Experiencing gaslighting is confusing, frustrating, and sometimes even traumatizing, but it’s especially damaging when it comes from your partner.

Gaslighting in relationships can look like something as innocuous as being convinced that you’re the one always leaving the bathroom light on (and jacking up the electric bill), to a much more heinous situation where one person is forced into questioning their own reality. It is often referred to as a form of romantic terrorism and can even accompany domestic violence,2 but even in less severe circumstances, the phenomenon can be highly damaging to a romantic relationship.

What Is Gaslighting in A Relationship?

In general, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which one person makes another person doubt his or her perceptions, experiences, memories, or understanding of events that happened.

But when it comes to romantic relationships, “in my clinical practice, the gaslighter is typically a man and the gaslight-tee is typically a woman,” says psychoanalyst Robin Stern, PhD, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life. “Many women are socialized to doubt themselves and continually apologize for disagreeing or upsetting their partners. Men are not.”

Why Is It Called Gaslighting?

The term “gaslighting” comes from the British play Gas Light and the subsequent 1944 movie Gaslight, a mystery-thriller in which a man slowly tricks and manipulates his wife into doubting her own perceptions and coming to believe she is losing her mind; his goal is to have her committed to a mental institution so that he can gain power of attorney over her.

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What Are Some Examples of Gaslighting in Romantic Relationships?

Gaslighting can take many different forms in romantic relationships. Gaslighting examples might look like your partner needing to be right all the time or to always have the upper hand.

Gaslighting in Relationship Signs

To achieve that goal, they might insult you or demean you in front of others or when the two of you are alone. They might use humor as a weapon and tease you or mock you under the guise of “I’m just kidding.” They can make you doubt your own memory or perceptions by saying things like “I never said that,” or “You said you’d pay that bill,” or “I wasn’t flirting with that woman—you’re paranoid!”

In other situations—such as during an argument—they might categorically deny facts that you know are true. Or, to justify insensitive behavior or cover their tracks when you’re upset that they’re late for an important date, a gaslighter might tell you that you’re too sensitive or too rigid or too _____ [fill in the blank]. As a result of these gaslighting signs, you may end up feeling like you’re walking on eggshells as you try to avoid triggering another blowup.

However it’s done, gaslighting involves undermining a partner’s feelings and perceptions as a means of instilling self-doubt or of challenging their perception of reality. “Gaslighting is insidious—it plays on our worst fears, our most anxious thoughts, our deepest wishes to be understood, appreciated, and loved,” says Stern. “And when we idealize the gaslighter—when we want to see him as the love of our life—then we have even more difficulty sticking to our own sense of reality.”

Why Is Gaslighting in Relationships So Damaging?

Besides harming the self-esteem and emotional stability of the person on the receiving end, gaslighting can be particularly damaging to a relationship because it detracts from the “shared reality” you have with your partner. New research has found that having a set of shared thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with an intimate partner is not only a critical part of the bond, but it also motivates couples to reaffirm that shared reality when they face potential threats and contributes to relationship satisfaction.3

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With gaslighting, the sense of that so-called shared reality is questioned, if not destroyed, which can lead to a loss of trust and comfort in the relationship. “There’s a fundamental core experience of togetherness and connection in a romantic relationship, and when there’s a split or fragmentation between shared realities, there’s such an undermining of intimacy, connection, and safety in the relationship,” explains Craig Malkin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Rethinking Narcissism.

How To Stop Gaslighting in a Relationship

If you suspect you’re being subjected to gaslighting, you’ll want to take steps to deal with it effectively depending on the type of gaslighting you’re experiencing.

  • Narrative Gaslighting

    This form of manipulation happens when your partner tries to convince you that something didn’t happen the way you think it did—aka changing the narrative or story. You might say, “Okay, we have different memories of what happened; there’s no point in getting into a debate about it,” Malkin advises.

  • Emotional Gaslighting

    Here, your partner might be telling you that you shouldn’t feel the way you do. Hold true to yourself by saying, “This is how I feel; I understand you feel differently but you can’t tell me how I should feel.” “Your feelings are your feelings,” Malkin says. “They can’t possibly be wrong.”

  • Personal Gaslighting

    This happens when your partner is making you question things you assume to be true about yourself. Malkin recommends relying on something called “borrowed judgment,” in which you run your experience by friends and others you trust and ask them to reinforce your perception or weigh in with their opinion. In other words, get a reality check by talking to a third party you’ve known and trusted for a long time and ask him or her to help you distinguish truth from distortion, Stern advises.

In relationships where gaslighting is a regular occurrence, it can take a great deal of self-control to avoid arguing the point. Remember: “In that moment, you cannot convince someone who’s trying to gaslight you that he or she is wrong,” Stern says. To avoid getting embroiled in a power struggle, it helps to have some good conversation-stoppers handy, such as “I don’t like where this conversation is going; let’s talk about this another time.”

For your own well-being, focus on your feelings, instead of who’s right or wrong. To that end, it may help to write in a journal about your interactions with the gaslighter and the feelings those encounters bring up for you. The goal is to “get back into the practice of defining your own reality,” Stern says. “Be compassionate toward yourself. Accept and acknowledge that what you feel is okay.”

Gaslighting in Relationships FAQs

What is gaslighting in a relationship?

It’s a form of psychological manipulation in which one person makes the other partner doubt his or her perceptions, experiences, memories, or understanding of events that happened.

Is the silent treatment a form of gaslighting?

Yes. Sometimes a gaslighter who engages in intimidation may “use silence as a weapon against you, either to get his way or to punish you when you displease him,” says Robin Stern, PhD, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.

How to talk to a partner who is gaslighting you?

Choose a time when neither of you is feeling rushed or stressed and raise the issue in a non-accusatory way. “Instead of telling your gaslighter what he’s doing wrong, try describing the problem and including your own participation,” Stern advises. You might describe the pattern of these interactions, explain how they make you feel, then ask for how you’d like them to change.

How to stop gaslighting in a relationship?

You really can’t, experts say, because it’s a form of emotional abuse. Ultimately the choice to gaslight or not is up to the perpetrator. To end the pattern, “he needs to accept the truth and own it and be willing to get comfortable with his own feelings so he doesn’t feel like he has to knock someone else down to feel better,” explains Craig Malkin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author ofRethinking Narcissism. "What you do have control over is whether to stay in the relationship if things don’t improve, Stern says, “because your reality and integrity are more important.”

Are there potential legal consequences of gaslighting in relationships?

If gaslighting is the reason for divorce or abandonment, it could come into play in legal cases. And if a gaslighter is deemed to be lying because the facts and evidence don’t support what he is saying in divorce proceedings, there may be legal consequences, Malkin says.

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Last Updated: Oct 15, 2021