You've probably heard the term floating around — but what is gaslighting, really? In short, it's a kind of undercover relationship manipulation that turns into a total mindfuck. If your partner is making you feel crazy — and accusing you of being too sensitive to make the "crazy" label stick — the problem might not be all in your head.
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the one doing it tries to get power over his or her victim by making them think they are crazy, out of sorts and "off." The gaslighter lies to, manipulates and questions the other person for control. And though it can happen with your boss, a parent or friends, it's perhaps most common in romantic relationships. In guy-girl couples, it's often the man in the abuser role and the woman as the victim, but it can work the other way around too.
"The more powerful gaslighter attempts to define the reality of a less powerful gaslightee — and the person in the one-down position allows that to happen," Dr. Robin Stern, a licensed psychotherapist and the author of The Gaslight Effect, says in her Psychology Today blog.
Red flags that your man is gaslighting you and how to handle it:
1. You're often left feeling confused and crazy
If your guy frequently tells you you're crazy and twists things around so that it seems like you're being irrational or unreasonable, that's a telltale red flag he's gaslighting you. And if you feel confused a lot and actually believe you're losing it, that's an ominous sign, too.
2. You keep doubting yourself
Gaslighting victims start believing their abuser's perception of reality instead of their own.
"The gaslightee begins to second-guess herself because she has allowed another person to define her reality and erode her judgment," Stern says. So if your guy is constantly raising his eyebrows at you and spins things in such a way that you seriously doubt your own version of events, take a long, hard look at what's going on.
3. You wonder if you're too sensitive or emotional
A favorite tactic of the gaslighter is to accuse his significant other of acting overly emotional and sensitive. The victim ultimately winds up believing it's true since she's heard it so many times. If your guy keeps telling you those things and you start thinking he's right, it could be a case of gaslighting.
4. You've become completely insecure
This is a classic sign in every relationship marred by gaslighting. Both partners are deeply insecure, but the victim's lack of confidence goes beyond her abuser's lack of confidence. She literally loses herself and her identity and adopts the one her significant other is trying to feed her.
"If you are insecure and don't have a strong sense of self, you will give the power to the other person as a way of being attached," says couples therapist Dr. Jeanette Raymond, author of Now You Want Me, Now You Don't!. "But you're giving away your mind!"
"[An insecure gaslighter] attempts to feel secure by controlling his partner's perception of herself," Dr. Raymond adds.
5. You find yourself saying you're sorry all the time
Do you walk on eggshells around your guy and wind up apologizing to him constantly because he makes you feel like you're always in the wrong? That could be another red flag that he's gaslighting you.
Originally published March 2015. Updated December 2016.
6. Your arguments with him go in circles
If your fights make your head spin because of the outlandish things he says you did or his way of distorting reality — and you honestly believe him when he says it's all your fault — watch out. It could be a sign that you're a gaslighting victim in your relationship.
7. You make excuses for him to friends and family
If you find yourself explaining away your man's crazy, erratic behavior on a regular basis to those closest to you and making all sorts of excuses for him, it might be a sign that there's a much deeper problem at play.
8. You start lying to avoid the accusations and twisted talks
After a while, you get so tired of your version of events being mixed up and your reality being warped by your man that you begin lying to him to avoid the confrontations.
9. You feel hopeless and depressed in the relationship
How did it happen? You were head over heels for this guy. And now, you're consumed by sadness and emptiness. Of course, if you're down but aren't seeing several other signs on the list, it might have nothing to do with your man or your relationship. But if you're depressed and notice other red flags, you're probably being gaslighted.
What to do if you think you're a victim of gaslighting
If you think you're in a relationship clouded by gaslighting, get professional help if you aren't making any progress on your own. Another good strategy: Don't engage with your gaslighting partner when he starts harping and pointing fingers.
"If he accuses you of something you know is ridiculous — being 20 minutes late when it's really only three minutes, for example — not saying anything is sometimes the best response," Stern tells Oprah magazine.
"[People being gaslighted should] opt out of the power struggles, avoid the right-wrong debates, use silence instead of commenting when someone is provoking you, and write down your verbal exchanges," Stern adds.
How can you tell the difference between gaslighting and normal spats where you and your guy aren't seeing eye-to-eye?
"Regular tiffs involve each partner defending their own perceptions of themselves, not giving away power or their minds in order to feel loved," says Raymond. "That's why they can't ever feel close."
You can save your relationship from gaslighting and get to a healthier place — sometimes. But it takes a lot of hard work and intensive therapy.
If the situation doesn't turn around, be prepared to leave him. The good news is, there is hope. This isn't a life sentence. But you have to untangle yourself from the cycle, with or without the man you fell in love with.
If you think that you might be the victim of gaslighting or any other form of emotional or physical abuse, seek professional help or call the National Domestic Violence Help Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.