Bottom Line: If you’re constantly on the defense in a relationship, this could be what’s going on.
Are you in a relationship where you constantly second-guess your actions…keep apologizing profusely for everything you do…are somehow, always “wrong” without understanding how that happens? You might be involved—even potentially dangerously—with a gaslighter. Here’s how to shed light on what’s happening and how to protect yourself.
“Gaslighting” describes a particularly destructive kind of psychological power struggle that is a potentially very damaging form of abuse, where one person in a relationship tries to manipulate the other person’s perception of reality. The term was inspired by the 1944 movie Gaslight. In the movie, Gregory (played by Charles Boyer) tries to convince his wife, Paula (Ingrid Bergman), that she’s going insane by manipulating events through various tricks and persuading her that the “illusions” are actual fact.
In real life, typical gaslighters aren’t as obvious or as malicious as the Charles Boyer character. But they do share the same craving for power and control over the other person in the relationship—and a need to always be right. Often, in order to feel more important, they also make the other person dependent on them. And being the victim of a gaslighter takes a severe toll on mental and physical health.
Gaslighters aren’t only husbands…they can be a parent, partner, coworker or friend…and either gender. It’s also important to recognize that gaslighting doesn’t happen without the tacit agreement of the person being gaslighted. This is not a case of blaming the victim. But to stop the abuse, the “gaslightee” needs to recognize his/her own role. Gaslightees have a strong need for approval, which makes them vulnerable under the right (or wrong!) circumstances. They tend to be empathic people who can easily see the other person’s point of view and accommodate the wishes of others—frequently at the expense of their own needs and comfort.
Example: Jeanne, a friendly woman, is married to Roger, who doesn’t like her attention diverted away from him. He gets angry if she so much as smiles at someone else, especially another man. And because he told her that this bothers him—and told her that smiling at other men is flirting—he feels his anger is justified. Jeanne explains that she is just friendly and smiles instinctively at everyone. But Roger doesn’t like it and tells her to keep her eyes on the ground when they go out.
Jeanne’s first reaction to Roger’s eyes-down rule is that it’s crazy—and she tells him not to be ridiculous. But over time, with his continued insistence and her wanting to please him, eventually she comes to think, Maybe he’s right.
How does someone go from recognizing behavior that’s abnormal and unhealthy, even outright bizarre, to agreeing that it’s acceptable? Here’s what happens…
Gaslighting typically goes through three stages. Progressing from one stage to the next is dependent on the persistence of the gaslighter…and the willingness of the gaslightee to accept the skewed reality.
Stage one—disbelief: Using the example above, the gaslightee starts out thinking she must have misheard or misunderstood—You’re joking that you want me to avoid all eye contact with other people when we’re out, right? Confusion and frustration are common at this stage. But although the gaslightee might argue a bit with the gaslighter, she shrugs off the behavior, hoping it was a one-off and will resolve itself.
Stage two—second-guessing: The behavior is not a one-off, however. It’s part of a repeated pattern. Hearing so persistently what’s “wrong” with her, the gaslightee tries to prove it’s not true in order to win the gaslighter’s approval. She replays conversations and events, looking for evidence that the gaslighter is wrong about his accusations. She second-guesses all her actions. They argue incessantly, with him constantly undermining her character. For instance, when Roger is furious because she had a good time laughing and talking when they’re out with another couple, and claims she ignored him and enjoys being with other people more than with him, she gets defensive. She anxiously lists all the other times she can think of when she and Roger had fun together…and lies about going out for lunch with women friends.
Stage three—acceptance and depression: Stage three is powerful and intense. Because the gaslightee’s strong need for approval makes arguing uncomfortable, she gives up. She realizes she can’t win, anyway. She thinks the problem will be fixed if only she can get the gaslighter’s approval. So she is willing to do everything the way the gaslighter wants it. She begins to accept the gaslighter’s perception of her and the relationship. Not surprisingly, such extreme loss of will leads to deep depression. In its most extreme form, the hopelessness the gaslightee feels can lead to thoughts of self-harm.
Overcoming this dynamic power struggle isn’t easy—especially if the gaslighting relationship is with a spouse or family member and/or has gone on for many years. But you can break this destructive pattern.The tools that will help are awareness, courage and the right words to use.
• Listen to friends. Your buddies might see things more clearly than you can. For instance, if your date accused you of being overly sensitive, your friend can offer a reality check: Maybe you are sensitive. But that has nothing to do with the fact that he left when you were 10 minutes late without even calling you—and then told you that you’re upset because you’re too sensitive.
• Write it down. Write down the conversations you have with your gaslighter. Looking at who said what as though it were a script between two characters in a play can help you spot gaslighting patterns. Notice where the conversation veers off to be comments about you and your “flaws,” not a response to what you just said. Using the example above…
You: Hey, I know I was a few minutes late—sorry about that—but we agreed to meet for the movie in line. Why didn’t you wait…or call?
Gaslighter: Wow, you have trouble keeping track of time, and you’re blaming me for leaving—and now you feel bad? You are way too sensitive!
Blaming his behavior (not doing what was agreed to, not calling) on you, and your (perfectly normal) reaction on your “character flaw” (sensitivity) is classic gaslighting.
• Talk to a therapist. A trained professional can distinguish distortion from fact and also can be more objective than you. Maybe you are sensitive. But that doesn’t mean you have to put up with abusive behavior.
Be ready to walk. Unless your gaslighter is willing to change, the only solution may be to leave. Being clear that you are readyto do that makes an unarguable statement that the gaslighting behavior is unacceptable—but you need to stick to your position, or there are no consequences for your gaslighter and no reason to change.
Note: Be prepared for changes in your behavior to cause your gaslighter to react by expressing even less approval of you. Sometimes, the abuse (name calling, etc.) may ramp up to the point where you need to leave. If at any time you feel frightened or unsafe, leave immediately. Even if the steps you need to take impact you financially or socially, keeping yourself safe is your first priority.
The right words…
Go-to phrases that help. Having specific words and phrases to use when you feel yourself losing the power struggle can keep you from getting pulled back into the manipulative vortex. Phrases to memorize…
“I’m not going to talk to you while you’re yelling at me.”
“I don’t want to have this conversation while emotions are so heated. Let’s pick it up later.”
“I’m going to go have a cup of tea right now. This conversation isn’t feeling fair/respectful.”
“I won’t continue this conversation when you are telling me what’s wrong with me.”
“We will have to agree to disagree—I just don’t see it that way.”
Of course, what you say to your boss or to your parent will be very different from what you say to your partner. How easy it might be to leave also will be different.
Your dad: Haven’t heard from you in weeks. Just like your mother, you’re all about yourself. (Reality: You called him this week and had a conversation…the statement about your mother is gratuitous meanness and not true of you or your mother.)
You: Dad, we don’t agree about how often I call you—we will have to agree to disagree. I’m getting a cup of coffee now. Would you like one? (Avoid defending yourself, ignore the insult and “leave” the power struggle.)
Your boss: We need to wrap up this project—are you clueless about that? Where is the document you promised to revise? (Reality: He didn’t ask for it, and you didn’t promise it.)
You: I didn’t know you needed it this week. I will have it for you tomorrow. We had agreed that deadlines would be in writing, which I think will be very helpful. Will that be possible next time? (Ignore the insult, bring the conversation back to the topic.)
Your boss: We never agreed to that. You’re so forgetful! Are you going through menopause? (Reality: You are, but you know you hadn’t agreed on a deadline—and he is again deflecting the conversation.)
You: I will take responsibility for sending you an e-mail after our meetings about what work needs to be done and when. In the meantime, I will go back to my office and get you what you need. (Avoid his bait and the temptation to defend yourself and keep the conversation on the topic.)
Finally, forget about right or wrong. While it’s possible for a gaslighter to change a long-standing pattern of manipulation, control—and especially abuse—is hard to give up without professional help, something the gaslighter will need to want. But if your gaslighter is committed to changing and you do stay in the relationship, focus on healing…taking responsibility for what you say and do…and being honest. You will need to be disciplined around hot-button issues so that you don’t slip back into old patterns. And you will need to apply the compassion you so easily extend to others to yourself as well.
If you’re involved with a “gaslighter”—a spouse, coworker, family member or friend who tries to control you by manipulating your perception of reality—the following 16 phrases can help keep you out of his/her destructive vortex. Memorize the phrases that seem most useful for your own situation so that you can pull them out when you need them.
• “You’re right, but I don’t want to keep arguing about this.”
• “You’re right, but I don’t want to be talked to that way.”
• “I’m happy to continue this conversation without name-calling.”
• “I’m not comfortable with where this conversation is going. Let’s revisit it later.”
• “I think this conversation has gone as far as it can go.”
• “I don’t think I can be constructive right now. Let’s talk about this at another time.”
• “I think we have to agree to disagree.”
• “I don’t want to continue this argument.”
• “I don’t want to continue this conversation right now.”
• “I hear you, and I’m going to think about that. But I don’t want to keep talking about it right now.”
• “I’d really like to continue this conversation, but I’m not willing to do so unless we can do it in a more pleasant tone.”
• “I don’t like the way I’m feeling right now, and I’m not willing to continue this conversation.”
• “You may not be aware of it, but you’re telling me that I don’t know what reality is. And respectfully, I don’t agree. I love you, but I won’t talk to you about this.”
• “I love having intimate conversations with you, but not when you’re putting me down.”
• “It may not be your intention to put me down, but I feel put down, and I’m not going to continue the conversation.”
• “This is not a good time for me to talk about this. Let’s agree on another time that works for both of us.”
If you’ve involved with a “gaslighter”—a spouse, coworker, family member or friend who tries to control you by manipulating your perception of reality—you need to decide whether to leave the relationship or stay and fix it. A critical factor in that decision is whether your gaslighter wants to change…and is able to. Here are positive signs to look for…
…seem capable of understanding and respecting your point of view?
…at least occasionally key in to your feelings and needs?
…at least occasionally put your feelings and needs ahead of his/her own?
…feel remorse about the times he hurts you—in a way that leads him to change his own behavior?
…show interest in changing for his own reasons, not simply to please you or to prove what a good guy he is?
Source: Excerpted from The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life by Robin Stern, PhD, cofounder and associate director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, New Haven, Connecticut.
To learn even more about gaslighting, see Dr. Stern’s interview on Today.com.