Your partner is upset with you for something you did. If you’re honest about it, it wasn’t your best moment. It was a bit selfish on your part, or maybe it was hurtful to them. But admitting it or apologizing for your actions feels like it is going to open up a whole can of worms.
“Next thing I know, everything is going to be my fault,” you think. “And then there is the conflict that is likely to follow. Please no. I’ll do anything to avoid one of those ugly conflicts we have. I hate having someone mad at me.”
Rather than getting defensive, you go on offense. Deny that it happened. Insist that you didn’t say or do what your partner is complaining about, even though you know they’re at least partially right. Tell them they’re crazy—that they are making it all up. Get your significant other to question him or herself, to become unsure of their thoughts, and the heat will come off of you.
The scenario described above is called gaslighting. The term comes from a 1930’s stage play, Gas Light, and then later two movies made in the 1940’s, both titled Gaslight. In it, a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the gas lights in their home, and then denying that the light changed.
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that makes the recipient question their feelings, instincts, and even their sanity. It is one of the worst forms of dirty fighting, and it is used by both men and women. Gaslighting includes a variety of techniques, such as:
- Pretending not to understand when you do.
- Labeling your partner’s thoughts as crazy or imagined.
- Questioning the other person’s memory of events when they remember correctly.
- Pretending to forget what actually occurred when you actually remember.
- Denying promises that you know you made.
- Trivializing the other person’s feelings as being too sensitive when their reaction is somewhat normal.
Check out this page if you’d like more examples or a deeper understanding of what is gaslighting.
Effects of Gaslighting
While these actions may seem relatively harmless, over time, this pattern causes the targeted person to feel confused, anxious, isolated, and depressed. In other words, it hurts them. Harming another’s sense of wellbeing, like happens with gaslighting, is emotional abuse.
Less obvious but equally important is that it hurts the person doing the gaslighting. Having a partner who is stressed, down, or withdrawing from the relationship is not fun and not what most of us want. This pattern of interaction prevents us from enjoying a close, healthy relationship.
Most of my posts describe my own violent or abusive behavior and what I learned to overcome it. I share my experiences so I can help others. Gaslighting, however, is not something I’ve done. Rather, I’ve been on the receiving end of it. Still, I hope my perspective helps.
My (now ex-) wife accused me doing and saying things that I didn’t do or say. When I disagreed, she ratcheted up the pressure by claiming I had poor self-awareness. She insisted that other people saw it the same way as she did, although she would never name those individuals “for their protection.” My alleged behavior was worse each time she told the story.
At first, I wondered if she was right. Maybe I really didn’t remember correctly or see myself objectively. I must be loosing it!
Over time, however, I realized her narrative was a series of lies she was using to keep the blame off of her and onto me. Rather than controlling me, it just made me distrust her. Without trust, there is no relationship.
Roots in the Past
Dysfunctional behavior like gaslighting often has its roots in our past. Some gaslighters learned it from their parents or other role models. If a parent was an addict, for example, that parent may have used gaslighting to manipulate the child into keeping their addiction a family secret.
My ex grew up in an extremely strict household, where breaking the rules was met with harsh punishment. It’s understandable why she might have developed blame-deflecting techniques like gaslighting as a way of protecting herself as a child. That does not make it acceptable as an adult, however. It is still harmful to her partner, her relationships, and to her; and it is still her responsibility to fix it.
Keys to Stopping
If you read the list of gaslighting techniques above and know that you use some of them, I’m not here to shame you. My objective is to help you make your life better. That happens by understanding our deeper motivations for using bad behavior, then discovering better ways of responding to those power thoughts and emotions.
Gaslighting, like other harmful actions, happens when we try to control what’s happening to us by controlling others. No one likes to “be in trouble” with our partner, engage in conflict, or even face our own poor conduct. To dodge these uncomfortable feelings, we try to take the heat off of ourselves by putting it on our mate.
Usually we avoid these emotions because they are more painful that they need to be. We see criticism, disappointing others, and conflict as awful—almost life-threatening situations. As a result, we over-react with a no-holds-barred approach to deflecting the focus onto others.
Even healthy couples have conflicts and all of us receive occasional negative feedback. Facing disapproval from our partner or even our own “I could have done better” self talk doesn’t have to be a big deal. Most people navigate relationships without resorting to this destructive pattern and you can, too.
Rather than viewing criticism or conflict as horrible, we can reframe it as feedback and an opportunity to grow. I know from my own experience that thinking differently about these situations is easier said than done. Overcoming this deeply seated issue is challenging and getting help from a counselor is a wise move.
Avoiding Gaslighting Doesn’t Mean Agreement
So there is no confusion, it is worth talking about what isn’t gaslighting. We are not expected to agree with everything our partner says. It is normal that two people will honestly remember an incident differently.
Not understanding is also not gaslighting. It is pretending that you don’t understand when you do that crosses the line. It’s nearly impossible to prove what is an honest mistake vs. intentional manipulation in a courtroom, but you and your partner will intuitively know.
Go ahead and say you disagree if you honestly do and as long as you do so gently. Since it is really difficult to prove whose perspective is correct, stay humble and realize your memory or interpretation could be wrong. Look for your partner’s feelings beneath their words (hurt, fear) and try to address those with compassion, even if you disagree on the details.
At its core, gaslighting is dishonesty. It seems that our human nature is to lie, misrepresent ourselves, or downplay uncomfortable truths. We justify it as our effort to protect ourselves or avoid conflict, but dishonesty hurts our relationships and our reputation.
God knows deceit is bad for us and he wants us to have a better life. That’s why he calls us to follow him and be truthful always. Not because he wants us to be good, but because he wants us to be blessed by living a life of integrity. By getting to know God and putting him in charge of our life, we can tap into his power even when being honest is hard.