how to stop gaslighting in a relationship

How to Stop Being a Victim of Gaslighting in Marriage

In this post, we will talk about gaslighting in a relationship as a two-person interaction. It requires the participation of both of you in order to continue. We'll offer you a gaslighting quiz designed by Robin Stern in her now classic book: The Gaslight Effect.

You'll learn how to recognize and stop gaslighting in a relationship, as well as how to decide if and when it’s time to leave a gaslighting romantic relationship. I'll argue that despite not being responsible for the emotional abuse, you are empowered to end it. This is true, no matter how hopeless or helpless you think you are.

We won't address physical violence. However, gaslighting can be considered domestic violence, albeit in psychologically abusive relationships.

To "gas light" is a verb. It's an action. Test your gaslighter's ability to stop this toxic relationship-destroying grab for power and control. Gaslighting behavior can and should stop, or the relationship should.

Learn the red flags and how to deal with gaslighting.

Here you'll learn why you will never successfully gaslight someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. In fact, you might need to borrow some of their traits.

This post is not for anyone being physically abused. No one has the right to harm you or your children physically. Take threats of physical harm seriously and seek counsel. If this is happening, seek immediate assistance.

Who Gaslights?

A gaslighter can have any role in your life, from parent to friend or boss. In this post, we'll discuss it within a romantic relationship. Any gender can be a gaslighter. For ease of reading, I'm going to refer to the gaslighter as "he" and the gaslightee as "she."

The gaslighter/gaslightee's relationship is an interactive toxic relationship. It needs both participants to work; it is the creation of two people. If you've been experiencing gaslighting, it certainly won't feel like you have a voice, but you do.

You feel confused and victimized. After all, you are doubting your own perceptions, which is confusing, upsetting, and even dizzying.

I'm going to suggest, however, that understanding your role as a gaslightee will give you the power to make smart decisions. One big one is: "Should I continue to keep the relationship going?"

Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship

Gaslighting is a form of power and control. It works when he is successful in getting the victim to question her own reality. She no longer trusts herself and begins to trust only her romantic partner.

It plays out like this: She struggles to get him to change his perception of her. He refuses to budge. Then, because she wants the relationship, she may spend hours in self-reflection, asking herself if her gaslighter might be right.

Maybe she idolizes him. Maybe he so successfully love-bombed her when the relationship first began that she is trying to win his approval.

The gaslighter has a very fragile sense of self. He needs to be right in his estimations and judgments, to keep a sense of power in the world.

Gaslighting takes two

The term gaslighting is Merriam Webster's "word of the year," which increased by 1,740 percent in 2022 over the year before. Why such an interest?

Perhaps because we live in a world where the truth is elusive. If we're the sort of psychologically-minded gentle souls who think well of others. We never want to offend. When we get mixed messages, we ask ourselves, "Is it me?" "Am I really acting that way?'

If you're like me, you believed you found the "love of your life" and fell head over heels. Maybe you wanted his approval and to look up to him; maybe you even idealized him. Perhaps you had the "urge to merge." As a smart, successful woman, you wanted to be able to turn over the reins to someone you could trust.

You got love-bombed.

Maybe it was a difficult time in your life. Maybe you had a history of being underrated or badly treated as a child. He was charming and pampering, and it was intoxicating.

Add intense sex, and throw in a little unpredictability. Mix with excessive flattery, and before you know it, you need his love and approval to be whole. Or at least it feels that way.

Are You Vulnerable to Gaslighting?

If there is even a tiny bit of you that doubts your self-worth, a small part of you would not feel whole unless you are loved by someone else, you are susceptible.

The gaslighter lives on your vulnerability and makes you doubt yourself over and over again.

I am not implying it is easy to trust yourself, your gut, and your own view of the world. It is not, especially if you grew up with a gaslighter, and this dance feels normal.

Perhaps there is a cost for you to set fresh limits. Maybe you and the gaslighter raise children together. Perhaps you are unable to support yourself financially or emotionally and feel dependent..

The gaslighter can even threaten an "emotional apocalypse" if you want to change the dynamics. It's an avalanche of insults, suicide threats, or terrifying fights so nasty that you will do anything to avoid. Anything, but leave the gaslighter. Preserving the relationship at any cost seems to be the price of admission.

Keys to your own prison

There is good news for gaslightees. Once you get the courage and clarity to refuse to buy into the gaslighter's crazy-making distortions, you are halfway there. When you trust yourself enough to hold fast to your own perception of reality, you can evaluate your relationship more objectively.

You may have had no choice if you were a child gaslightee, but now you do.

How to stop gaslighting

You can not stop gaslighting unless you are truly willing to leave. It isn't enough to threaten to leave. You have to be actually, be willing to leave.

You may not have to. The gaslighter may change once he realizes you are serious. You will soon learn if you do.

But you have to be willing to go. That's a non-negotiable.

You can't know ahead of time whether your gaslighter will ever change. Maybe he will change when you refuse the dance of gaslighting. If he is willing to admit that he has a problem, you should see a good couples therapist and work on the gaslighting dynamic.

Your own awareness and behavior change may be enough to stop it, but it may not. First, get support.

Check with Your Flight Attendants

Dr. Sterns calls these people in your life Fight Attendants because if it is turbulent in the air, you look at the face of the Flight Attendant to see if you should be worried. If they are whispering among themselves, start to worry. They may be your best friend, your sister, or one of your parents.

Here are a few signals that she mentions that suggest you are being gaslit:

  • Frequently feelings of being bewildered or confused
  • Efforts to convince yourself or your friends of how good your relationship with him is
  • Trusted friends or family frequently express concern
  • Physical indicators: sinking stomach, tight chest, sore throat, intestinal difficulties
  • Someone is using truth as a weapon.

Is He Doing This For You or For Him?

This can be a tough one, but you can get a clue when you push back. If you don't feel like his good deeds, gifts, or sex acts are for you, ask him to stop them. Then see what happens.

  • Does he seem wounded and upset?
  • Does he engage you in a genuine conversation to learn more about your likes and dislikes?
  • Is he talking to you or AT you?

Clarify the problem by making these two lists:

  • What he does to gaslight me:
  • What I do as a gaslightee:

Turn off the Gas

1.     Sort out the truth from lies. This can be tricky, but actually list the messages that you are getting, directly or indirectly from him.

See how much you've accepted about yourself or the situation that isn't true. Don't doubt yourself. Dig deep down and be honest about what you find.

2.     If the conversation is a power struggle, opt-out. Try this:

"From my point of view, you're distorting reality, and I really don't like it. I'll talk to you later when I'm feeling calmer." or

"I hear you, and I'm going to think about that. But I don't want to keep talking about it right now."

3.     Focus on Feelings Instead of "Right" and "Wrong." If you feel genuine remorse, apologize and make up for it. But if you are attacked and feel bewildered, devastated, or terrified, stop the presses!

Try: "I don't want to be talked to that way."

4.     Pick an exit strategy. Expect your "time outs" to be honored. If your gaslighter refuses to end the argument, then you will have to end the conversation. Hang up, walk away, and change the subject.

5.     Accept that everyone has a right to their opinion. Accept that it's his opinion, and you don't have to believe or accept it.

But you also don't have to accept verbal abuse. He can believe it and not say it. Or he can describe the behavior change he wants in concrete terms instead of all-out character attacks. Often we get stuck in gaslighting when we become outraged that he thinks bad things about us.

6.     Borrow the confidence of an overt narcissist. Accept that you have a right to feel good about yourself and to create a world where you have dignity and respect. Accept your limitations and recognize that they make you who you are.

Look for people to make you feel good about yourself. You can't gaslight a narcissist because their confidence in themselves, their views, and their decisions are unshakable. Borrow some of that.

While he may change, we don't have to make it our mission to change his heart and mind. Try:

"Everyone is entitled to his opinion. I don't agree with you, and I don't expect you to insult or belittle me. But if that is what you believe, keep it to yourself."

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

You might want to give yourself a specific length of time, say three months. During this time, see if you can avoid being sucked into his web.

Don't engage in endless abusive conversations. Leave the room if he refuses to change his abusive talk. Stop feeling bad, and don't attend his pity parties. Call out, but don't fight about, his broken promises.

Use the section about turning off the gas and see if his behavior begins to change. If not, your next decision is whether you can tolerate living in his world. For many gaslighters, it is his world, and you get to live in it.

See if you can live with it with dignity and still feel good about yourself.

We can all recognize the over-the-top form of gaslighting that insults and threatens you. Everyone can spot the Intimidator with their loud and aggressive style. However, those aren't the only kind.

You can read about that elsewhere. Now read about the two invisible forms of emotional abuse that are seldom called out: The Glamour and Nice Guy gaslighters.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon


Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. He gets angry with me trying to talk him about our relationship. I don't feel safe in relationship with no trust. Gaslighting has hurt me and makes doubt myself. Want a change.

    1. John Gottman, the researcher who has studied couples for more than 40 years, wrote a 350 page book on Trust. That’s how important trust is to a relationship. And gaslighting makes us ask “Should I believe myself and what he does, or what he says?” Thanks for your comment. -Dr. K

  2. I don't understand why this is written in a way the woman is the victim. I am a husband who has experienced these things as well. Just saying the Stigma is real.

    1. Women gaslight, Jeffrey. Absolutely they do. It is a stylistic choice, because the term was originally coined from a movie by the same name in which the husband was the gaslighter. But it is not gender-bound behavior. You are correct. -Dr. K

  3. I REALLY needed to read that the way you wrote it!
    I’m a lot more interested in the exit strategy though at he momsnt

  4. This article on gaslighting is a valuable contribution to society, shedding light on a topic that is often overlooked. It's important to raise awareness about the damaging effects of gaslighting, especially for those who may be experiencing it in a narcissistic relationship. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue and providing helpful insights for readers.

  5. I didn’t even know this term until a friend of mine told me about it. I was reading about emotional and verbal abuse but found this term and decided to learn more. Well I never realized that I was being gaslighted until now. I noticed one day that I was always saying sorry to people for no reason. There was a time when my boss asked me for my lunch order and I was afraid to order anything remotely complicated because I was afraid that I would get yelled at as I do with my spouse. My spouse gets upset for the smallest of things and is enraged anytime I tell him he has hurt me. Today I said that I was hurt by his actions and then it all began. The name calling, the abusive language, explaining why I I am crazy, why I am a horrible wife and mother, how I don’t care enough etc. Etc. All because I had feelings and expresses them. Take note of the behaviors before you are sucked in and it’s way too late.

  6. Been a gaslightee for years. He has progressively become worse and had me thinking at one point that I was mentally ill. Thankfully, not for long. Now, its “oh poor me”, literally daily. He acts like a victim to his family but if they truly knew what he does to me–they’d be ashamed. I didn’t even know the term gaslighting until he accused me of doing it to him. Funny. He is every, single one of these. He’s also a narcissist. His family would think the opposite as he puts himself down incessantly to them. To me, hes always right, predicts the future and changes events and things said. He blames me for all wrong in his life. Its insane. Not sure how much more I can tolerate before I head for the door.

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