight, and the later film adaptations, in which the central character begins to doubt her own sanity as her reality is constantly denied.

The term is now used to describe behaviour designed to create cognitive dissonance and the erosion of someone’s confidence. It aims to delegitimise a person’s views, beliefs and experiences with disinformation, ultimately fostering greater vulnerability and dependency. It can involve denying the validity of independent thoughts and experiences, or as was the case with Trudy, validating and embellishing negative thoughts so as to create an illusion of ‘us against the world’, while covertly dismantling self-esteem.

Recognising the signs of gaslighting behaviour

Emotional and psychological abuse can be very difficult for a victim to describe. Often subtle and open to interpretation, there may be no one example that really encapsulates what is going on. It can be a matter of both zooming in on individual instances, and also zooming out to see the sum total of the relational experience, to start to understand its effect.

Victims can say that they feel loved, wanted and important to the perpetrator. Indeed, victims may tap into the insecurity, jealousy and lack of confidence that can drive the behaviour, thereby strengthening their relational bond. For Trudy, the initial suggestion of “wanting to keep you all to myself” seemed romantic and intimate.

Working, travelling and socialising together seemed to suggest a strong and important relationship. As she hadn’t been sure of her own path, following his path looked like a good option. A year down the track, Trudy realised she was no better off in terms of a confident self-direction than in the first place. Arguably, things were worse.

When friends start to worry about you

Trudy’s old friends reached out and said that they missed her and wanted to catch up. This was when she started to realise that something was wrong. Instead of encouraging her, Pete got more openly nasty, rude and dismissive about her wanting to see them. He called her pathetic and a loser and that he had thought better of her.

Trudy almost didn’t go, but at the last minute knew if she didn’t, she would lose more of herself. At the dinner her friends talked of missing her and that they worried about losing her to Pete. She could hear their affection and support. She started to wonder if she had been sucked into something with Pete that wasn’t good for her.

When she got home, he was waiting for her and was very angry. He rubbished the story of her evening, called her names and at one point bailed her up against the door frame and shouted in her face. After 5 hours of exhausting, scary and intense conversation in which Trudy promised everything Pete asked of her, they went to bed and had “make up sex” even though Trudy didn’t at all feel like it.

Pete left the next day for work saying he was pleased they had got back “on the same page”. Trudy stayed in bed and worried for the future. Victims such as Trudy are not likely to recognise their relationship as abusive or one of “domestic violence” as there is no physical assault. At least not at the outset.

If control is achieved using these tactics, escalation towards greater violence may not occur. In Trudy’s case, it did not occur until she began to question Pete’s views. This can be the point when a psychologically abusive relationship becomes more unsafe.

What’s healthy and what’s not?

In the early stages of a relationship, making big changes, hanging out together almost exclusively and spending less time with friends and family can be common and generally accepted. There is no fixed time that it takes to consolidate your relationship.

However, once you do feel connected and confident as a couple, then reincluding friends and family and turning back to your individual goals regarding work, study and other hobbies, should also occur.

It might be that new common interests become preferable to old interests. The key difference between what is a good change and what is not, is whether you are entirely free to make those choices, and to spend time apart without negative interpretations, ramifications or punishments.

The role of friends and family

It is generally a pleasure to be able to include a new partner into a friendship group and to experience your world as extended and developed. Generally, we want the approval of others. It’s one way to check that the new relationship fits with everyone who is important to you.

But getting everyone on board isn’t always seamless. There can be challenges as everyone settles into the new configuration, and often, not everyone will get on.

However, if you find that a new relationship drives a wedge between you and other important people in your life, it will create difficulties in the long term. If your friends are worried for you and raise concerns, it’s worth listening non-defensively and seeing the relationship through their eyes.

If they want the best for you, then there may be things they observe that are worth considering. For example, if they think your world has shrunk, or they don’t like how you are spoken to, or what looks romantic to you seems like possessiveness to them.

Strategically raising these points with your partner can be a good way to check their validity. However, it’s best not to do this by saying your friends raised concerns, as this could set the groups even further apart.

You might simply say you think you should see your friends more or need more nights at home alone, and check the response. These sorts of basic negotiations can be very illuminating in relation to freedom or control.

Evaluation of confidence

It is almost impossible to objectively evaluate our relationships and our own self-esteem. Slippery at the best of times, at the mercy of random events and the usual bad days, we are also good at dressing things up positively and justifying behaviour in the direction we want it to go.

It could be tempting for Trudy to see Pete as absolutely loving and devoted. The more she gives away of herself and the more her dependency on him grows, the more this story will help her defend her choices.

Resist dismissing your own intuition that something might be wrong. Don’t let yourself be talked out of concerns. Your partner may not agree with your view, but your concerns should be respected. If not, it’s a bad sign.

Could you be the victim of gaslighting behaviour? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Over the length of the relationship, do you see your life as flourishing?
  • Are you supported to make decisions even if they present a short-term challenge to the relationship? For example, studying, taking up an interest, seeing friends more often?
  • Is your world opening up or closing down?
  • Do you find yourself anxious about getting home first, reassuring your partner, limiting your conversation, or keeping more private or uncontroversial than you would ideally like to?
  • Do you hide in the relationship?

If you value the relationship but are concerned that any of these behaviours exist, there is a role for professional help. Real change can be difficult to achieve without it.

Need further support? There’s professional help available. Relationships Australia NSW offers a range of counselling services. We also offer group programs that can help you or your relationship get back on track. Find out more about our group-based Relationship Education Programs here

*names have been changed

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