gaslighting in a relationship

In this post, we will discuss gaslighting behavior in a relationship as a two-person interaction that 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.

We'll then discuss how to recognize, stop, manage, or decide to leave a gaslighting romantic relationship. I'll argue that despite not being responsible for the emotional abuse, you are empowered to end it, no matter how hopeless or helpless you think you are.

Test your gaslighter's ability to stop this toxic relationship-destroying grab for power and control. See through the two invisible forms of emotional abuse that are seldom called out: The Glamour and Nice Guy gaslighters.

Everyone can spot the Intimidator with their loud and aggressive style. You can read about that elsewhere. Here you'll learn why you will never successfully gaslight someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and why 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?

While a gaslighter can have any role in your life, from parent to friend or boss, in this post, we are going to discuss it within a romantic relationship. While 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."

I am talking about adults, not children when I describe the gaslighter/gaslightee's relationship. It is an interactive toxic relationship that needs both participants to work; it is the creation of two people. If you've been experiencing gaslighting, it certainly won't feel that way.

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 gaslighting isn't a one-way street. Understanding your role as a gaslightee will give you the power to decide whether to continue to keep the relationship going.

Signs of Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a form of power and control. Gaslighting 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 is a devil's bargain where she struggles to get him to change his perception of her, and 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 and never want to offend, everyone from the "romantic manipulator," the "nice guy," and even the "bully" can offer us enough mixed messages to leave us asking "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, you even idealized him. Perhaps you had the "urge to merge," and, as a smart, successful woman, you wanted to be able to turn over the reins to someone you could trust.

You got love-bombed.

If it was a difficult time in your life, or you had a history of being underrated or badly treated as a child, being charmed and pampered is intoxicating. Add intense sex, and throw in a little unpredictability. Mix with excessive flatter, and before you know it, you need his love and approval to be whole.

We can all recognize the over-the-top form of gaslighting that insults and threatens you. However, those aren't the only kind.

Let's outline two others.

The Nice Guy Gaslighter

It's almost impossible to spot a "Nice Guy Gaslighter" except to ask yourself why you feel so numb or unhappy all of the time. After all, he does housework, is a great Dad, and tells you repeatedly how in love he is with you.

The "Nice Guy Gaslighter" uses subtler methods that work on your worst fears, your identity, or your deepest dreams to be understood, loved, and appreciated. Your core values like honesty, directness, and openness become the very characteristics that he mislabels as "bossy, cutting, or cruel." If you protest his bad behavior like lateness, drug abuse, or obvious disinterest, you become "controlling, uptight, or needy."

Somehow your birthdays never feel "special" although he does give a gift and a dinner. You are left feeling miserable and ungrateful.

This nice guy may identify as a feminist, spiritual leader, or activist, so he advocates fairness and negotiation. He goes out of his way to do nice things because he needs to be seen as nice, not because he cares about you. You feel lonely even though people consider you the "perfect couple."

Even when you "win" an argument, you feel unsatisfied and exhausted. He embodies what Lester Lenoff calls "disrespectful compliance."

He seems to acquiesce, but there is an air of disrespect and disregard about it. Your wishes and concerns never get through, even if he "lets you have your way." He "bestows" it. It feels tainted in a way you can't put your finger on.

He does so much for you, and yet, you can't help but feel it's an IOU for a bill you have to pay with your soul. You are confused because you should feel grateful, but instead, you feel ripped off and disrespected.

Over time, you feel numb, powerless, and joyless. Vacations don't refresh. Plans you have seem flat and lifeless.

"You love him, so ignore your feelings," you tell yourself. You doubt your mental health.

Everyone loves him, (or so you think) so what's wrong with you?

The Glamourous Gaslighter.

You fell in love with your soulmate. You live in a fantastic dream romance. You've never been so in love. He's perfect, at least at that moment he was.

He shows up two hours late and brings your favorite flowers. You try to address how upset you are at his lateness, and he apologizes as an aside and suggests the newest restaurant he's made reservations at.

He kisses you passionately and tells you he adores you. He's a fool for keeping you waiting. You are marvelous. It makes you laugh the way he says it.

Eventually, you don't find his lateness, drug use, or carelessness quite so charming. You protest, and he acts like you're the unreasonable one for being upset. He redirects your attention and tells you to move on. He has great things in store.

He buys you sexy clothes but they don't fit your style. He gives you gifts that feel too over-the-top. He has a menu of sexual acts he'd like to try and is hurt that you aren't willing to please him that way.

Even having sex with him feels like an obligation to perform. He feels entitled to critique your responsiveness. "Not being in the mood" isn't a valid reason for not being sexual.

You've become, in his words, "hard to please." You're withdrawn because sex isn't fun; it's a performance. He wonders whether you should see a sex therapist.


You know something is wrong, but you feel like it was so perfect in the beginning. It was an enchanting world, and he was incredibly charming and flattering.

You cling to anything he says that might provide direction to what you're doing wrong that stops the romance from returning.

You tell yourself: "Nobody is perfect. Why am I so picky?"

Slowly but surely, you lose yourself as you assume his vision of you. He can never please you. You aren't responsive enough to his sexual moves or apologies.

You "kill the mood," and you realize that the only "mood" that counts is the one he wants to create.

Maybe you see a therapist to fix yourself.

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 at this point if you and the gaslighter raise children together, and you are unable to support yourself financially or emotionally.

The gaslighter might threaten an "emotional apocalypse." It's just an avalanche of insults, suicide threats, or terrifying fights so nasty that you will do anything to avoid it but leave the gaslighter. Preserving the relationship at any cost.

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 but to be a gaslightee as a child, but now you do.

Stop Gaslighting

You can not stop gaslighting unless you are truly willing to leave. Not saying you are going to leave. Not threatening to, if you don't mean it. Actually, be willing to leave.

You may not have to. 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. Especially if he is willing to admit that he has a problem, you should see a good couples therapist and work on it.

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 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. Here are a few signals that she mentions:

  • Frequently feeling 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 and 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, to 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. "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, to no longer be 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 because it is his world, and you get to live in it.

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

Ready for a change in your relationship?

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

Dr. K

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}