How To Respond To Gaslighting Without Excusing Away Your Partner’s Manipulative Behavior
Repeat after us: It’s not your fault.
"You're not going out of your mind. You're slowly and systematically being driven out of your mind." This quote is from the 1944 thriller Gaslight, which depicts Gregory Anton slowly driving his wife, Paula Alquist, out of her mind by telling her she's seeing things that aren't there and misremembering events. It isn't until detective Brian Cameron catches Anton in his act of deception and convinces Paula she's not crazy that she begins to believe in her mind again.
Now, real life doesn't often — or at all, really — look like an Alfred Hitchcock film, but the term this particular movie popularized is all too real. If your partner is telling you that you're crazy or you find yourself often doubting whether you're overreacting after an argument with them, your partner may be gaslighting you.
Read on for more telltale signs of this manipulative tactic, and how to respond to gaslighting in a healthy way (instead of giving your partner a free pass).
What Gaslighting Actually Means
According to Alex Limanówka, a relationship coach and family and couple mediator, gaslighting is a form of manipulation and emotional abuse. "Gaslighters will often deny situations, events, or conversations ever took place, which can make the person on the receiving end question their sanity," explains Limanówka.
While gaslighters may each have their own methodology, there are several common signs you can look out for if you suspect you or a loved one is experiencing this manipulation.
What Gaslighting in a Relationship Looks Like
Gaslighting isn't unique to romantic relationships; it can occur with families or friendships, too, which means the following examples could apply to a number of dynamics.
Typical examples of gaslighting in relationships include what Limanówka refers to as blocking and diverting, forgetting and denying, trivializing, withholding affection, and lying or twisting the truth.
Blocking and diverting is where "the 'gaslighter' seeks to gain control of the conversation by blocking or shutting down the communication or diverting the topic," says Limanówka. This may look like the gaslighter saying, "You're being paranoid," making "the victim feel like their voice isn't heard or what they have to say is not valued."
Forgetting or denying refers to when the gaslighter claims to forget an event that occurred or asserts that it never happened at all, and this may mean saying something like "You made it up" or "It's all in your head." This leaves the victim "doubting something they know to be true," Limanówka says.
Trivializing refers to the gaslighter minimizing an issue with language like "You're being dramatic," leading the person on the receiving end to "feel like their thoughts or feelings don't matter, or that they are being overly sensitive," she says.
A gaslighter may also withdraw emotional or physical affection, which "can make the person on the receiving end feel isolated and unimportant," Limanówka says. The abuser may even tell the victim that their actions caused the lack of affection in an effort to induce guilt.
Lastly, a gaslighter may "rewrite history by twisting the truth and recalling a slightly different turn of events compared to what actually took place," Limanówka explains. They may also outright lie and falsely claim that others can verify their criticisms against you." This may look like the gaslighter saying, "Everyone knows it happened this way" or "Everyone knows you're like this," again leading to the victim feeling isolated and self-doubtful.
How to Respond to Gaslighting
It's not uncommon for someone being gaslit to dismiss or downplay their partner's manipulative behavior. "They tend to tolerate or forgive the abuse because they believe their partner isn't hurting them deliberately," Limanówka says. "They may even make excuses for the partner's behavior, which can enable the abuse to continue and may lead to blame-shifting."
It's also possible to mistake disagreeing with a partner for gaslighting, as part of gaslighting hinges on the people involved perceiving reality differently — something that isn't inherently wrong. "There may be instances where there's a perfectly normal disagreement, which can escalate if you accuse the other party of gaslighting you,” Limanówka warns. "This can be damaging for both parties involved in the dispute."
In either scenario, consider consulting a trusted third party, such as a family member, friend, or therapist, to gain an outside perspective. "If you've determined that you are being gaslit, you should try to remain calm and put boundaries in place as soon as you can and express how you're feeling," Limanówka suggests. She recommends using phrases such as "I feel like I'm not being heard" or "I hear what you're saying, but that isn't my experience" to communicate to your partner when you feel unheard or misunderstood.
Stepping away from the argument with the understanding that you two will come back to it later when you're both feeling calmer is another way to handle gaslighting in the moment, as well as set a boundary that you're not willing to participate if you're feeling that your partner isn't listening.
You can also suggest seeing a relationship counselor together to create a safer space to air out disagreements. This way, you have a third party able to step in and mediate when emotions are high.
The most important thing to remember if your partner is gaslighting you is that it's not your fault. "It likely stems from your partner's traumas and problems," Limanówka says. "You can try to help and support your partner on their way to working on themselves, but ultimately, it's not your responsibility, and you're not going to be able to change or heal that person. You need to prioritize yourself and look after your own emotions and well-being."
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