Gaslighting in Relationships
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
BY JEN MAKIN, CMHC
My definition of gaslighting is: an invalidation of someone’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs or ideas; it’s a rewriting of history. Individuals being gaslit question their own experience and reality. And the majority of the time, the individual gaslighting doesn’t create space for you to have a difference of opinion or offer a different perspective. And if you do speak up, the gaslighter quells your concerns, lulling you back to sleep and into their web of deception.
Gaslighting can happen in any relationship. Parent|Child. Spouse|Spouse. Sibling|Sibling. Friend|Friend. Boyfriend|Girlfriend. There are no limitations or scope for where gaslighting can reach.
Johnny comes home from school. He is exhausted and a bit shut down. He throws his backpack down and flops on the couch. His mom walks in and asks, “What is it now?” Johnny, rather hesitantly, mentions that his English teacher makes him uncomfortable. He says, “He touched my shoulder today and like squeezed. It was beyond cringe. It felt so weird.” Johnny's mom, taking a step forward says, “It sounds like he really cares about you. I wish more teachers were like that.”
In a parental relationship it may show up more like this. His experience of identifying discomfort and an inappropriate boundary from his teacher are dismissed. Instead, his mother normalizes his teacher’s behavior and makes him feel silly for not seeing it her way. In fact, shifting it completely to a place of gratitude instead of a validating one. This can occur with emotional boundaries just as much as physical.
In a romantic relationship it may show up more like this:
Josh and Jenny had a dispute over Josh communicating with a female co-worker he had promised not to text after work anymore. Jenny asked, “Josh why are you texting her again this late, we talked about this.” Josh immediately disregards Jenny’s boundaries and feelings and says, “I don't ever remember us having this conversation of you saying not to text someone I work with after hours. I never told you I wouldn’t do my actual job, even after hours. You want money right?”
Or like this ...
Jenny told Josh she would work on her spending habits. Jenny comes home with brand new shoes. Josh communicates to Jenny, “Hey, I thought we were going to work on our spending habits.” Jenny replied, “I never said I wouldn’t get stuff I need! You’re abusive telling me I can’t buy shoes.”
The bottom line is, the person being gaslit feels absolutely crazy for speaking up, thinking differently or having a difference of opinion. To help you understand what a healthy relationship should look like, I will now deconstruct each scenario into a healthy one.
I feel like as therapists, we sometimes say what not to do but fail to identify what to do. Identifying what healthy behavior looks like instead of spending energy on what not to do is vital.
Johnny comes home from school. He is exhausted and a bit shut down. He throws his backpack down and flops on the couch. His mom walks in and says, “Looks like you had a rough one.” Johnny, rather hesitantly, mentions that his English teacher made him uncomfortable. He says, “He touched my shoulder today and like squeezed. It was beyond cringe. I felt so weird.” Johnny's mom, taking a step forward says, “That does not sound right at all. I think I need to make some phone calls. Sit tight. Do you need anything? Love you.”
Josh and Jenny had a dispute over Josh communicating with a female co-worker he had promised not to text after work anymore. Jenny asked, “Josh why are you texting her again this late, we talked about this.” Josh immediately takes responsibility and replies to Jenny by saying, “You are absolutely right. We did discuss that and even though it’s work, it’s not appropriate. Forgive me. I totally forgot our conversation and I value our marriage more than anything. It won’t happen again.”
Jenny told Josh she would work on her spending habits. Jenny comes home with brand new shoes. Josh communicates to Jenny, “Hey, I thought we were going to work on our spending habits.” Jenny replies, “Oh my gosh. I totally am. I needed these but I should have called you first. To check in and run it by you.”
Here Are 5 Signs to Help Identify If Your Relationship May Be a Gaslighting One:
SIGN 1: YOU DOWNPLAY THE IMPORTANCE OF GETTING YOUR WAY
Your boyfriend asks you what you want for dinner. You speak up immediately. Chinese food has been on your mind all day. You say, "Chinese!" He quips back, “We had Chinese two nights ago, silly. Seriously? You want it again? Seems a bit much.” Then you think, That’s true. Why would I want it again? I just had it! You say, "You’re right! Let’s go get Mexican food.” After all, I love fajitas.
SIGN 2: YOU FEEL CRAZY
You walk in the door, excited for a night out with your husband. You are shocked when you notice he’s not home. You text him, “Babe, where are you?” He responds, “What do you mean? I’m headed to racquetball with Mike tonight.” You blink and text, “Sean, remember we were going to dinner tonight? I’ve looked forward to this all week.” He says, “Dinner? What are you talking about? I never said anything about dinner. You always holler at me about spending money. I would have never said that. We need to save, remember?” You remember that you had mentioned something about saving, but you also remember the conversation from the night before down to the detail of the color of his shirt. You text this to jog his memory. He says, “Babe, I worked late last night.” You think that maybe you spoke in the car so you text that. He texts back right away, “Justine, I’m at the gym. I think you need to get your memory tested.” You think, He's probably right. My memory isn't what it used to be. You open the fridge, looking for dinner.
SIGN 3: YOU OBLIGE THEIR PERSPECTIVE AS A WAY TO KEEP THE PEACE
You come home from work and the first thing you notice is that your unemployed roommate is playing video games. You cringe at the thought that it's almost the first of the month. You quietly put your bag down and review several scenarios you could say before speaking. You decide to say, “Hey, I'm home. How did the job hunt go today?” He pushes pause on Mario Cart, whips his head around and says, “Seriously, that’s the first thing you say to me? You walk in the door and get on me about that? What is wrong with you?” You shuffle towards him and say, “I was just checking in …" His voice raises, “Seriously, answer me. What the hell is wrong with you?” You say, “I don't know. I'll work on my tone, sorry." You push the sting from your eyes and head to the bedroom, your feet are killing you after standing at work all day.
SIGN 4: YOU SAY YES WHEN YOU MEAN NO
You and your girlfriend sit down to talk about holiday plans. You feel your body squirm as the discussion begins. You had a conversation about her dad a few days ago but she blew you off and called you sensitive. She begins by saying that you have to go to the pajama night together because it’s her annual family tradition. As you're not married, you don’t see the need so you speak up, “I can tell this is important to you, but I don’t think it’s necessary I go.” She glares at you and says, “And why is that?” You relent, “Because we aren’t married. We are dating. I just don’t think I need pajama pants from your mom. It feels a bit odd.” She says, smirking, “The only one odd here is you. My family loves you. Don’t make this a thing.” You relent, “You’re right. They are great. Count me in.” Your stomach flips.
SIGN 5: YOU GET BULLIED FOR SETTING BOUNDARIES
You sit down and look at your calendar, realizing that you need to change your schedule at work due to a childcare change. You approach your boss. “Linda, I’ve looked at my schedule and I need to pull back on Thursday due to my babysitter changing her schedule. I can work later Friday or something.” Linda, without looking up, says, “I’m not sure what your babysitting woes have to do with me. Figure out your schedule and get your hours.” You leave her office, deflated.
FINAL FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
If you think your loved one gaslights you and may have narcissistic tendencies, it's worth a discussion.
Just a heads up, when you go to them to discuss, it may go one of TWO ways:
What have you been reading?
Who have you been talking to?
That (person) doesn’t even know me. What the heck did you say about me?
You think everyone is a narcissist.
Get off of Google.
Dang, I don’t want to be narcissistic ever. Please help me understand what I’m doing so I can stop.
Oh, geez. OK. Tell me more.
Ouch. Don't love to hear that. But I trust you so let's chat.
I don't really know what that means. Tell me what you're talking about.
I have heard that word before but don't have much clarity. What do you mean?
Of course everyone is different and speaks differently, but you get the gist. One is open to owning it, even if they don't fully understand it, and one shifts responsibility and makes you feel stupid for even considering such a thing. After all, thinking for oneself is quite overrated these days.