Gaslighting In Relationships: Bonds of Power Imbalance?

When one person is more powerful than the other in a close relationship, most probably there is gaslighting is taking place. Click To Tweet

Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic that sows seeds of doubt in the victim of a relationship, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. How can you safeguard yourself from it?

In a relationship, a gaslighter takes away your control and agency to the point where you hesitate to make a decision without their approval.

What Does Gaslighting In A Relationship Look Like

Gaslighting appears as mental manipulation in an intimate relationship by the abusive partner, through lying or deceit. The gaslighters are commonly looked upon as “mind-control monsters” who lie to their victims, discredit their reality and reasoning, and convince them they are descending into insanity.

The American Psychological Association (APA) views gaslighting as a term “once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify the commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally.”

The term now means “to make someone question their reality.” Despite the fact that gaslighting is an exploding topic, the APA still considers the term a colloquialism.

It’s gut-wrenching to hear someone say how they suffered from being in a relationship with a gaslighter. The following may break your heart:

Every good thing I did was dismissed, put down, ignored or twisted. Every perceivable flaw was magnified and kept fresh in everyone’s mind. This constant degradation was so intense that my son still thinks it’s normal to send me to my room if I bother him. He’s 13, I’m 47.

After years of gaslighting combined with down comparing (downward comparison), belittling, blame shifting, projecting, withholding of affection, constant invalidation, emotional neglect and abuse, and opportunistic attacks at any sign of vulnerability, I began to have panic attacks, which she quickly learned to trigger at will and then totally deny that she had done it. All this served to eventually cause me to lose almost all trust in my instincts and judgment. I hid in my bedroom …

Kress Haynes on Quora
gaslighting in relationships
Gaslighters fabricate situations to justify their past misbehavior and persuade you that it was the reason they acted the way they did. Click To Tweet

Gaslighting In Relationships: Is It Caused By A Power Gap

Gaslighting is currently thought to be a type of emotional abuse borne out of a power imbalance. It occurs as the more powerful person in a relationship victimizes their vulnerable partner to doubt their reality, and offers them a fabricated reality.

There are not many peer-reviewed studies on gaslighting, since many researchers consider such experiments would be unethical. So, the truth is, we still do not fully understand why gaslighting happens. Much of what we know about it comes from anecdotal reports.

A modern, emerging notion is that gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse rooted in social inequities, particularly gender, racism, and nationalism, and carried out in power-laden relationships, whether personal, leadership, or corporate.

In many cases, the gaslighter in a relationship wields financial influence over the non-working or lower-paid partner.

Does A Gaslighting Person Project From A Power Position

According to a 1981 review in The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, gaslighting may be a mechanism for people to project their conflicts or emotions onto others.

To project is to attribute one’s own undesired traits or unwanted emotions to others. So, an anxiety-ridden person may tell their partner, “You’re always anxious.”

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Similarly, a gaslighter may retort, “You’re always feeding me lies.” This could explain why cheaters often accuse their spouses of cheating: to make their actions appear less awful by assuming that their partner felt or behaved similarly.

When confronted, the gaslighter denies doing anything wrong. Psychologists have reported cases of spouses cheating on their partners and then denying it, even in the face of solid evidence (Gaslighting: A Marital Syndrome, 1988).

Impact of Gaslighting
Impact of Gaslighting (Graphic by @themindgeek)

Is Gaslighting Mostly About Victimizing The Feminine

Gaslighters make use of gender stereotypes, as well as racial, regional, and institutional imbalances, against victims to manipulate their realities. In power-laden intimate relationships, the gaslighter hinges on the association of femininity with irrationality.

A 1994 study published in the journal Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy suggests that a gaslighter is actually trying to control their own emotions by controlling their interactions with others. When a gaslighter damages their victim’s ability to fully make sense of what’s going on, they can seize control of the relationship and resist any uncomfortable challenges to their worldview.

Elena Ruiz, in Oct 2020, introduced the term cultural gaslighting to describe the social and historical infrastructure support mechanisms that disproportionately promote abusive mental environments in settler-colonial cultures in order to further the aims of cultural genocide and dispossession.”

A Black woman worker is more likely to be gaslighted at the workplace.

Twitter Poll by Avery Francis on Black Women Gaslighting
Twitter Poll by Avery Francis on Black Women Gaslighting

How Do You Know If Your Partner Is Gaslighting You

The gaslighter in a relationship is usually easy to spot: the more dominating partner lies frequently to convince the vulnerable one to give in to even the smallest of their demands.

The gaslighter works to convince the victim that what they are feeling is not real, by using tactics such as playing the blame game, intimidation, and psychological isolation.

They make their victim question their own memories, perceptions, and quotes. When it goes on for long, the victim may start to question their own sanity.

A seemingly “normal” way a gaslighter behaves is by questioning the other person’s memories or hammering their point of view until the other person yields.

Using their manipulative powers, the gaslighters will try to convince you that you’re not perceiving things correctly. And they are the only ones who know what is right and true. So, you must believe their version of the “truth.”

Moreover, the gaslighters usually do not accept the truth and, instead, claim their victim is imagining things. When challenged, even with evidence, they are known to shamelessly respond with, “It is all in your head.”

When gaslighting continues for a long time, the victim starts to believe in this new “fake reality” because they feel they have lost their mental sanity and are now too “crazy” to trust their own version of things. At precisely this point, the gaslighter wins.

What Does A Gaslighter Say? (Graphic by @themindgeek)

Many cases of gaslighting begin as occasional microaggressions.

Problems arise when the occasional gaslighting behavior establishes itself into a regular pattern. Then it runs the risk of assuming an abuser-victim equation (Victim–Perpetrator Dynamics), which is psychologically damaging.

Prolonged gaslighting can break a victim’s self-esteem, erode their confidence, distort their self-image and viewpoint, and even lead to the appearance of anxiety and depression.

Video by HIP.

Some other effects of gaslighting are PTSD, suicidal ideation, high blood pressure, overthinking, paranoia, debilitating frustration, learned helplessness, symptoms of dependence disorder, and phobias.

Some victims may experience a “nervous breakdown” as a result of their partner’s gaslighting behavior, and in the worst cases, may inflict self-harm.

A gaslighter’s hallmark strategy is projection. The gaslighter projects, or attributes, their traits and actions to their behavior. As the victims struggle to protect themselves, this diverts their attention away from the gaslighting action of their abuser.

People who are intolerant to criticism and disagreement are more likely to engage in gaslighting.

Sometimes, however, we ourselves might have gaslighted others many times but did not realize it. On the flip side, people do not always realize they are being gaslighted.

Find out more on this interesting phenomenon: Unconscious Gaslighting.

How To Outsmart & Stop A Gaslighter

Some helpful ways to outsmart gaslighting, advised by clinical psychologists, are finding someone to authenticate the reality, keeping a record of your actions that are often held to blame, and walking away from the conversation with your perception intact.

Show courage in speaking out at the earliest sign of discomfort of being shown a different reality. Remember, many instances of gaslighting start out as microaggressions.

Setting healthy boundaries and being selective in trusting persons early on in relationships helps protect one from being gaslighted. Keeping self-esteem high and healthy can shield against succumbing to gaslighting behavior.

At work, keep a paper trail or a string of emails of crucial conversations, so that you can clearly identify if your boss or colleagues are gaslighting you.

Finally, if you find out the person is actually an extreme narcissist or a pathological abuser, a safe option is to break up the relationship or refer to a psychological counselor.

How To Respond To A Gaslighter
Graphic by themindgeek

How Did Gaslight Get Its Name?

The terms “gaslight,” “gaslighter,” and “gaslighting” originate from the 1944 film Gaslight, directed by George Cukor, set in Victorian London. For her portrayal of the nervous victim wife, Ingrid Bergman won the Academy Award for best actress in a leading role. Though “gaslighting” is well-known, it is still a pop-psychology term, since the American Psychological Association does not recognize it.

Early in the film, the male character Gregory Anton asks his on-screen wife Paula to look at the wall behind her.

Paula looks back and gasps. “The picture is gone again!”

“Yes. Where have you hidden it this time?” asks Gregory.

“I didn’t take it. Why should I take it? It’s of no use to me.” Paula cries.

However, she soon runs into the framed picture, half-hidden behind the staircase cabinet. Gregory climbs up to her and says,

“So, you did know where it was.”

Gregory wants to prove that she lies about things because she’s losing her ability to remember them. He later uses his signature ploy: secretly dimming and brightening the gaslight. When Paula complains about the flickering of lights, he claims she is hallucinating it.

Gregory wants to confuse and distort Paula’s perception of reality to the point where she’d give up her own and accept his version. His ultimate goal, as he steadily erodes Paula’s sense of self and daily life, is to drive her insane enough to be confined in a mental institution.

Gaslighting In Public: Post-Truth & Whistleblower Retaliation

Other than in intimate relationships, gaslighting can be witnessed in politics and business, particularly when a powerful leader is xenophobic (hostile to people from other countries) and narcissistic (excessively in love with their self-image).

Gaslighting in public domains refers to creating false, alternate narratives that are not founded on facts, labeling others as irrational or insane to undermine the victim’s narrative, and covering up lies to make them sound plausible.

American journalists widely used “gaslighting” to report Donald Trump’s many actions throughout his campaign and presidency.

Post-truth politics refers to a political environment in which facts are treated as irrelevant or unimportant as against beliefs and opinions when it comes to swaying public opinion.

In a business institution setting, a gaslighting boss may assign responsibilities that they later deny giving. They may try to isolate a vulnerable worker at the office, and then claim that the victim came alone, on their own accord, to malign the boss.

Even governments can gaslight. Gaslighting is a common tactic used against anti-establishment whistleblowers, most notably Edward Snowden. Kathy Ahern writes, Whistle-blower gaslighting creates a situation where the whistle-blower doubts her perceptions, competence, and mental state.”

Did you know there’s a List of Whistleblowers on Wikipedia?

A gaslighter will eventually break you down and exploit that breakdown to portray you as the mentally sick person who is the source of all your issues. Click To Tweet

Final Words

Gaslighting is only effective when there is an unequal power dynamic, and the gaslighted person has acted submissively before the gaslighter, showing them the demanded respect.

However, gaslighting lies on a spectrum; it’s not like you either have it or you don’t. Any one of us can occasionally gaslight.

It takes two to set up a gaslighting scene. The moment you, the victim, walk away, the gaslighter loses their fang. Walk out of the abusive relationship before they do.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

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