Few things are as unsettling as realizing that you're romantically involved with a gaslighter. These master manipulators lie, deceive, and obfuscate, all in an effort to gain power over you by making you doubt reality.
Trying to defend yourself against a gaslighter only makes their strategies more effective. If you express hurt or frustration, gaslighters pivot to phrases like “it’s all in your head” or “you’re just too sensitive,” says Anthony P. DeMaria, PhD, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist and associate director of adult ambulatory psychiatry at Mount Sinai St. Luke's and Mount Sinai West Hospitals in New York City.
“Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse,” says Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free.
That sounds serious—and it is. Gaslighting can leave you isolated and sapped of confidence and self-esteem. How should you respond if you observe signs of gaslighting in your significant other? We reached out to experts to find out the exact steps you should take.
Recognize what drives the behavior
When you hear the words “emotional abuse,” it’s easy to think of gaslighters as bad or evil and write off the possibility that you can work things out. But that’s not a helpful framework.
Gaslighters are wounded people, says Dori Gatter, PsyD, a relationship expert and psychotherapist in Connecticut. “They don’t have a strong sense of self and have to feel 'right' all the time, or else they feel threatened,” Gatter says. That makes a gaslighter uniquely challenging to deal with, but not impossible.
React to their claims the right way
Remember, arguing with a gaslighter is a losing strategy. Defensive behavior is their fuel, and they'll respond to you by saying that you’re being hysterical, acting crazy, or other inflaming, frustrating statements. The more you try to defend yourself, the more they gaslight.
“As soon as you are off balance and dysregulated, you look like the problem,” notes Gatter. “Your goal—and it’s not a maneuver and it’s not a manipulation—is to keep yourself calm."
Instead of digging in your heels, tell your partner that while you hear them, what they're saying is not your experience, says Gatter. Or try opening up a conversation with a non-threatening phrase like, “We seem to see things differently—can we talk it out?” suggests DeMaria.
Don't second-guess yourself
Gaslighting works in part by wearing you down. So be aware of when you begin to doubt what your gut tells you is true and real, recommends DeMaria. “It can be helpful to ask yourself the question, What do I really believe is going on? as opposed to What am I being pressured to believe?” he says. This reflection allows you to approach interactions with confidence, he says. You may also find it helpful to jot down notes or keep a journal.
People outside of your relationship can give you a third-party perspective, says DeMaria. This is important in all relationships, but particularly with gaslighters, who seek to make their victims feel isolated or insignificant. if you're second-guessing what you know deep down is reality, check in with a friend who can back you up.
Seek help if the gaslighting continues
Individual counseling will help you determine your next steps, from working to repair the relationship to leaving it. Individual therapy can also be a confidence builder. “Gaslighters will erode your self-esteem; therapy can be very helpful in rebuilding it and also learning the warning signs of gaslighters in the future,” says Sarkis.
Couples therapy can work too—but only if both participants are open to it and prepared to dig into the issues and change. That can be particularly challenging for gaslighters, who tend to think of themselves as fine and label everyone else as the problem, explains Sarkis.
“If you have someone who is open to going to therapy—even if they might not see what’s going on—and willing to get some help, you’re with someone with whom you can work on this relationship,” says Dr. Gatter.
Says DeMaria: “Can two imperfect people in a relationship make individual changes to make the relationship better? Absolutely. Does it always happen? No.”
Get out—and don't look back
You tried to address the behavior, but the gaslighter hasn't made an effort to change. At this point, the only solution is to split; an emotionally abusive relationship is an unhealthy one. Unfortunately, calling it quits with a gaslighter is not easy.
“The breakup may provide fertile ground for more gaslighting,” says DeMaria. “Often, gaslighters ramp up their behaviors when things come to an emotional head, as they so frequently do during a breakup,” he says.
With that in mind, Gatter recommends skipping explanations and exhaustive conversations. “You’re wasting your energy if you’re looking for them to take responsibility or acknowledge or validate anything that you’re saying,” says Gatter. Instead, state simply, clearly, and definitively that you want to end the relationship.
After the breakup, Sarkis recommends complete radio silence: block your gaslighter’s phone number, ignore calls from unknown numbers, and delete emails unread. Be aware that the gaslighter may use other people—like friends you two have in common—to communicate. Clearly tell these people that you will not discuss the gaslighter, she advises, and use what you've learned to find a healthier relationship.
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