"I never said that. You’re making things up again.”
"Are you sure? You tend to have a bad memory.”
“It’s all in your head.”
Does your partner repeatedly say things like this to you? Do you often start questioning your own perception of reality, or even your own sanity, within your relationship? If so, your partner may be using a form of abuse that mental health professionals call gaslighting.
This term comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home. When his wife points it out, he denies that the light changed.
Gaslighting is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a person to question their own feelings, instincts and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power. Once an abusive partner has broken down the person’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the person is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.
Gaslighting tends to happen very gradually in a relationship; in fact, the abusive partner’s actions may seem like just a harmless misunderstanding at first. Over time, however, these abusive behaviors continue, and you can become confused, anxious, isolated and depressed, while losing all sense of what is actually happening. You may start relying on the abusive partner more and more to define reality, which creates a very difficult situation to escape.
Is Your Partner Using One of These Gaslighting Techniques?
Withholding: the abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen. Eg. “I don’t want to hear this again,” or “You’re trying to confuse me.”
Countering: the abusive partner questions your memory of events, even when the you remember them accurately. Eg. “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly.”
Blocking/Diverting: the abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions your thoughts. Eg. “Is that another crazy idea you got from [friend/family member]?” or “You’re imagining things.”
Trivializing: the abusive partner makes your needs or feelings seem unimportant. Eg. “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” or “You’re too sensitive.”
Forgetting/Denial: the abusive partner pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to you. Eg. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “You’re just making stuff up.”
What Are the Signs My Partner is Gaslighting Me?
In order to overcome this type of abuse, it’s important to start recognizing the signs and eventually learn to trust yourself again. According to author and psychoanalyst Robin Stern, Ph.D., the signs of being a victim of gaslighting can include:
You constantly second-guess yourself.
You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” multiple times a day.
You often feel confused and even crazy.
You’re always apologizing to your partner.
You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
You know something is terribly wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
You have trouble making simple decisions.
You feel hopeless and joyless.
You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner.
You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
The Next Step
It is not advised to talk to your partner about feeling like you're being gaslit, the gaslighter is going to tell you that what you're seeing or feeling isn’t true. They want to maintain control in the power dynamic.
Make plans with friends or family members you haven't seen in a while, and engage in activities that you love to reconnect you with yourself.
Make the commitment to yourself that you do not have to question your thoughts, feelings, perceptions about anything. Nobody is allowed to tell you how you feel or what you have heard or seen.
Consider professional support in the form of counselling