Gaslighting is a term that comes from a 1944 movie called Gaslight.
It’s a form of mental abuse where the victim is lied to—or the truth is otherwise distorted—for the purpose of causing the victim to doubt her own reality, memory, or perceptions.
Gaslighting creates the fog of addiction, and perfectly describes what happens to betrayed partners when their spouse is being unfaithful and attempting to cover up his behaviors.
There are many ways to gaslight another person, and the person who’s doing the gaslighting may not always be conscious that they’re engaged in the behavior. But that doesn’t mean they’re not gaslighting, or that the behavior doesn’t have a serious adverse impact on the person they’re confusing or deceiving.
Here are 7 signs that you’re being gaslighted, with recommendations about what to do when you suspect it’s happening to you. Knowing these signs will help you develop your own internal Gaslighting Detection System (GDS).
Feeling foggy or confused.
Feeling oddly foggy or confused is one of the most common symptoms of being gaslighted. For example, you’re talking to your spouse and in the middle of the conversation you begin to feel confused or fuzzy. You might even describe the way you feel as “crazy.”
When you notice that conversations aren’t making sense to you, you’re having a hard time following your spouse’s train of thought, or the topics of conversation change at a rapid pace, it can be extremely helpful to take a time-out. You can simply say, “I’m feeling a bit fuzzy at the moment, and I’d like to take a break. I’ll get back to you later to pick up where we left off.”
Once you’ve gotten some distance from the fog, write down exactly what happened—what was said, what you saw, or what you heard. Or, if you prefer processing your thoughts and feelings verbally, call a supportive friend to talk about what happened so that you can better make sense of it.
Doubting your perceptions.
One of the most powerful impacts of gaslighting is that the victim begins to doubt her perceptions. You may find yourself wondering whether you saw what you believe you saw, or heard what you thought—or knew—you heard. Your spouse may say, “I didn’t say that,” when you’re sure he did.
If you experience doubt about your perceptions more often than you think you should, begin documenting important conversations or agreements in writing. For example, if your spouse tells you he will call a therapist in the next week, you can simply send an email and say something to the effect of, “I’m following up about my request and our agreement that you find a therapist to work with. My understanding is that you will call a therapist in the next week. Please let me know if this is not your understanding of our agreement.”
Outsized responses to trivial matters.
Let’s say you bring up a simple issue like your spouse forgetting to pick up something from the grocery store on the way home that he promised he would. You ask him about it, or bring it up and he says, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you always breathing down my neck?”
Of course, all of us over-react from time to time. But if you experience these kinds of over-the-top responses to ordinary events on a regular basis, gaslighting may be the reason.
Conversations go nowhere.
Do you often have the experience of being in a conversation with your spouse and you either can’t follow the meaning of what’s being said, or the conversation seems to have an endless, repeating loop that never reaches a conclusion or resolution? Gaslighting may be the culprit.
When you find yourself in a conversation loop, tell your spouse that you’re having difficulty following what he’s trying to say and ask if he can sum up his main point in 3 or 4 sentences. If all else fails, take a relational time-out.
Hocus pocus, change the focus.
Hocus pocus, change the focus is when you bring up a topic or something you’d like to discuss with your spouse, and he changes the topic. For example, you say “I’d like to talk about our couples’ recovery check-ins. We agreed to do a check-in once a week but we’ve only done one in the past month.” Your spouse says, “I thought you said you didn’t want all the gory details about my addiction.”
Changing the subject is a common strategy used by most people from time to time in relationships. But when gaslighting is the problem, it happens on a regular and relentless basis. An excellent response when confronted with a sharp pivot in a conversation is a skill I call The Politician, which essentially involves sticking to your talking points. (Read about The Politician here or listen to Episode #24 of the Beyond Bitchy Podcast, The Politician (No, Not That One) here.)
You feel like you’re on a relationship roller-coaster.
You may feel like you’re walking on eggshells or you have difficulty staying up-to-date with your spouse’s frequent highs and lows. One moment he’s planning a lavish, romantic vacation, and the next he’s snapping at you about being 3 minutes late.
Unpredictability is one of the most effective ways to destabilize a relationship and cause another person to be in a constant state of uncertainty, stress, and hyper-vigilance.
Words and actions don’t match.
When a person’s words and actions don’t match, it can be truly crazy-making. If your spouse says he loves you while being blatantly abusive, cruel, or hurtful—you are being gaslighted. On the other hand, you may experience him as charming, kind, and thoughtful even when you know he’s doing things that harm the relationship. In either case, you will feel uncertain, confused, and even crazy.
When words and actions don’t match, you will save yourself additional pain and disappointment by paying more attention to the person’s actions and behavior, rather than their words.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2017)
I have been reading, emotional abuse breakthrough scrips, by Barry Davenport. It has also been very inspiring.
Vickie, thank you for all you do.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Teresa, you’re welcome and thanks for sharing this resource for other readers!
Hitting home with each description. I am going to write down the responses and not take these things personally as I am now aware what has been happening. Tu
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
You’re welcome Aileen, and I love that you said “and not take these things personally.” Addiction, gaslighting, and deception feel profoundly personal but they’re truly not. The sooner betrayed partners understand this, the better they feel.
Thank you so much for writing this. I think this is exactly what has been going on in my marriage, probably for years now, I just couldn’t put it down in words. I’ve been trying to practice Radical Acceptance but there’s only so much one can accept before they truly break.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Jen, you’re welcome! I’m so sorry to hear about your situation, and you are absolutely right—there is a time for acceptance and a time to take action so that you can feel better and protect yourself. Many healing wishes to you.