Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation or a technique of deception intended to make the victim question their own judgment, perception, and memory. The victim may also become dependent on the deceiver in feelings and thoughts. To gaslight means to undermine another person’s reality by denying the environment around them, facts, or even their feelings. When this occurs in a romantic relationship, it can give one a very uncomfortable feeling where the victim feels that they are losing their grip on reality.
Bad communication or gaslighting?
Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D., a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, cited a situation where gaslighting occurs in a relationship. For instance, the man went out for an errand that the woman believes should only take 20 minutes. Two hours passed with no word from her partner, so the woman gets annoyed and a little concerned about what happened. So, she calls her partner but soon finds out that his phone was left in the kitchen. When the man walks through the door, the woman is filled with rage and worry. “Why so mad?” the man asks. Then, he explains, “I told you yesterday I had a dentist appointment today. Remember?”
Although the woman cannot honestly recall that her partner said such a statement, she starts to challenge her memory. Whitbourne said that this example of missed communication may be innocent enough, but gaslighting in relationships can be deliberate manipulation for reasons that are anything but innocent. The partner may be “messing with your head,” the professor added.
Gaslighters’ ulterior motive
Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D., a clinical specialist in child and adolescent counseling and author of the book "Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free," shares that gaslighters have an ulterior motive, which often involves gaining control and power. To them, it is a form of self-preservation. Yet, when someone is gaslighting, they might not be aware that they are doing it, especially if they also grew up with parents who use the same psychological manipulation. What they learn from their caregivers and parents may have provided them the blueprint for their communication style in their relationship.
Gaslighting as a narcissistic flip
In a new study that appeared in the American Psychological Association (APA) journal, Neill Korobov from the University of West Georgia highlighted how gaslighting is used by romantic partners in their daily conversations or arguments. Korobov considers it a form of deflection during an argumentative exchange when one wants to flip the blame or criticism back to the other. The recipient of the blame or criticism or any perceived attribution of blame flips the blame and puts the other in a position where they would feel they deserve or cause the thing that upsets them. In the example given by Whitbourne, the man blames his partner and says that she forgot about the dentist's appointment. He created a version of reality that operated defensively. On the offensive side, he may undermine the validity of his partner’s position.
Tracing conversational pattern in the study
To come up with such findings, Korobov’s study involved 20 heterosexual romantic couples from the University of West Georgia and the surrounding community. In two weeks, the young adult couples produced seven hours of recorded home conversations during the time they were spending together. Overall, there were 140 hours of conversations used in the study. Korobov said that the young adults in the study didn’t mind “keeping it real” in their conversations. This means that the self-editing of the audio was not a real threat to the validity of the result.
The author traced the conversational pattern that participants use to isolate the moments of gaslighting. Then, he came up with the subject side (S-side) assessments and the object side (O-side) assessment. In the S-side, one presents a personal view about their feelings and on the O-side, one presents an observation as if it a statement of fact. The O-side assessment turns what may be an ambiguous reality into a fact.
In a dialogue between couple Rue and Wes, Rue said that she felt bad about how Wes treated her. Wes answered her, “You try too hard. You did that to yourself.” Rue started with the S-side assessment by expressing her feelings and Wes flipped it using the O-side assessment.
Whitbourne went on to say that as a manipulative technique, such a type of deflection during conversation establishes the gaslighter’s version of the truth while devaluing his or her partner’s feelings.
Licensed psychoanalyst Dr. Robin Stern, who is also the associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, told Vox that he has spoken with hundreds of people who have experienced gaslighting in their personal lives. He provided a list on how to recognize that a person may be involved in a gaslighting relationship or they are being gaslighted. This includes the following:
- Asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times every day
- You are always apologizing
- You often feel confused or even crazy in the relationship
- You know something is wrong but you don’t know what it is
- You can’t understand why you are not happier
- You begin lying to avoid reality twists and put-downs
- You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior
- You wonder if you are good enough
- You have trouble making simple decisions
He said that these symptoms may occur with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety disorders but the difference with gaslighting is that there is another group or person that is actively engaging in trying to make the other person second-guess that what they know is true. The common phrases they may hear from the gaslighter is that they are just being sensitive, insecure, acting crazy, paranoid, joking, imaging things, overreacting, or that they are just making things up.
Market research company YouGov found that majority (59%) of US adults have never heard of the psychological term gaslighting before, 6% said they don’t or are not sure about the term, and 16% said they have heard about the term but don’t know what it means. Only 19% of US adults said they know the term and what it means.
The term is commonly linked with romantic relationships and it manifests often during arguments when one accuses the other of being insane or crazy. Some 33% of women said they have been called crazy or insane by someone they were romantically involved with compared to 24% of men. Meanwhile, American addiction resource MentalHelp.net surveyed 571 Americans who experienced an abusive relationship. The hallmark trait of an abuser is control. When asked what does or did their partner control, 20.7% said the amount of time they spent with friends, 16.8% answered of where they can go, 15.8% of how they spend their money, and 11.0% of how they dress and look.
Gaslighting can blend physical, financial, sexual, digital, and emotional abuse. If you know someone and recognize such a toxic dynamic, do your best to combat the mental manipulation.