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 actual consequences for its victims. So what is gaslighting? And what are the signs you’re in a relationship with someone who’s gaslighting you?
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting psychological manipulation of a person, typically through lying, until the victim questions their sanity and begins to accept the other person’s version of reality. It's an abuse of power to dominate another person.
If the gaslighter is good enough, the victim may not even realize that it's happening. Gaslighting 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.
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). These people seek to control another person to meet their own needs or desires in a way that’s manipulative or dishonest.
Here are seven signs of gaslighting in a relationship, and what to do if you think you’re being gaslighted.
Gaslighting 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.
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. With some of these signs, the victim doesn’t notice them at first. The person needs to gain evidence that it’s gradually occurring over time and put the pieces together to see the symptoms for what they really are.
They lie—and keep lying even after they've been caught
Does your friend never seem to be wrong? If that's the case, they are definitely lying, because we’re all wrong at some point or another. Lying is a key sign of gaslighting.
Of course people lie for many reasons. But gaslighters lie to change another person’s reality. Whatever the gaslighter wants to get from one person, they'll get one way or another through lying.
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.
It becomes a real mind-you-know-what if the person who’s lying is so confident and unwavering in their position.
They play on insecurities
A gaslighter gets to know your vulnerabilities. Your vulnerabilities include your insecurities, successes, and beliefs. They’ll consistently critique these things, and make snide comments to hurt and control you. Then they will tell you to "get over it," so you begin to believe your perspective isn’t valid or important.
These comments cut down your sense of self-esteem and over time gives the gaslighter the upper hand. The person who is being gaslit will question their worthiness and identify with the gaslighter’s perspective.
Actions don't match words
Even though the gaslighter says that 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. You should question your trust in a person who gives you lip service—particularly if it’s a pattern.
They manipulate your relationships
Gaslighters manipulate how you see important people in your life. They tell you that your father doesn’t love you, your friend is talking behind your back, or your sister is lying to you. They 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 are the only person who can be trusted, a gaslighter becomes the master manipulator. 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.
They question your sanity
After lying and manipulating you, a gaslighter will question your version of events, telling you that you're paranoid or imagining things. The goal is to make you feel like you’re going insane.
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.
They accuse you of doing the same thing
Known as “projection” in therapy-speak, gaslighters 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. They’re attempting 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.
You feel increasingly unsure of yourself
Over time, a gaslighter’s behaviors cut into the self-confidence of their victim. You might think everything’s your fault and apologize all of the time, then wonder if you’re too sensitive. Maybe you feel anxious and isolated. You may question your impressions, thoughts, and feelings, and have a hard time making decisions.
What should you do if you're being gaslighted?
\\If you think believe that you're being gaslighted, find a person to confide in, a person that you can trust. You need to get out from under the influence of the gaslighter and have your perspective heard and understood.
It’s entirely possible to fall for someone and realize that they’re gaslighting you after a date or two. Get rid of them. If this isn’t the first time you’ve been attracted to a gaslighter, therapy might be in order. Consider how you become attracted to this type of person. Ask yourself if you're playing a subservient role, and was that something that person smelled out? People who control are looking for people they can control.
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 recognizes what they are doing and changes, and you determine why the cheating happened and address those issues, there’s a chance you can recover.
Many people who have affairs never thought they would and are grasping for ways to make it go away or pretend like it never happened.
If, however, a person is slowly gaslighting you, and they aren’t remorseful when you confront them, they may 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.
Changing this type of behavior in a person takes time and a lot of motivation. It’s much more complicated and often never occurs.
So much of my time spent with people is about communication. Why is that? I think it’s because we know that communication is one of those things that all of us can seek to improve.
Communication is also something that when changed, can have immediate and positive benefits on your relationship.The Gottmans are famous for their research on the dynamics of relationships and communication. Their book The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work has become a best-seller because it focuses on many of the practical aspects of relationships that you can begin to make changes in.
One of their most popular couple communication concepts is the idea of the ‘soft start-up’.
What is the soft start-up?Simply put, the soft start-up is about approaching a conversation with your partner in a soft way, so that your partner can better receive what you are saying. Many couples fall into the trap of initiating communication with a harsh start-up such as, “Why didn’t you clean the kitchen?!” [said with a blaming tone].
The Gottmans found out through their research that when you start a conversation with tension or harshness, it’s almost certain that you will end the conversation with tension. Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself?
When you start a conversation with tension or harshness, it's almost certain that you will end the conversation with tension.
So, how do you communicate with a soft start-up?
Here are several tips that can help you start a conversation or bring up an issue in your relationship by utilizing the soft start-up approach.
1. Choose your timing carefully
Before you even think about bringing an issue to the floor or beginning a difficult conversation, make sure you’ve got your timing right.
Don’t choose a time when one or both of you are stressed, rushed or dealing with other matters, and avoid noisy and crowded environments. You want to make sure you’re both relaxed and able to focus on one another without any interruptions.
2. Start with something positive
Starting your conversation with a positive statement can make a gigantic difference to how you are received by your partner. It also sets the tone for your conversation.
For example, saying, “Sweetheart, I want to let you know that I really appreciate how hard you’re working at the moment to save money for our deposit”, before you discuss a financial concern can help you get off to a strong start.
3. Own your feelings and use “I” statements
Another important part of the soft start-up is to own your feelings and use “I” statements.
This has a two-fold effect. First, your partner will be less defensive because you’re sharing your own feelings, not commenting or interpreting the feelings of your partner. Next, using “I” statements helps because when you take ownership of your experience, it’s less likely to be heard by your partner as blame.
For example, “When you left this morning and didn’t turn the dishwasher on, I felt annoyed when I came home” is much more palatable than “You are so lazy and forgetful- why didn’t you remember to turn the dishwasher on like I asked you?” The former is more likely to get you a positive response and the later is more likely to have your partner defend their position and attack back.
4. Watch your tone of voice
Be mindful of your tone of voice, this can help with the soft start-up and establish a positive outcome to your conversation.
As humans, we are wired to be sensitive to threat, and threat can be perceived through the voice and it's tone. There can be fine line between assertive communication and aggressive communication.
Check in on your tone as you start to speak. Is there an edge to it? Is there a harshness? If so, see if you can soften your tone. If it helps, notice any tension in your voice and consciously relax your throat and vocal cords.
As humans, we are wired to be sensitive to threat, and threat can be perceived through the voice and it's tone. There can be a fine line between assertive communication and aggressive communication.
5. Share a complaint, but don’t criticize
It’s normal to have complaints of our partners. In fact, a complaint can be healthy for partners if you make it clear what outcome you want to achieve.
The problem starts when complaints turn into criticisms. Any attack on the character of your partner, including global statements of their failings (“you never” or “you always”) can railroad any productive conversation very quickly.
Focus on specific behaviors and make it clear what you dislike, how you feel and how you would like them to change.
6. Make requests for change
Furthermore, complaints without any requests for change are also unhelpful. If you just share your feelings and complaints, your partner may not understand what it is you want.
Let your partner know the specific change you’re wanting. For example, “When you leave your clothes on the floor I feel irritated because I have a need for a clean house, so I’m asking you to please put your clothes in the basket”.
You might have noticed that in this example, the speaker also expressed their need. An expression of your greater need—like a need for cleanliness and organization—can help your partner understand where your irritation is coming from. This understanding can help them be more mindful of your values in the relationship and what will please and displease them.
The soft start-up can be a very effective tool to use when you have to have a difficult conversation. Try it out and see what happens to the communication the next time you need to raise an issue. You might be surprised by the results.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son. (1668), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Rembrandt's “Return of the Prodigal Son,” painted in 1668 toward the end of his life, and now hanging in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, is a truly astounding work of sacred art. I haven't seen the original (it is a large painting 8” by 6”), but even the prints convey that which is almost inexpressible.
Others have painted this gospel parable that appears in Luke, chapter 15 many times. Rembrandt’s version stands out, however, from all the others (including James Tisor’s The prodigal son in modern life: the return, painted around 1882, which portrays the son as a wayward sailor returned to his father’s arms on a dock somewhere).
In Rembrandt's version, the father and prodigal son are in that ever-so-soft-and-delicate light of Rembrandt (not the highly intensified and focused light like Caravaggio) against the backdrop of a black surface. The ragged, dirty robes of the son contrast with the father’s ochre tinged with gold robe.
One can move downward from the light on the father’s face to the son’s feet, filthy, with one sandal lying on the floor. The son is almost bald and repellant: he has squandered his inheritance and has even descended so far into degradation that he lived with the pigs.
In another painting of this biblical story Rembrandt caught the prodigal son in the tavern. He painted himself and his wife, Saskia, into the merry-making of wine and song in a raucous pub (of course, Rembrandt as prodigal is wearing a sassy Dutch hat of black felt, with sword dangling at his side).
There are sketches, too, of scenes from the story. Albrecht Durer sketched The prodigal son among the pigs in 1496. This sketch sets the prodigal son smack in the middle of a pig’s trough. These pigs, and their piglets, have the largest snouts I have ever seen. Durer is a matchless wood-cut artist and crafter of sketches.
But it is the father’s features that keep my eyes fixated on the Rembrandt painting, perhaps the way Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa still strikes silent awe in our hearts. How could he paint such an enigmatic smile? Rembrandt’s solemn scene of reconciliation paints the father’s look with such utter tenderness, compassion and love.
Part of the way he does this is by the contrasting light on the old man’s eyes: his left shaded with black, the right eye full of light, the head tilted to the left, the arms extending out of the scarlet robe (revealing extraordinarily beautiful undergarments) and hands placed with utmost tenderness on the son’s back (his head, though turned, is resting on his father’s chest).
Rembrandt has caught the moment when the father has just so, so carefully placed his hands on the son. One can almost imagine that this dirty wayward prodigal had just walked in, and the father moves to meet him, with the son falling at his father’s feet. The psychological depth of this painting is remarkable. The son has come home, the feast is about to begin.
But Rembrandt does not forget the elder brother. He is the “good son” who stands at the side to his father’s left, with two figures, barely visible, in between (another stands behind the father). The light is on the elder son’s face. Unlike his brother, he is standing, hands folded, a walking cane in his front. A red cape drapes his shoulders. He doesn’t seem particularly overjoyed.
The universal meaning of this unsurpassable painting is that light flows into the darkness and sin-weariness of the world though compassion that accepted the wounded and humiliated with total encompassing. The father embraces the wayward one without question. In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: a story of homecoming (1994), Henri Nouwen, the contemplative priest and spiritual director, discusses his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting. His story began in the fall of 1983 in the village of Trosly, where he had been spending time at L’Arche, the community founded by Jean Vanier for mentally handicapped people.
Henri had been traveling around the United States lecturing and protesting the war in Central America. He was exhausted, restless, and needy. One day he went over to visit Simone Landrien in the community’s documentation centre. He says, “As we spoke, my eyes fell on a large poster pinned on her door. I saw a man in a great red cloak tenderly touching the shoulders of disheveled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away.
“I felt drawn by the intimacy between the three figures (one, very, very faint), the war red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both. But, most of all, it was the hands—the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before.”
Immediately Nouwen wanted to get a copy—at Simone’s insistence. The picture stayed with him over the years. There is little doubt that for Nouwen, the coming home to a secure and safe place swelled up from his spiritual depths. Three years later, Henri had opportunity to visit the Hermitage in St. Petersburg where he saw the original painting for the first time.
“I was stunned by its majestic beauty. Its size, larger than life; its abundant reds, browns, and yellow, its shadowy recesses and bright foreground, but most of all the light-enveloped embrace of father and son surrounded by four mysterious bystanders, all of this gripped me with an intensity far beyond my anticipation. There had been moments in which I had wondered whether the real painting might disappoint me. The opportunity was true. Its grandeur and splendour made everything recede into the background and held me completely. Coming here was indeed a homecoming.”
Dive deeper into the painting
The painting revealed to Nouwen the deepest yearning of his heart. The story of the prodigal son is the story of a God who goes searching for us and who doesn’t rest until he has found us.
3 phases of the spiritual journey:
1. The younger son.
Practical tips & things to pray about