Gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse and manipulation – and it happens more often than you’d expect. Our CEO and clinical psychologist Elisabeth Shaw explains how to spot the signs of gaslighting, plus how to address the issue with your partner and shut it down for good.
Dating seems to have its own language these days – people can be ghosted, benched or bread-crumbed – but there’s one word that pops up a lot, especially in toxic relationships: gaslighting.
What’s the definition of gaslighting?
The term gaslighting originates from the 1944 film Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, about a woman whose husband slowly manipulates her into believing that she is going insane. In the film, the female protagonist sees the lights flicker for no reason, but her husband tells her that it’s all in her head.
The term is now used in a relationship context to describe a situation when a person will distort the perceptions of their partner to gain power in the relationship and to ensure that their partner is solely focused on them.
The dangerous thing about gaslighting, however, is that while comments sound supportive on the surface, they gradually separate the partner from their social context.
On the face of it, gaslighting can sound not that serious, and it can be very subtle. But over time, it builds a picture where the person being gaslighted loses confidence in themselves, loses confidence in their own reading of a situation or circumstance, and feels less worthy themselves.
The victim can also end up feeling more bonded to the person doing it, because it ultimately is coercive and a means of gaining control.
Comments and remarks that may indicate gaslighting include phrases like:
- “Your friends don’t really like and support you.”
- “Your family’s not really on your side, I think they just don’t love you as much as your sister/brother.”
- “You’ve never been good at that.”
- “I understand you’re not that good at it, we’re not all good at things.”
The difficulty in recognising gaslighting in your relationship
Even when a victim tries to call out the behaviour, a gaslighter typically responds by invalidating their partner and saying things like ‘you’re being too sensitive’ or ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’
But a good way to recognise gaslighting is to ask yourself if you feel better about yourself since entering the relationship. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Since beginning the relationship, do you feel you have slowly lost confidence in yourself as a person?
- Are you spending more time at home, and not due to external factors like the pandemic?
- Are you connecting with your friends and family less and less?
It’s important to also listen to friends and family if they comment on how they dislike the way your partner talks to you. It can be tempting to dismissing their concerns in the same way the perpetrator might. But if you repeatedly hear loved ones telling you things like ‘That sounded hurtful,’ don’t just excuse it. Stop and listen, because sometimes negative behaviour like gaslighting can be easier to spot from the outside than from inside the relationship.
How to confront a partner who is gaslighting you
If you feel like you’ve been invalidated in your relationship, the first step to resolving it is building some confidence in your own experience. Start by listing out some examples of when you feel your partner has displayed gaslighting behaviour. Some of these might be overt examples, such as if your partner has called you names or said you’re hopeless at something.
However, if you find that each example is being dismissed, it can be helpful to speak more generally. You can tell your partner that you don’t believe that they build you up, and you don’t feel as though they speak to you in a proud and respectful way.
You may need to relay numerous examples to describe how you’re feeling in the relationship, but the examples aren’t really what matters in the overall scheme of things – it’s about how you are feeling.
Ideally, you want a partner who can acknowledge your feelings, and say ‘I’m very sorry that’s your experience and I want to go about fixing it.’ You don’t have to be 100 per cent right, or choose the best possible examples. But in the end, it’s about whether you have a partner who cares about your experience. You want a partner who takes you seriously no matter what you’re bringing up.
Gaslighting can be a type of emotional abuse
If a partner is unwilling to acknowledge your concerns around their behaviour, this is where gaslighting starts to be considered as behaviour which falls under the domestic violence category.
Some people think domestic violence and abuse has to be physical, but emotional abuse can happen within what looks like an otherwise fairly functioning relationship – and it can be extremely harmful.
Gaslighting can erode a good connection between a couple, and harm their intimacy. If someone feels bad about themselves because their confidence has been deliberately eroded, they won’t feel empowered to address all sorts of other things in the relationship, like how to tackle parenting, your sex life, friendship issues or career goals.
If you’re struggling to get through to your partner and are concerned about gaslighting, it’s best to seek professional help and counselling.
If you or someone you know needs help with an abusive relationship, contact the Australian Helpline 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). Relationships Australia NSW also offers counselling services for individuals and couples.