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How to Outgrow “Gaslighting”

Reflect on how you feel about yourself when you accuse.

Key points

  • Gaslighting is perhaps the most harmfully misused term of pop psychology.
  • It means making someone doubt their sanity for an ulterior purpose.
  • The term is often misused to describe relationship dynamics and differences in perception and memory.

Gaslighting is perhaps the most harmfully misused term of pop psychology. It literally means making someone doubt their sanity.

The term is taken from the title of a 1938 play, later turned into a couple of movies. In the plot, a man murders a famous opera singer for her jewels but is forced to escape without them when he is interrupted by her niece. He later seeks out, woos, and marries the niece to have access to the house where he believes the jewels are hidden. He then systematically tries to convince the niece that she’s insane, so he can have her committed to an institution and gain free reign to search the house for the jewels. His diabolical plan includes randomly altering the gas lamps of the room to create delusions in the unwary victim.

In the past decade, responsible writers have used the term to describe deliberate attempts to make a partner feel crazy or overwhelmed with self-doubt, for some ulterior motive, either profit, perverse ego boost, or simply to control the victim.

Unfortunately, pop psychology writers use the term interchangeably with deceit, such as a partner denying an affair to cover up betrayal. While this is dishonest behavior, there is no attempt to make the partner feel crazy. More often the deceit is a toddler-brain attempt to avoid exposure to guilt and shame, rather than deliberately causing anguish in the partner. Sometimes the deceitful partners try, however misguidedly, to spare their betrayed partners the pain of the truth. Most of the time they're trying to get the betrayed partner to let go of painful suspicions, rather than cause painful self-doubt. This is unacceptably insensitive. But calling it “gaslighting” dilutes the term and mitigates its force as an intentional act of harm.

The most troublesome use of the term conflates genuine gaslighting with relationship dynamics. Relationship dynamics are defined as patterns of behavior that happen between people in the ways they relate, interact, and communicate with each other. In the throes of relationship dynamics, we’re hypersensitive to the effect of what we perceive our partners to say and do but mostly insensitive to the effect of what we say and do.

For example, if you regard your partner as “passive-aggressive,” your partner, almost by definition, regards you as “aggressive.” In cases of advanced resentment, passive-aggressive behavior can be spite-work. It’s more often the result of partners agreeing to do something they don't really agree with (out of distraction or to avoid an argument) and then forgetting, regretting, or sabotaging it. This is a common relationship dynamic that is quite resolvable in couples counseling. But the inflammatory negative labeling of “gaslighting” makes a fixable dynamic almost impossible to repair.

Authors who attempt to label behaviors as gaslighting while ignoring relationship dynamics lead clients to an inevitable standoff:

“You gaslight me! I hold you accountable for your faulty memory and inaccurate perceptions and correct your cognitive biases and distortions.”

Since the term has gained currency, almost all the emotional abusers in my practice start treatment with the claim that their partners "gaslight" when they dare to think or remember things differently from them.

Another repairable relationship issue that an accusation of gaslighting renders irrevocable is selective listening/recall. The human brain tends to filter out familiar sounds. The filtering process affects everyone who lives together, once their voices become familiar, but disproportionally affects the partner who talks more.

“I told you that.”

“You did not!”

“I certainly told you that!”

“Well, I didn’t hear it.”

"You never listen!”

Therapists teach various listening techniques to compensate for the brain’s familiarity-filtering tendency. But it becomes hopeless when partners construe the normal functioning of the autopilot brain as gaslighting.

Similarly, differences in recall are inevitable in relationships. (See Why Your Partner Remembers Things Differently from You.) Partners who want to improve their relationships try to reconcile differences in recall

“Sorry, I must have missed that.”

“Maybe if we touched or made eye-contact when we talk, we’d both remember a little better.”

Partners who read over-simplified self-help material that purposely or inadvertently promote victim identity are likely to be uninterested in reconciling differences in interpretations and recall or correcting dysfunctional relationship dynamics. Instead, they'll accuse each other of gaslighting.

Shared Experience Is Emotional, Not Factual

One author cited research on shared experiences as evidence of the harmful effects of gaslighting, even though the cited study did not measure gaslighting. Astute therapists help partners realize that shared experience is about emotional attunement, not interpretations of facts, which are inherently bias-laden. Partners usually recall the same valence of memories — positive or negative — but differ in facts. If they share the feeling, interpretations of facts hardly matter. But there is no chance to achieve shared experience when partners accuse each other of gaslighting.

It's common for partners in happy relationships to have different perceptions and make different interpretations of common experiences. What separates them from unhappy couples is that they respect their differences. In unhappy relationships, differences are threatening and devalued. Both partners are likely to feel abused. Both run the risk of developing victim identity, which precludes relationship repair.

More tragically, victim identity impairs recovery after abusive relationships end. Focus on perceived damage affects all close relationships, especially parenting. It causes us to think the worst about the intentions of others. Reflect for a moment on how you feel about yourself when you use negative labels like “gaslighting” to describe people you love or loved.

The only way to get the footprints of abuse off the soul is to develop a healing identity, focused on personal strengths, resilience, deeper values, and a strong sense of humanity.

The Standard for Love Relationships

Partners can argue incessantly about which behaviors are abusive or gaslighting, with little chance of convincing each other. To use legal jargon, negative labels like gaslighting are more prejudicial than probative. Disputes about negative labels miss the only point that matters, which is: the behavior hurts.

The measure of acceptable behavior in a love relationship must be compassion and kindness, not absence of abuse or gaslighting. When compassion and kindness become the standard for relationships, most of the confusion about context-dependent behaviors and differences in perceptions and memory falls away. It’s much clearer that a behavior lacks compassion and kindness than whether it’s validly judged abusive or gaslighting.

No one enters a love relationship wanting simply not to be abused or gaslit. We want as much love, compassion, and kindness as we give. That should be the measure of all relationships, past, present, and future.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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