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 a defining quality of my longest on-and-off relationship. So it's high time I learn how to deal with gaslighting so it doesn't happen again.
- Tammy Nelson, PhD, licensed sex and relationship therapist and director of the Integrative Sex Therapy Institute
For a quick refresher, gaslighting is essentially the language and behavior a person uses to usurp your sense of what's actually going on. It can happen at work, with loved ones, and you can even gaslight yourself if you're not careful. No matter who's doing the gaslighting, though, it's never okay.
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," she says. "When they lie to you when they’ve been confronted and try to deny your reality in the face of proof, it's denial. 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, even though "gaslighting" seems like another super-fun buzzword—along with "situationship," "orbiting" and "turbo relationships"—that aptly lends itself to the world of modern dating, the terminology actually goes as far back as the 1938 play Gaslight, notably adapted into a 1944 film starring 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.
When someone gaslights you, it's hard to see the light flickering, because you're being continuously destabilized and undermined. Because of this, it's important to access the situation with a reality check. Below, learn how to assess whether you're being gaslighted in the first place, and then, how to deal with gaslighting so it doesn't compromise your mental health.
Do you need to learn how to deal with gaslighting? Ask yourself these 5 questions:
1. Do you know for sure that your partner is lying?
Knowing how to deal with gaslighting is tricky when subjective phrases, like "you're being unreasonable," are the ones thrown around. Because while in some cases, it may actually be true that you're being unreasonable, in others, such a phrase is a hop and a skip away from "you're being crazy" (which is 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 the gaslighting perpetrator about how you feel?
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 discounting phrases like "I don't know what you're talking about," then yep, gaslighting may be at play, and it's time for you to learn how to deal with it.
4. Have there been multiple instances of gaslighting 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 not happening, that's a pattern, and it's problematic.
5. Can you imagine this kind of behavior being constant in your life?
And, be honest: Does it look happy and healthy to you?
How to deal with gaslighting once you know it's happening.
Once you've recognized that gaslighting is present in your relationship, it's time to assess whether or not the relationship is worth saving. And if you answered yes to any or all of Dr. Nelson's above questions for assessing whether gaslighting is present in your life, your mental health is at risk. If that's the case, she suggests strongly considering ending the relationship and to see a therapist if you need help to extricate yourself safely.
"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 [your partner] won’t go to therapy with you and is 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. 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.
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.
Originally published June 7, 2019; updated October 5, 2020.
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