7 Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship—and What to Do About It

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A few pictures go missing. Paula hears footsteps in the dead of night. Notices gaslights that mysteriously dim without being touched. Taken alone, each of these seems benign. Together, they don’t add up. Paula’s husband tells her it’s all in her head. But is it?

The term gaslighting originated from the 1944 Ingrid Berman movie Gaslight, where a husband slowly manipulates his wife into thinking she’s gone insane. The term resurged in popularity in 2016 thanks to a viral op-ed in Teen Vogue; it was a runner-up for Oxford dictionary’s 2018 word of the year.

Gaslighting is a real phenomenon—and it has real consequences for its victims. So what, exactly, is gaslighting? And what are the signs you’re in a relationship with someone who’s gaslighting you?

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is lying and otherwise psychologically manipulating a person until they question their sanity and begin to accept another person’s version of reality. “It’s an abuse of power to dominate another person,” says Patricia Pitta, Ph.D., a relationship therapist in practice in Manhattan, New York and author of Solving Modern Family Dilemmas.

Done well, you might not even realize gaslighting is happening. “It undermines a person’s confidence in who they are and what they believe, and it can lead them to do things they don’t want to do,” says Certified Gottman Relationship Therapist and Master Trainer Mike McNulty, Ph. D.

Sometimes otherwise mentally stable people gaslight in a certain situation—say, to cover up an affair. But people who persistently gaslight tend to be narcissistic (they’re extremely self-centered) and sociopathic (they ignore other’s people’s perspectives and disregard their rights). “They seek to control another person to meet their own needs or desires in a way that’s manipulative or dishonest,” says McNulty.

Here are seven signs of gaslighting in a relationship, and what to do if you think you’re being gaslighted.

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Signs of gaslighting in a relationship

Some of these signs (lying, making false promises) tend to be more strongly associated with gaslighting than others. But several signs taken together is evidence enough to suspect gaslighting. “Some of these, the victim just doesn’t see them at first,” says McNulty. “The person needs to get evidence that it’s gradually occurring over time and put the pieces together to see the symptoms for what they really are.”

1) They lie—and keep lying when you catch them

Is your friend or partner never wrong—like, ever? He or she is definitely lying, because we’re all wrong from time to time. And lying is a key sign of gaslighting.

People, of course, lie for many reasons. But gaslighters lie to change another person’s reality. “Whatever it is they want from that person, they’ll lie to get it,” says Pitta.

Gaslighters typically start with small lies, then build up to bigger ones. When they’re caught, even with proof like text messages, they refuse to admit the truth. They’ll keep denying and lying until you question your memory and ultimately believe their version of events.

“If the person who’s lying is so confident and unwavering, it becomes a real mind trip,” says McNulty.

2) They play on your insecurities

“Everyone knows that.”

“You look good…for your age.”

A gaslighter gets to know your vulnerabilities, including your insecurities, successes, and beliefs. They’ll consistently critique these things, making snide comments to hurt and control you. They’ll then tell you to “get over it,” so you begin to believe your perspective isn’t valid or important.

“These remarks cut down your sense of self-esteem,” says McNulty. “It gives them the upper hand over time. The person who’s being attacked will question their worthiness and identify with the gaslighter’s perspective,” says McNulty.

If the person throws in the occasional compliment, don’t be fooled. “That’s to get you off your game,” says Pitta.

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3) Their actions don’t match their words

Although a gaslighter says they care about you, they ultimately flake on plans time and again, then swear that the plans never existed in the first place. They’re telling you what you want to hear, then doing whatever it is they wanted to do in the first place.

“When someone says they’re going to do something, you should be able to trust they’ll do it,” says McNulty. You should question your trust in a person who gives you lip service—particularly if it’s a pattern, he adds.

4) They manipulate your relationships

Gaslighters manipulate how you see key people in your life, telling you that your father doesn’t love you, your friend is talking behind your back, or your sister is lying to you. They’ll also develop relationships with some of these people, then convince them that you’re crazy in order to manipulate them into supporting the gaslighting process.

By convincing everyone around you that they’re the only person who can be trusted, a gasligher becomes the master puppeteer. “When you’re cut off from people you trust, you don’t have access to other perspectives that might help you to question what’s happening,” says McNulty.

5) They question your sanity

After deploying these other tactics, a gaslighter will question your version of events, telling you you’re paranoid or imagining things to make you feel like you’re going insane, says McNulty.

Constantly questioning your reality is a way to make you feel like there’s something really wrong with you. In the end, you’ll believe you actually need the other person’s perspective to get by, says Pitta.

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6) They accuse you of the same behaviors

Known as “projection” in therapy-speak, gaslighters often accuse their victims of their own behaviors.

“How many partners accuse their partner of cheating because they’re the one who’s cheating? The person who’s cheating sees the world in a distrustful way because they’re distrustful,” says Pitta. “They’re trying to wiggle their way out. If their partner doesn’t have a good sense of self, they’ll buy the projection and act it out by actually having an affair.”

7) You feel increasingly unsure of yourself

Over time, a gaslighter’s behaviors cut into a victim’s self-confidence. You might think everything’s your fault and apologize all of the time, then wonder if you’re too sensitive. You might feel anxious and isolated. You might question your impressions, thoughts, and feelings, and have a hard time making decisions.

“Taken together, all of these would be the effect that gaslighting behaviors would have on someone,” says McNulty.

What should you do if you think someone is gaslighting you?

If you think you’re being gaslighted, McNulty suggests confiding in a person you know you can trust. “You need to get out from under the influence of the gaslighter and have your perspective heard and understood,” says McNulty.

It’s entirely possible to fall for someone and realize that they’re gaslighting you after a date or two. Ditch them. If this isn’t the first time you’ve been attracted to a gaslighter, therapy might be in order. “How did you become attracted to this type of person? Are you playing a subservient role, and that was something that person smelled out? People who control are looking for people they can control,” says Pitta.

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Things get more complicated if you’re being gaslighted in a long-term relationship.

If gaslighting is linked to specific circumstances, like covering up an affair, there’s hope to salvage the relationship if the person is truly sorry and willing to try couple’s therapy. If the gaslighter atones and changes, and you determine why the cheating happened and address those issues, there’s a chance you can recover.

“A lot of people who have affairs never thought they would and are grasping for ways to make it go away or pretend like it never happened,” says McNulty.

If, however, a person is slowly gaslighting you, and they aren’t remorseful when you confront them, they probably have a serious personality disorder. You may also be grappling with insecurity yourself or seeking a strong connection during a vulnerable time of your life.

“I would be in favor of ending the relationship,” says McNulty. “Changing that in person takes time and a lot of motivation. It’s much more complicated and often never occurs.”

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