“Sounds like gaslighting,” I explained to a client this week after hearing a laundry list of her boyfriend’s behaviors.
“What’s that mean?” she asked, “It doesn’t sound like a thing.”
But gaslighting in relationships is a thing. A very real, destructive, insidious thing. And recognizing it isn’t so hard if, 1) you know what to look for, and/or, 2) you’re ready to accept you have some big thinking to do.
Fact is, you know when your partner is beating you down, demeaning you, or making you feel crazy as a wolf howling at the moon. Even if you don’t know it consciously, if you stopped and asked yourself, “Do I feel loved in this relationship? Respected? Valued? Adored?” The answers would be, unequivocally, “No, no, no, and, um, no.”
Gaslighting is a psychological term that refers to one partner’s efforts to undermine the other’s grasp on reality in order to gain control. This is done by systematically making the victim feel like whatever the circumstances, her (or his) version of events is skewed, misconstrued, or imagined.
Here are some examples of gaslighting:
Susie tells her fiancé, Brad, she doesn’t like the way he publicly and loudly criticized her cole slaw recipe at their neighborhood block party.
Brad says: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just saying it needed a little more salt. And, by the way, no one else heard me. You’re imagining things.
Susie thinks: Maybe I misheard what he said. To be honest, I am a little bit sensitive about my cooking. I should probably work on that.
Bobby tells his wife, Cathy, he was embarrassed when she told their friends he had been a bedwetter as a child.
Cathy says: I would never embarrass you. Are you accusing me of embarrassing you? Because that’s in your head.
Bobby thinks: Cathy’s right. I mean, she’s my wife! She would never intentionally embarrass me, right? Plus, they’re our good friends. Maybe I shouldn’t be embarrassed.
Lucy tells her partner, Maddie, she was hurt when Maddie openly flirted with their waitress.
Maddie says: What are you talking about? I’m only being friendly. Maybe you’re the one who’s flirting and you’re trying to project your guilt onto me.
Lucy thinks: Why do I have to be so jealous and insecure? Maddie is just being nice to a stranger. I should be grateful I have such a loyal girlfriend.
Gaslighting demands the victim replace her reality with her partner’s rendition. When it goes on long enough — and with enough constancy — it achieves its goal. The victim internalizes her partner’s assertions and rejects her own. Her internal radar — one which we are all equipped with to keep our emotional, physical and psychological selves safe from harm — shuts down.
What happens when you can’t trust your gut? What happens when your feelings are no longer reliable? What happens when you continually question your interpretations, memories, and value?
What do those things do to your psyche?
Gaslighting does what any systematic abuse does to any psyche. It makes you forfeit your own truth. Self-doubt takes over because you no longer rely on your reality. You lose touch with who you once were or thought you were — because everything is hazy now. You desperately want the someone closest to you to validate your feelings, beliefs, and experiences. But the validation never comes.
Any of these sound familiar?
“I was only joking with you. I don’t know why you get so upset.”
“You’re the only one who thinks I’m mean. People love me.”
“I don’t know why you think Doug is your friend. That’s not what he tells other people.”
“You only got that promotion at work because your boss felt sorry for you. Everyone knows that.”
“Why don’t you lighten up a little bit? Even the kids don’t want to be around you.”
“I never said anything remotely like that. Maybe you need your hearing checked.”
“I know you think you’re a good person, but you’re not.”
These are the kinds of comments you’re hearing — and worse — if you’re a victim of gaslighting. Because a gaslighting partner not only wants you to doubt yourself, he wants to destroy your truth, your core. So that the only reality you’re left with is his/hers.
This is why gaslighting is really a thing. And it’s a thing that can and will determine how you experience yourself and your life for as long as you choose to stay in a relationship with someone who’d rather control you than love you, who’d rather distort your feelings than honor them, who’d rather tear you down than lift you up.
Does any of that treatment fit into any dream of any relationship you ever thought you’d be in? Guessing not. Good news is you don’t have to buy into anymore of this upside-down reality. Get the help you need to find your way back to you. Because the world needs you. Because your feelings, opinions, experiences and reactions matter. Because your heart matters. Because you do.