Every year, it seems like a new, terrible relationship “trend” emerges, taking over advice blogs and shifting single and coupled people alike into states of high alert. “Negging”, “ghosting”, “breadcrumbing”... all hurtful practices used by unscrupulous daters in the interest of simplifying their own romantic lives at the expense of others.
In many cases, these behaviors aren’t just annoying or rude or immature. They can also evolve into clear instances of emotional abuse. One key example? “Gaslighting,” a manipulative move used by active daters and partnered people alike. So what exactly is gaslighting, and how do you spot (and push back against) the signs? Read on to find out.
In the simplest terms, “gaslighting” is a manipulative tactic through which the “gaslighter” causes their victim to question their own sense of reality. That sounds dramatic, but gaslighting doesn’t always occur on a grand scale (although it certainly can happen on the grandest of scales, up to and including the executive branch of government).
In order to plant seeds of doubt in their victims’ minds, gaslighters will use techniques like lying, denial, and an “us vs. them” mentality to convince their target to view situations and to interpret behaviors in the way that the gaslighter prefers. This allows the gaslighter to establish a clear (although generally non-consensual) power dynamic; the gaslighter has the power to adjust and erase the truth as they see fit, and the victim must accept this warped version of the world if they wish to stay in the relationship.
It’s important to understand that the majority of gaslighters aren’t sociopaths who engage in these behaviors with a completely clear view of (and a total disregard for) the damage they can cause. Many gaslighters act out of a desire to avoid “uncomfortable” situations; if they can twist facts in order to convince their partner that the cause of an argument is actually her fault, then they won’t need to take responsibility for their questionable choices.
In a recent article about gaslighting, Vox referred to it as a learned social behavior, explaining that, when it comes to the results of their manipulative moves, “they witness it, feel the effects of it, or stumble upon it and see that it is a potent tool. It’s a cognitive strategy for self-regulation and co-regulation. To be frank, it works.”
If you’re in a relationship with someone who displays gaslighting tendencies, know that it isn’t your responsibility to “fix” that person. Gaslighting, like many other harmful social habits, can become deeply ingrained in the practitioner’s psyche, and the path to a cure requires a commitment on that person’s part to change their ways. In many cases, the only way to end a gaslighting relationship is to... well, end the relationship entirely.
But if you want to make it clear in the moment that a gaslighter’s statements and comments aren’t welcome, try these responses to common gaslighting lines:
If you call a gaslighter on an insensitive comment or an example of less-than-ideal conduct, it’s common for that person to try to “turn the tables” on you by insisting that you’re only upset because of your “insecurity” or “lack of self-esteem”, which they’ll position as an inquestionable fault. By skewing the situation in this manner, they’re trying to make you the problem rather than themselves.
How to respond: “This isn’t about me. It’s about you.”
Trying to argue with the gaslighter by claiming that you’re not insecure provides them with the engagement that they need to further defend their “point." Combat that by refusing to change the subject and insisting that the focus remain on them and their behavior.
Gaslighters commonly try to diminish their partners’ responses and invalidate their concerns. Again, casting the victim as someone who “overreacts” shifts the blame away from themselves and onto the other person.
How to respond: “I’m telling you how I feel. Is that a problem?”
With many gastlighters, making their behavior look every bit as ridiculous and unacceptable as it is can be an effective way to cut them off.
Sometimes, gaslighters take their “creative” view of the truth to the extreme by flat-out denying past comments and actions, in an effort to make their victims second-guess their own memories of the events.
How to respond: “Well, that’s how I remember it.”
With this reply, you’re not arguing over whose reality is more “real” (which will only open you up to a debate that won’t yield useful results). You’re simply stating your perspective and telling the gaslighter how you feel about it; if they decide not to care, then that says something very clear about the state of the relationship.
Because gaslighters need their victims to seem unreasonable (in order to justify their own actions to themselves), they often try to laugh off the cruel and inconsiderate things they say by claiming that they’re just “joking." That way, they can believe that they haven’t done anything wrong, rather, you just don’t have a sense of humor.
How to respond: “It wasn’t funny.”
Call it out, make your perspective clear and end the conversation — simple, direct and effective.
Gaslighters often try to back up their opinions and behaviors by claiming that other people agree with them, and they’ll cite these (often nonexistent) “defenders” when they try to break down their victim’s objections.
How to respond: “I didn’t ask ‘everyone’ for their opinions.”
The key with all of these statements is a refusal to acknowledge the gaslighter’s version of reality as the truth. If you respond with confidence in your own perception of events, you’ll strip the gaslighter of their most valuable weapon.
Gaslighting is a (one-sided) power struggle, so the gaslighter often feels tempted to cast themselves as the victim, blaming the victim’s emotions and objections for causing the gaslighter pain.
How to respond: “That’s not my goal here.”
Don’t invalidate the gaslighter’s emotions (since that’s gaslighting behavior in and of itself), but don’t engage or try to convince the gaslighter of your true intentions.
Gaslighters love high-stakes statements like this, as their ultimate goal is to make their victims feel small, unjust and at-fault.
How to respond: “If that’s what love means to you, then we’re in two different places.”
Resist the urge to come at the gaslighter with accusatory language; they’re not going to apologize or change their ways. Focus on replying with a clear statement that’s not up for discussion.
Parting ways with a gaslighting partner is the right move, but that doesn’t necessarily make the recovery process any easier. The best way to start off in the right direction after a relationship like this is to surround yourself with supportive, encouraging friends and family who are committed to helping you recalibrate your own personal reality and renewing your confidence in your memory, your judgement and your choices.