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Rebuild Your Marriage 7 minute read

What You Need to Know About Gaslighting

Last Updated: May 17, 2018

Gaslighting

There I was, in the Food 4 Less parking lot, just sitting in my car. Bawling. I hadn’t known where else to go. I just knew I needed somewhere safe–somewhere my mind and heart could have space. I called my mom and relayed the most recent conversation with my husband. In between sobs, I managed to get out the words: “Mom, I don’t understand how this always seems to happen. I feel like I’m literally going crazy.”

There hadn’t been any shouting or name calling, no slamming of doors or threats. I had desperately needed to have a conversation with my husband about some things that were bothering me in our marriage. I felt lonely. He seemed distant and angry, and I couldn’t understand why.

By the end of the conversation, things were twisted around–as usual. Apparently, I expected too much. Apparently, I was the one with the anger problems, not him. Apparently, he was going to “give in” to me, since he was tired of arguing. I was the one who initiated the conversation hoping for my wounds to be recognized by the one who had hurt me. In the end though, I was the one who apologized.

I couldn’t put words to it, but I knew that something wasn’t right. I had difficulty holding on to facts firmly, remembering who said what when. My ability to know what was “real” (my feelings and perceptions of what was going on in our marriage versus his) was getting more and more stripped away. I was so confused and felt hopeless.

And so there I sat, in that parking lot, telling my mom I felt like I was going crazy.

What is gaslighting?

Finding my healing from the trauma caused by my husband’s secret sexual behaviors was one thing. This was something else. Through the course of my marriage, I had lost so much of myself. It wasn’t until almost three years after the discovery of my husband’s behaviors, when I first began to study gaslighting, that things started to become clear. When I discovered the word gaslighting, I received a way to describe a big reason I was so lonely in my marriage. When I discovered gaslighting, I began the most significant work in my journey of finding myself and my voice again, and maybe, truly, for the first time.

Gaslighting occurs anytime someone attempts, and succeeds, to convince you that your feelings, beliefs, thoughts, or perceptions of reality are invalid, inaccurate, or untrue. (Well, that’s my working definition, anyway.) Most people don’t know that this is what they are doing, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is, indeed, exactly what they are doing.

Gaslighting consists of a number of tactics, but what sets gaslighting apart from the tactic is the result. For example, someone can use manipulation as a tactic to cause you to change the way you feel about him viewing pornography. “You’re being old-fashioned and prudish. All men watch porn. It’s no big deal, so why are you making it such a big deal?” The tactics being used here are manipulation and intimidation. If the desired effect occurs, you begin to doubt yourself, and eventually will relinquish your insistence that he stop viewing pornography. You’ve been convinced that your feelings of him being unfaithful when he views pornography aren’t valid, but instead, old-fashioned and prudish. This is when manipulation results in gaslighting.

In working with my clients at Betrayal Trauma Recovery, it’s right about this time that silence fills the air as the revelation comes. As their mind takes in the definition of gaslighting, and the memories come flooding in of all the times they’ve lived it, they inevitably exclaim, “There’s a word for that? I had no idea there was a word that explained what I’ve been experiencing!” The validation of their experience, and the relief that it wasn’t just them, is palpable.

Am I experiencing gaslighting?

Identifying gaslighting in your relationship can be scary, but it’s crucial if you want to achieve a healthy relationship wherein each person’s feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions are considered, respected, and validated.

Gaslighting is a complex, nuanced thing. Ideally, you’ll have a knowledgeable, trauma-sensitive life coach or therapist and a support system with safe people to help you sort through the confusion gaslighting causes.

The ten signs below, adapted from Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect, indicate that gaslighting may be occurring in your relationship:

  • You constantly second-guess yourself or have trouble making decisions.
  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times a day.
  • You feel confused or “crazy,” even at work.
  • You’re always apologizing to your spouse.
  • You can’t understand why, with apparently so many good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
  • You frequently make excuses for your spouse’s behavior to friends and family.
  • You start to avoid your spouse so as not to experience the put-downs and reality twists.
  • You think twice before bringing up certain seemingly innocent topics of conversation.
  • Before your spouse comes home, you run through a checklist in your head to anticipate anything you may have done “wrong” that day, or to make sure everything is “just right.”
  • You have the sense that you used to be a very different person–more confident, more fun-loving, and more relaxed.

The more signs you can relate to, and the stronger you resonate with them, the likelier it is that someone is gaslighting you.

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Um, I think I’m experiencing gaslighting! What do I do now?

Now, you take a deep breath. You assure yourself that now that you have a word for what has been going on in your relationship, you can start to address it. You commit to give this topic your time and attention. You get support and help. You promise yourself that you will work to understand gaslighting, sort through the confusion, and find the truth and your voice again.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Pay special attention to the feeling of confusion, or “I’m going crazy!” If you notice you are beginning to feel this way, give yourself permission to take a “time out” until you regain grounding and clarity. Discuss the confusing situation with a trusted friend or helping professional–he or she will help you find clarity and identify the gaslighting.
  • Stay connected to your feelings! Your feelings are valid. You don’t need to justify why you feel what you feel. Don’t dismiss what you feel when someone else challenges your feelings or demands you pay more attention to his or her feelings than your own.
  • Avoid the “power-struggle.” Many times we get sucked into a gaslighting episode when we get caught up in the “who has the best defense for his or her thoughts/feelings/choices” game. You can most easily recognize this by the circular nature of these types of arguments. Hours can go by and no one is budging. If you see this happening–as soon as you see it happening–ask for (and take) a break from the conversation.

If you love someone addicted to pornography, you have likely been affected by gaslighting in this relationship to some degree, and you may be experiencing betrayal trauma. The effect of it runs along a scale: sometimes the effect is minimal–we hardly notice it, but other times it moves into the domain of emotional abuse and can cause us to have our internal world disrupted (trauma), losing touch with our intuition, truth, and our voice. Wherever you land, I encourage you to give gaslighting some thought. Like me, you might find that this work will change your relationships and your life forever–for the better.

When I think back to that woman in the car, I want to hold her and tell her, “I’m so sorry. I know you feel lost and confused. You’re not going crazy. Soon, you will find the answers you need; soon you will feel strong and comfortable in your own skin. It will take a lot of work, but I promise, through this work you will know yourself better, and have healthier relationships that you could even dream are possible.”

I’m so grateful I have the ability to look back at that situation, and say those words to myself with such truth, clarity, strength, and hope. And now with that voice, I’m honored to say those same words to you.

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  1. Jesus was not mentioned. I am not saying there is not a manipulation setting happening when someone tries to misdirect the focus from own sin to something else… but, what about our faith? How useful is to be a Christian in facing such case? Which tools for healing and facing the problem Christian faith can provide for someone experiencing gaslighting? Just to give a name helps?

  2. Douglas Naylor

    Is gaslightighting an exclusive male technique or do female employ this to cover their emotional outbursts, their harsh retorts or expressions of victimhood. Or to rephrase the question can this technique be blended with other plays to control obfuscate or misdirect attention?

    • Douglas, good question – this article was meant to be a conversation starter, and barely scratches the surface of the complex topic of gaslighting. Personally, I say everyone gaslights – until they know about it. When I first started studying gaslighting, I realized I gaslit my kids when I told them they were “over-reacting”. I told them their feelings weren’t valid. This is one aspect of gaslighting. Was I being malicious or intending to harm? Of course not! But I was causing my kids to doubt the validity of their emotions. Once I understood what I was doing, I completely changed the way I interacted with my children.

      So, to try to answer your question, it’s important to understand that: 1) there are a number of reasons people gaslight; 2) There are varying levels of awareness when a person is gaslighitng; 3) there are a number of tactics people use to gaslight; and 4) the harm/impact of gaslighting could be assessed on a scale – some gaslighting behaviors have low impact, while others are extremely damaging/harmful.

      I hope this helps a little!

  3. Luke

    It would be good to acknowledge that the addict can also experience gaslighting by the offended spouse. The shame and guilt resulting from porn use may naturally override healthy emotions. If a repentant addict is not allowed to grow back into healthy emotions through being forgiven but, rather, is constantly reminded of their offense against their spouse, they lose touch with any emotion other than shame and guilt. By the grace of God, they can be healed inspite of the gaslighting. However, walking the road of healing alone is much more painful and the healing will feel surreal when it should feel like being set on a new foundation.

    My sense is that this may not always be one sided. Before jumping too deep into feeling like a victim, evaluate whether you do the same thing to the other person, talk to them about it, and repent of it. Treat them with the dignity and respect and love you desire. With that said, if you are in an abusive situation, or suspect that you are, get help. Seek help from a trusted friend, pastor, mentor, family, church member, or even the police.

    • Mrs J

      That’s what I saw…i was doing it, too !

      So im trying to be very careful in my response vs reaction.

  4. Scott

    Though I was the porn addict in our marriage, my wife has used gas lighting on me ever since we got engaged. For a few years, I believed her and doubted myself intensely. The shame and self-hatred were factors in me giving in to looking at porn–but that justifies nothing: I sinned against God, myself and my wife when I chose to look at porn (or just to fantasize). About the same time I started getting help for my lust problem, I began standing up to my wife when she tried to manipulate me into shame. I did it roughly at first–I yelled–but with practice, I learned calmly to stop her in her tracks when she started this. Since then, it’s felt like four steps forward and three steps back–progress, not perfection. I agree with the author that my wife is totally oblivious that she does this; she probably acts this way reflexively as a defense mechanism so she won’t doubt herself, I guess. I just wish it didn’t create such loneliness. Godspeed to the wives fighting against this manipulation tactic.

  5. An excellent article, Sarah… which I’m sure will be incredibly helpful to many wives of porn addicts.

    • Thank you for helping me put a name to this behavior. It is not however limited to my porn addicted husband. Gaslighting has occurred in my life from my mother, employer and so called friends. I have learned,on my own, to maintain my boundaries with these individuals leaving me in a somewhat lonely position. Is there a way to put these people in place? My husband seems to be the only one willing to stick around and look at his behaviors.

  6. Destroyed

    This has caused destruction of my whole being. Most importantly my spiritual life. I don’t even know how to find Christ again. Can cause suicidal thoughts.

    • Kay Bruner

      I am so sorry you’re been through this. Gaslighting can be a terribly destructive form of abuse. I would encourage you to find a therapist who is familiar with emotional abuse, someone who can help you rebuild your interior sense of reality and create healthy boundaries for yourself once again.

      I want to tell you that you don’t need to worry about how to find Christ again. Christ is with you, always, and will never leave you or forsake you, no matter how others have abused you.

      Peace to you,
      Kay

    • Dear, dear Destroyed. I want you to know you are not alone. So, so many people who go through this face a “crisis of faith”. It can be devastating, because for so many, their faith is connected to their identity. As a woman who has been on this journey for 6 1/2 years now, one of my most helpful mantras is, “Trust the Journey”. I am on a journey of healing – I am not “healed”… I don’t have to have all the answers right this moment. I am learning lessons as I go, becoming more connected with who I truly am, and healing bit by bit, deeper and deeper. You can find yourself, put yourself back together – you won’t be the same as you were – but in my experience, you will be “better”. You will have scars, but they will only highlight your beauty. I am very different than I used to be, and honestly, I like and love myself a WHOLE lot more! This can be your journey, too. Like Kay said, I encourage you to find support from someone trained – a therapist or life-coach. I hope this has been helpful.

    • Mrs J

      Dear Destroyed,

      Call to Him.

      He never left.

      Ask forgiveness, and receive His instant forgiveness.

      Ask His help to forgive, and ask Him to take the pain.

      He will !!!

      Decide to do all the above all your life, because people hurt us so many times.

      Then turn from the past, and move forward in the Biblical path God begins to guide you into..

      You have SO MANY who will call you Sister, because we all need healing.

      Don’t give up. Relax…you are loved !!!

  7. I believe that gaslighting is happening culturally and interpersonally on an unprecedented scale, and that this is the result of a societal framework where we pretend everyone is equal while trying simultaneously to preserve inequality. You can see it in the media constantly.

    • Dianah Shiflett

      Sir Ryan…Scripture teaches us..There is Nothing New Under The Sun. Human nature has Never Changed or Evolved it’s always been. We live in a Fallen, Sinful World period..sad part is it is Vomited Out to Us 24/7!

    • Elise

      You have perfectly described what I have always known to be true! So accurate! Thank you

    • Ryan…. You are 100% correct! My friend just had an argument with her husband today, I said, that is quintessential gaslighting, what he did, we are not the only ones this is happening to. Imagine all the women out there living in a marriage just like this. Also, why do the majority of gas lighters, happen to be men? What is it, some sick skill they learn from childhood, to cope? I don’t even know why anyone would want to work through this, I just want to pack and leave, if I had somewhere to go, I would do just that! This is no way to live!

    • I thank most gas lightning is done my narcissists, they can never feel empathy and will never chance! So get out and not look back!

    • Rachael G-M

      How true?👏🏾👏🏾 @Ryan

  8. Jules

    Is the only way out divorce from this type of abuse? I’m currently married to a man who I believe to have narcissistic ways – he uses gaslighting a lot!! It’s my second marriage, we have a blended family of 5 kids. I’m so scared my kids are going to be scarred from him and his verbal ways!!! I don’t know what to do?! Things are usually very very good or very very bad, there’s rarely any in between.

    • Jules, I don’t think so. Divorce will apparently give up some temporary relief, although, the problem will stay there. Don’t you think there is something missing in this article about gaslighting? What is the role of Jesus in such situation? How can one overcome the situation by the power of the indwelling Holly Spirit? You are right asking about a way out, however, divorce will leave you both with the scars, while in Christ there are more: an abundant life one can enjoy after healing, true deep healing.

    • Jules – First let me say I am so sorry you are currently experiencing a marriage where there are narcissistic ways, and enduring gaslighting. And the swing from very, very bad to very very good is SO confusing! It can play games with our mind and make us feel like we’re going crazy! It’s hard, because gaslighting is such a complex issue, there’s no way to address even a quarter of the information I think is necessary in an article like the one I wrote – it was simply a starting point for conversation. I’ve been reading a book on boundaries lately, and the author talks about our “authentic power”, and what that is. We have power over ourselves, and that’s it. We don’t have power over other people. We can hope, pray, work hard on ourselves, and the other person may or may not heal with us. I think that is the answer to your question about a “way out”. If your husband is remorseful, wanting to become more healthy, working on his “stuff”, praying, etc… then there is hope that he will change his ways and not be abusive. If not, then the question becomes, “is his behavior hurting me and the children, or harming me and the children?” I think that distinction is important. We can move through hurt – especially if amends are made by the one who did the “hurting”. Harm… that’s a bit different. And, repeated hurt with no mending can lead to harm. I would strongly encourage you to reach out to a trained professional (therapist, or life-coach like myself) to help you sort through the confusion of your situation, and help you figure out what you need to be safe in your marriage. My heart aches for you. I hope this has been helpful.

    • Rose

      My husband would use gaslighting to cover his alchoholism. He felt he *needed* it to survive so he’d deny and then gaslight to get the attention off of himself. At first, I was confused and we saw a marriage counselor, but I was already doing everything they recommended. Finally, I set boundries and tried to hold them kindly but firmly. It got worse before it got better, but he actually respected me more for it. Understanding the “Drama Triangles” (easy to google) and reading through the Boundry books by Cloud were both helpful to me.

  9. FMR

    Sarah, thank you. After forty years with my (now) ex-husband, I don’t really know if I trust any feeling I have. I have difficulty liking myself and am still, after almost two years of being alone, not sure who I am or what to think or feel. A lifetime habit is hard to change, but understanding helps.

    • Dianah Shiflett

      Dear FMR…I Very Much UNDERSTAND! I’m married 41 yrs (found out about his secret life 36yrs in😖). It is an incredible amount of yrs to UNDO & find Reality bcause the constant question that haunts is “Was Any of it Real”? In my own personal path to finding ME again I only know this MY Part was REAL! Real Love, Real Care, Real Energy, Real Strength..Real Everything!! It’s why they are called PSYCHOLOGICAL Vampires..U were taken into or rather had a Fantasy World projected onto you (which by the way was IMPOSSIBLE to meet) to keep u confused, controlled and always submissive-in their mind-while they did what THEY WANTED TO DO (screamed at me by my husband when the walls came crumbling down!!) So much for Empathy heh! There is the very deep dark place that u stay in until u can start separating what u were told vs what u know happened. TRUST YOURSELF… Remember the lies then speak Truth to each thing..I used a line from the movie Divergent (when a mind altering substance was used to create very real looking & feeling scenarios as a test for survival). The character repeated “This Isn’t Real” and Survived & Thrived!! I am still “married” but detached from the Insanity of his personality disorder..NOT EASY! However I have found ME again bcause I have a deep desire to LIVE and meet My Lord & Savior..Battle scarred but Intact!! My deepest thoughts and prayers to YOU this Day..YOU R LOVED❤

    • FMR – you are most welcome. It’s a slow, slow process of unraveling all the damage done by gaslighting. I am so very sorry! But you are right – understanding helps! Having a name for it helps! Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you’re interested in going through my gaslighting course to discover/unravel even more of this, and in doing so, find yourself again (or maybe, like me, for the first time!)

  10. Is it possible someone is unaware of doing this to someone?

    • Hi Mandy, yes! In fact, most people don’t know when they are gaslighting. In the case of an addict covering up their behaviors, they may be aware that they are not being honest, but they don’t really understand what they are doing to the other person. They’re not “trying” to be abusive/make the other person feel like they are going crazy.” But even non-addicts gaslight. Often it’s a shame response, and people are completely unaware. It’s a complex issue, but that’s the cliff’s notes answer.

    • Joy

      Hello,

      Thank you do much for this article, it’s very hard to find out what to do as a Christian in a clearly abusive marriage.

      It’s so so complex and we are currently separated. Due to my husbsnds manipulation narcissism and gas lighting I have ended up disliking him intensely but feel spiritually bound and that it’s wrong to be separated.

      There are no children and it’s been a short and very dramatic/traumatic marriage so I am inclined to just walk away. I can’t really afford expensive therapy at the moment, but I know that he will repeat his behaviours wherever he goes next.

      He wont allow me to say the word abuse and often makes me say/repeat ‘you’re not abusive’.

      I’m in so much confusion and turmoil, both with him and without. Desperately seeking a ‘God’ breakthrough to somehow move forward in life.

      I see in the other comments you mention divorce isnt ideal. Arghh.

    • Kay Bruner

      Dear Joy,

      DIVORCE ABSOLUTELY IS IDEAL WHEN YOUR SPOUSE IS ABUSIVE.

      Let me repeat: DIVORCE IS IDEAL WHEN YOUR SPOUSE IS ABUSIVE. Divorce from an abusive spouse is absolutely the godly choice to make, because YOU matter, YOU count, YOU are God’s beloved, and God never, ever intends for you to be a slave to sin, especially the sin of your husband’s abuse against you.

      How we have gotten so confused about this in the church is really horrifying to me. Why we think that we should cease all sorts of sin, but somehow marital abuse is something we should just ignore, really begins to call into question what kind of system these churches actually are. When churches are so invested in protecting abusers rather than victims, they have strayed far, far from any God of Love that I could identify.

      To deny women the right to leave an abuser is another form of abuse. When people deploy this form of abuse in the name of God, that is spiritual abuse.

      Please listen to your wise inner voice and walk away, just as you are inclined to do. This is the “God breakthrough” that you need: the inner light of Love speaking truth to you. Listen. Follow.

      You may not need a lot of therapy, you’ll probably be well as soon as you are away from your abuser. He probably will go on and repeat these patterns, and that is not your responsibility to control in any way.

      I think it’s only complex because you have so many abusive voices echoing against your own inner wisdom. When you silence the abusers, I think it is very, very simple: GET OUT. GET AWAY. BE SAFE.

      Here’s an article that might help: A High View of Marriage Includes Divorce.

      You will probably also appreciate the work of Lundy Bancroft on abusive relationship dynamics. Why Does He Do That? is a good starting point for understanding what you’re dealing with.

      Again: you are not required to be abused, and anyone who tells you that you are, is also abusing you. Please listen to your wise inner light and be free.

      Peace,
      Kay

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