“But That’s Not What You Said Before”: Gaslighting And How to Spot Them In Relationships

(Photo by Eugenio Pastoral on Unsplash)

[A version of this article is also published here]

Have you experienced moments in your relationship when you’re certain you were right about something but your partner convinces you that you weren’t? Confusion then kicks in and you start to doubt your own sanity? If this has ever happened to you, you may have been gaslighted in your relationship. 

Gaslighting: What Is It?

Gaslighting (verb): to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity (Oxford English Dictionary). 

Imagine leaving the gas on, slowly (and unbeknowingly) inhaling toxic fumes that eventually can kill us. Gaslighting in relationships are a little similar to that. Gaslighting is often exercised verbally: gaslighters are masters of verbal manipulation and sometimes you won’t be able to notice it until it’s too late. Sometimes, we may be guilty of exhibiting gaslighting behaviours as well — the key is to spot it and eliminate it before it starts to hurt the people around us. 

Stages of Gaslighting in Relationships

  1. The innocent brush-off

Example: You have agreed with your partner on something but they are unable to follow through with it. Instead of admitting their mistakes, they make you feel guilty for making them accommodate you. 

“Hey, see you later! I’m really looking forward for dinner today!”
“Hahaha no silly, I actually meant that we meet on Monday, not today. But it’s alright since you’re already prepared we might as well meet.”

“Ugh, you always forget. I said to get it in the colour red, not blue. Forget it, I’ll settle for what you already got.”
“Oh, okay. You did mention you wanted the blue one last week though.”

  1. Fabricating situations as a preemptive manipulative measure

Example: They begin conversations with lies that trick you into thinking you are being forgetful. They do this to gain your permission on something without making it like a big deal.

“Hey babe remember when we were at the store last week and you said you’d get me this really nice dress? I found it in my size today, maybe we could drop by this week to get it?”
“We were at the store last week? I don’t remember.”
“Yes we were silly, come on let’s go!”

“Honey, you said you’d let me borrow your credit card. I’ll just go get it from your wallet and I’m off to lunch with a friend okay. Love you, thanks, bye!”
“Wait, wait, wait…when have I said that?”
“You’re just a little fazy from the party yesterday honey. I’m just using it for lunch, don’t worry!”

  1. The victimisation

Example: They verbally dismiss your opinions and convince you that you’re at fault.

“Thank you for agreeing to spend the holidays with my family this year. I’ve told my parents and they’re really excited and can’t wait to meet you!”
“You must be imagining things again. I never said that. See? You’re always assuming things.”
“But we just agreed on this a few days ago, you told me you couldn’t be happier meeting my family!”
“I said I didn’t mind doing so. There’s a difference. Whatever, it’s so classic of you anyway.”

Origins of the term “Gaslighting”

Gaslighting is a term that originated from Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian stage play Gas Light in 1939. It was remade into the film Gaslight by American filmmaker George Cukor in 1944. The film narrates a thief’s (Gregory) attempt to find and steal jewels from his young and unsuspecting wife (Paula). She confides in her husband about hearing footsteps and the accompanied dimming and brightening of the gaslights in the attic where she stores her jewels. Gregory insists that it was all in her head and isolates her, claiming that it was for her own good. He does everything in his power to convince his wife that she is going mad and eventually has her institutionalised which would then grant him custody of Paula’s jewels. By the end of the film, Paula descends into insanity. Gaslighting then became a term for psychological and emotional abuse in relationships.

The term did not receive much attention and only entered our everyday speech in the 1960s when psychologists began using the term to describe “an extreme form of psychological abuse whose goal was to control the victim’s mind through fear and terror”, as noted by Neil Jacobson and John Gottman in their book titled When Men Batter Women (1998). Diane L. Shoos, in Domestic Violence in Hollywood Films (2017), emphasised that the significance of it comes “not simply from its strategy of deception but also from its pernicious intent and effect: to make the victim doubt his/her own perceptions and, ultimately, question his/her sense of reality.” 

Tell-Tale Signs: The Portrait of a Gaslighting Abuser

Gaslighting may not be easy to notice at first. But gaslighters often exhibit this behaviour habitually. Psychoanalyst Dr. Robin Stern wrote the pioneering text: The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life in 1996. It was revised and republished in 2018 in light of the Trump campaigns.

According to Dr. Stern, the act of “gaslighting” consists of 2 people: 
1) the gaslighter, one who sows confusion and doubt, and 
2) the gaslightee, one who is willing to doubt his or her own perceptions. 

The Portrait of a Gaslighter: How to Spot Them

  1. Verbal abuse

Verbal abuse is like inhaling gas fumes in a highly flammable room. We may think nothing of it at first, but over time, it can kill us. Verbal abuse is a form of emotional torture; gaslighting in relationships often involves a repeated game of accusations and denial of mistakes. 

“It’s all in your head,”
“You’re always imagining things,”
“Stop being so emotional, it’s not a big deal”

In extreme cases, some may even resort to foul language:

“You’re being dumb, can’t you ever remember sh*t I told you?”
“Stop being so stupid!”
“You’re being so delusional right now,”

  1. Denial and doubt

The gaslighter is often in a dominant position, often twisting and manipulation his/her words to convince the subdominant gaslightee that the onus is on them instead. 

“I said to do XXX, not XXX. See? You just don’t remember, you never do.”
“You’re always assuming without clarifying with me,”
“No, I agreed on something else. You forgot about again, haven’t you?”

Dr. Stern notes that the initial stages of gaslighting involves disbelief and defense:

Disbelief is when the gaslighter says something confusing and the gaslightee cannot comprehend it. Defense arises when the gaslighter becomes defensive and convinces the gaslightee and he/she is wrong.

  1. Depression and the silencing of the subdominant

When self-doubt sinks in as a result of an unsettling reality, the victim of gaslighting in a relationship is highly likely to experience depression. Consequently, the gaslightee is silenced.

How To Tell When You’re Being Gaslighted

  1. Constant confusion

You are constantly confused by your partner primarily because they never mean what they say. 

  1. The manipulation game

When you finally attempt to confront your partner about the confusion, he/she simply twists their words to plant the blame on you instead. The whole “it’s all in your head” shenanigan. 

  1. Second-guessing yourself

As a result, you start second-guessing your thoughts, memories, even your actions and decisions. You feel like you don’t have a grasp of what is “real” anymore because your partner has convinced you that you are always wrong. 

  1. Silence and unnecessary apologies

In order not to sow discord or make a scene, you stay silent about your predicament. Habitually apologising for wrongs you are not responsible for may also be a sign you have internalised this form of emotional abuse and manipulation. 

  1. You think you’re the problem

When you’re being gaslighted in your relationship, you will constantly feel like it’s always on you. You will feel that you’re always at fault, despite not doing any wrong. Done long enough, you will start to believe that there really is something “wrong” with you. 

“Gaslight Culture” in Modern Relationships 

It is imperative to identify early signs of gaslighting in all types of relationships. Gaslighting can happen anywhere, to anyone: within a circle of friends, and even in the workplace. Knowing your self-worth and making the commitment to protect it goes a long way. Trust yourself and do not be afraid to voice out inconsistencies when you notice them. 

With that said, we may fall guilty of exhibiting gaslighting behaviours at times. “Stick and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt me.” Not anymore. It is time we paid careful attention to the things we say. Words have a grave impact. Throughout history, wars were fought and atrocities were endured over the utterance of words that damaged nations and people. Our words carry weight and we must always remember to use it wisely because once said, we can never take them back. Being self-aware of your words and actions in your relationships goes a long way. Acknowledge the mistakes when spotted, apologise, and strive to be better. 

Gaslighters are abusers who attempt to manipulate and control you like their own puppet doll. It’s not you, it’s them. Noticing the signs of gaslighting in relationships is the first step to save yourself from sinking into the quicksand of emotional and psychological abuse. Know the signs, voice out and seek help.

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