The trickiest part about knowing how to deal with gaslighting in a relationship is being able to decipher whether you’re actually being gaslighted in the first place. When I first started sifting through my mental archives, I wasn’t even sure I had ever experienced it. Then I remembered the last time my ex randomly texted me the Wikipedia page of “narcissistic personality disorder,” saying he was “trying to help.” There was also the time I “invented” that he told me he broke up with his new girlfriend over the weekend, despite texts confirming such events were literally in my phone. Or like 40 other incidents that resulted in him saying, “you’re being crazy right now” to me. So basically, I realized years later that gaslighting was the defining quality of my longest on-and-off relationship.
Better late than never? Maybe, but I’m assuming you don’t have a decade of your life to waste, so let’s cut to the facts, here. Psychotherapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, a sex and relationship expert, says it’s one thing to be lied to, but “it’s another when your partner denies the truth when they look you in the eye, and you know they are lying to you. You have proof, and they keep denying it.” Essentially, it’s the language and behavior a person uses to usurp your sense of what’s actually going on.
“When they lie to you when they’ve been confronted and try to deny your reality in the face of proof, it’s denial,” says Dr. Nelson. “If they try to convince you that you’re crazy for seeing the reality in what they’re doing, that’s gaslighting. Being gaslighted means they are trying to make you feel like your reality is a lie, even when you know you’re not imagining it.”
“Being gaslighted means they are trying to make you feel like your reality is a lie, even when you know you’re not imagining it.” —psychotherapist Tammy Nelson, PhD
Incidentally, though it seems like another super fun buzzword that aptly lends itself to the world of modern dating, the terminology goes as far back as the 1938 play Gaslight, notably adapted into a 1944 film starring the extraordinary Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In it, Bergman notices gaslights flickering on and off in the house. She starts to think she’s losing her mind, but it’s really her scumbag husband actively trying to drive her insane via psychological manipulation—a form of abuse—a bid for control, and a diabolical way to shake someone’s foundation and sense of self. To wit, it’s so hard to see that light flickering, because you’re being continuously destabilized and undermined in real time, and it can happen at the hands of anyone in your life, not just a romantic partner.
Because of this, it’s important to access the situation with a reality check.
Consider these 5 thoughts if you think you’re being gaslighted:
1. Do you know for sure that your partner is lying?
This is tough to confirm when gaslighting comes in the form of lines like, “You’re being unreasonable.” Because while maybe, in some cases, it’s actually true, in others, it’s a hop and a skip away from “you’re being crazy” (which is basically never okay to say to anyone, ICYMI). In the latter case, even if you can deduce how you came to your reasonable conclusion, you still may start asking yourself if you’re being unreasonable—and then you may start believing it.
While invalidating someone’s emotions is definitely a red flag, knowing someone’s lying about what they’re invalidating is the telltale sign of outright gaslighting.
2. Do you know why they are lying?
If, for example, the perpetrator struggles with a disorder that upends certain holds on reality and social judgments, their untrue statements may not be indicative of gaslighting. However, if you know or suspect you’re being undermined because your partner wants control or is trying to hide that they’re cheating, there’s a good chance you’re being gaslighted.
3. Have you tried to talk to them in a calm, rational fashion?
It’s worth trying to communicate in a level-headed manner, because quickly escalating fights can lead both parties involved to say things they don’t mean. If you’ve attempted this, and your efforts have been fruitless or cushioned with “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” then yep, gaslighting may be at play.
4. Have there been multiple instances of this kind of behavior?
A key way to recognize a problem is to recognize a pattern: If you got jealous because your S.O. ran into their ex at a party, and they tossed out a “you’re being ridiculous” during some resulting bickering, it’s not necessarily threatening behavior. But if you’ve literally seen them texting their ex day after day, and they tell you to your face that it’s happening, that’s a pattern, and it’s problematic.
5. Can you imagine a life with this kind of behavior?
And be honest…does it look like a good one?
Okay, it’s happening—here’s how to deal with gaslighting:
Maybe you still think there’s something worth saving, or maybe this is your a-ha moment of knowing it’s time to leave. But no matter how you approach it, you want to seek help for ways to proceed.
“When you realize your partner is gaslighting you, and they won’t admit they’re lying, it’s time to get some therapy,” Dr. Nelson says. “If they won’t go to therapy with you and are digging in around their denial, get some help from friends.”
“When you realize your partner is gaslighting you, and they won’t admit they’re lying, it’s time to get some therapy. If they won’t go with you and are digging in around their denial, get some help from friends.” —Dr. Nelson
A second opinion can really help you rethink the belief that you’re the unstable one. Shout out to the friend who once told me, “You don’t have narcissistic personality disorder, and the last person who should be armchair diagnosing you with a Wikipedia entry is your high school boyfriend.” Now that you have a clear assessment, action is necessary.
“It may feel awful, but it’s time to take stock,” Dr. Nelson says. “Can you live with this person, knowing that they are trying to drive you crazy?” In my experience, that’s a hard no. There are a lot of ways a relationship could be toxic, unhealthy, or just not a good match. But when you’re being gaslighted, someone is essentially waging war on your psychological well being to gain a sense of control. Your actual mental health—and lord knows what else—is at risk if you answered yes to any or all of Dr. Nelson’s questions above. If that’s the case, Dr. Nelson says to strongly consider ending the relationship and to “see a therapist if you need help to extricate yourself safely.”
You don’t have to be trapped or unsure of yourself like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Rather, be like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca: getting TF out of a dangerous situation to hopefully a more stable future. Sure, it sucks to lose Humphrey Bogart in the mix, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
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