Many people come to therapy second-guessing their view of reality after getting in a fight with their partner. They may say things like:
“Am I being overly dramatic?”
“Did he/she really say those things or am I re-writing history?”
“I’ve always tried to keep an open mind. Have I been wrong about myself this whole time?”
If you find yourself asking these questions, you may be the victim of gaslighting. Gaslighting is a manipulative tactic used by people to gain control in relationships. By causing someone to question their sense of judgment and reality, gaslighting undermines victims’ sense of agency and righteousness.
In this article, I’ll talk about three strategies you can employ to protect yourself against this noxious relationship tactic.
#1. Identify the warning signs early
Research published in The Journal of Sexual Aggression suggests that gaslighters share some common personality traits such as being emotionally unavailable, withdrawn, irresponsible, impulsive, distractable, and lacking in common sense and self-awareness.
Often, their tactics revolve around:
Invalidating your feelings (“You are so insensitive.” “You are overreacting.”)
Devaluing your worth (“You are stupid.” “You cannot possibly understand…”)
Denying the truth (“Are you sure this has happened? You don’t remember things clearly anyway.”)
Blaming you for their actions (“Don’t get upset over nonsensical things and I won’t get angry at you.”)
Since gaslighters lack self-awareness and empathy, they may not even realize they are being manipulative. Usually, difficult childhood circumstances and troubled past relationships play a role in shaping their behavior in the present.
However, it is important to know that there is no justification for abusive behavior, which leads to the next point:
#2. Speak up and be assertive
Once you identify the abusive behaviors, communicate directly with your partner about how their behavior affects you. If you don’t, you may end up reinforcing their negative behavior.
Here are a few ways you can effectively communicate your feelings to a gaslighter:
When a partner tries to convince you of a lie, you may say, “Alright, we have different memories of what happened; let’s not debate about it.”
When a partner tells you how you should or should not feel, you may say, “I understand how to feel but my feelings are my feelings. They cannot be wrong. Let’s please respect the way we feel.”
When your partner tried to pull you into a circular conversation, you may say, “I don’t know where this conversation is headed. Let’s take this up later when we both have a clearer mind.”
Since gaslighters often don’t know the extent of their malicious behaviors, communication may make them aware of their actions. Bringing in an unbiased third-party (e.g., a mental health professional) can also help you make your case. If the person truly values the relationship, they will do their best to make changes to steer the relationship in a positive direction.
However, when gaslighting becomes a regular occurrence and you cannot convince your partner right from wrong, you might consider:
#3. Setting firm boundaries and possibly letting go
While mild gaslighting can be a thorn in the side of your relationship, repeated and aggressive gaslighting could jeopardize your safety.
Often, abusive partners will not give up the power they feel they have. You can start by taking the following steps:
Set limits around the usage of certain words and behaviors
Try to make them aware of the patterns of their toxic behavior
Direct them towards counseling and therapy
If your partner is unwilling to change despite your persistent efforts, re-evaluate your relationship’s worth and consider letting go. This is sometimes the only way to make space for healing and self-growth.
Manipulation is never okay. One of the best ways to sieve out manipulative behaviors is by routinely reflecting on the state of your relationship and by talking to a mental health expert who can offer an unbiased perspective on the situation.