As a therapist for almost two decades, I have seen a common but destructive issue surface in many relationships, including marriages, parenting, blended families, and co-parenting. It’s called gaslighting. While the term is thrown around a lot, many people do not recognize its symptoms and do not know how to respond to it. This article will give you the basics of gaslighting so you identify it and set boundaries for those who try to hurt you with it.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a kind of psychological manipulation that uses blame, lies, doubt, deflection, and other tactics to manipulate and control a person. The goal of gaslighting is to make someone feel unsure of themselves and their experiences. That person is made to feel unstable, unbelievable, isolated, irrational and at fault for any perceived problems in the relationship. In counseling individuals and couples, I have seen gaslighting take place in marriage, in parenting, and in a co-parenting relationship with a high-conflict ex-spouse.
What Are Examples of Gaslighting in Marriage?
Gaslighting can take the form of teasing, denial, or trivializing. It diverts the victim’s attention from the offender’s negative and harmful behavior and shifts the blame to the victim, who is innocent of wrongdoing. Some examples include:
- “That’s not what happened. I didn’t… You’re the one who…”
- “Everyone agrees with me that our marriage…”
- “This custody battle is your own fault.”
- “Dropping off the kids late is not that big of a deal.”
- “It was just a joke!”
- “You’re overreacting. No wonder the kids would rather be at my house.”
- “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
- “You always blow things out of proportion in our marriage.”
- “You have no clue what’s good for the kids.”
- “You’re imagining things between my coworker and me.”
Sometimes gaslighting is difficult to identify in marriage because it takes place gradually, so the offender’s words and actions may seem harmless. As this harmful behavior continues, the offender erodes the victim’s confidence in their abilities, reasoning skills, discernment, and sense of self. They may believe the offender and feel unable to break away from the toxic relationship. I see this in counseling a lot.
Gaslighting may also occur in a predatory situation such as sexual harassment or abuse–and that can take place in marriage! In this scenario, the offender uses gaslighting to make light of their actions and convince the victim that they (the offender) did nothing wrong.
Signs That Your Spouse May Be Gaslighting You
In my practice, I’ve noticed that many of my clients have been trained and groomed to disregard their thoughts, feelings, and observations. That allows the offender to control the relationship and their spouse, co-parent, children or stepchildren, etc. If you think you might have been on the receiving end gaslighting, here are some common signs to look for:
- You second-guess yourself a lot.
- You worry about being good enough.
- You struggle to make decisions–even simple ones.
- You feel like you can’t do anything right.
- You can remember a time when you felt more confident and independent.
- You often feel confused.
- You can’t express yourself like you used to.
- You worry that you’re too sensitive.
- You feel hopeless a lot of the time.
- You apologize to people a lot–especially the offender.
These are just a few signs that someone is gaslighting you. There are many others. And while you may second-guess yourself or feel confused every once in a while, the combination of these signs and frequency in which you experience them may indicate that something serious is happening. Please talk to a trained therapist who can provide perspective, help you heal, and give you tools for healthier relationships in the future.
If Your Spouse Is Gaslighting You
If you think someone is gaslighting you (even your spouse), it is important for you to pay attention to your feelings. Even though someone has made you question yourself, your feelings are valid and important. Don’t discount your perception. Here are other steps you can take:
Journal your conversations and interactions. This not only provides a record of the dialogues or events, but it also helps you separate fact from the gaslighter’s fictionalized version. This is helpful because you may begin to question your memory because the gaslighter will deny events or conversations.
For instance, if your spouse agrees to a weekend trip to see your parents, write down as much as you can from that conversation. Write down the date too. You’re not creating a list of things your spouse does wrong. It’s a way for you to keep track of what happened so you won’t second-guess yourself–which is common when your spouse is gaslighting you.
Don’t isolate yourself. People who are being gaslighted often withdraw from other people. They lose confidence in themselves because of what they’ve been told over and over. Or they may not want to deal with their spouse’s response because it will likely be manipulative or condescending in nature. Despite the possible reaction from your spouse, it’s important to spend time with caring and loving people. They can encourage and support you, and they can give you a balanced and unbiased perspective.
Trust what you hear from the Holy Spirit. Because you are a believer, the Holy Spirit lives within you. He will guide you into all truth (John 16:13). Ask Him to help you recognize when your spouse is gaslighting you. Trust what you hear Him saying. You may be hesitant to trust your thoughts, abilities, and decisions because you’ve been conditioned to dismiss what you think or feel. If you’re not sure, ask a friend or compare it with what Scripture says. It may take a while for you to believe in yourself again, so give yourself some grace and patience in this process.
Set and maintain boundaries. That will likely be incredibly uncomfortable for you, so take it slow. It’s okay to say no. You are not responsible for your spouse’s failures and you are not to blame for your spouse’s emotional reactions. You deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. You are allowed to disagree with your spouse.
For instance, if your spouse makes a hurtful remark, you can say, “I don’t like what you said about me. If you say negative things about me in the future, I will end the conversation and leave the room.” Your spouse might say something like, “ Wow! You are so sensitive. I was only joking.” Hold your boundary. Say, “I don’t think it was funny. Please do not say that again.” Follow through with the consequence if they say negative things about you. Otherwise, they will repeat the behavior.
Don’t try to argue. There is no good end in a disagreement with a gaslighter. They are experts in twisting your words and undermining your logic, and they may attack and blame you in the process. For instance, your spouse might say, “I never said (or did) that. You are confused. I can’t believe I married someone like you.” Simply say, “okay” or “I see it differently” and walk away. This approach allows you to stand your ground without giving your spouse any ammunition or making them feel defensive.
Most importantly, it is important to talk with a therapist or Godly counsel ,who can help you work through the trauma of gaslighting and help you regain your confidence and self-esteem. A biblical counselor can also suggest spiritual practices that not only draw you closer to God but also provide healing.
No matter what others may say, you have been fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). God has made you uniquely, with distinct skills, abilities, emotions, and purpose. As your Creator, He has the last word, and He says you are His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). When someone says something about you, ask yourself, “Does this sound like God?” If the answer is no, go back to the truths in Scripture. You can trust what God says about you!