Is Your Partner Gaslighting You? Watch for These Warning Signs

Does your partner’s behavior leave you feeling confused or doubtful? It could be gaslighting.

Medically reviewed in June 2022

It’s not uncommon to second guess yourself in a relationship, but if your partner is deliberately making you question your thoughts and actions, they may be engaging in a harmful practice known as gaslighting.

“Gaslighting in its simplest definition is manipulation,” says Judi Cinéas, PhD, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Lake Worth, Florida. “The goal is to destabilize the individual’s sense of reality, self and confidence as this makes the person a prime candidate to receive the abuser as their much needed savior.”

The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. In the movie, Bergman plays a woman named Paula who marries a criminal desperate to find jewels hidden away in her attic. After hearing noises in the attic and noticing the gaslights in her home brightening and dimming for no apparent reason, Paula confronts her husband about her missing valuables. Desperate to find the jewels and keep Paula off his trail, her husband makes her doubt herself by telling her she is imagining things.

As with Bergman’s character, it can be your partner who is gaslighting you or someone else like a family member, friend, boss or coworker.

What gaslighting looks like
It can be difficult to tell whether or not your partner is gaslighting you, especially at first. “Gaslighting may start with subtle little jabs about you, your behaviors, things and people in your life in a way that makes you question yourself,” Cinéas says.

Oftentimes these comments can seem harmless as if your partner is trying to help you or has your best interest in mind. However, if your partner’s intention is to manipulate your behavior by making you doubt yourself, as opposed to helping you resolve an issue or focus on an area of self-improvement, it may be gaslighting.

Gaslighting partners are known to deflect blame. They are skilled at explaining why their way is better than yours and can make you feel grateful for their wisdom, Cinéas explains. However, if you challenge them, they may switch from pretending to have your best interests in mind to playing the victim card.

How to tell if your partner is gaslighting you
If interactions with your partner leave you feeling confused and unheard, think about the interaction and if they were shifting the blame your way.

“Gaslighting does not allow for open honest communication and negotiation which is part of a healthy relationship. Instead, it creates disconnection and confusion,” says Patti Ashley, PhD, a psychotherapist and licensed professional counselor in Boulder, Colorado.

If you feel your partner is gaslighting you, Dr. Ashley recommends writing down the situation as an I statement in a personal journal to gain clarity.

For example, say you are a stay-at-home mother of two small toddlers who is tired and exhausted after a stressful day. You might be gaslighted if your partner responds to your request for help with something like “I worked hard all day. I take care of all the finances and your job is to take care of the house and the kids. I’m tired too. I don’t know what you want from me. How can you not see that it’s unfair to ask me for help?”

In this situation, Ashley says the I statement would sound something like, “When I ask you for help after a stressful day and you tell me you are tired too and don’t acknowledge my feelings, I feel unloved and abandoned. It would mean a lot to me if you could share some of the parenting responsibilities.”

An I statement has three parts, Ashley explains, the behavior, the feeling and the desired action. When writing your I statement, it helps to be as specific as possible. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What did your partner do that made you feel like you were being gaslighted?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What would you have preferred to have happened instead?
  • What could your partner have said or done that would have been more supportive?

These statements don’t have to be delivered to your partner, their purpose is to help you maintain self-awareness.

When to seek help
In some cases, sharing your I statement with a partner may cause things to escalate, especially if your partner has been gaslighting you for a longer period of time.

If you suspect your partner has an underlying mental health condition or their gaslighting behavior has persisted over time, counseling might be a viable option. Couples counseling as well as individual counseling can help address your partner’s troublesome behavior. If counseling does not work or is not an option, it’s up to you to decide whether or not the relationship is worth terminating.

If you seek professional counseling and still aren’t seeing positive changes or results in your relationship, then you may want to consider your next options. Bottom line: It’s not okay to be with someone who fundamentally does not treat you with respect.

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