10 Red Flags You're Dating a Gaslighter, Therapists Say
If you notice these patterns, it's time to get out.
Dating is hard enough, even when everyone involved shows up with the best of intentions. Add in elements of purposeful manipulation, and you can quickly find yourself in a seriously harmful and damaging relationship. In recent years, mental health professionals have shed light on one particular abusive trait that they say is all too common in dating couples: Gaslighting.
In this form of psychological manipulation, the gaslighter orchestrates an atmosphere of confusion and self-doubt until their partner comes to question their own perception, sanity, or memory. This ultimately leaves the gaslit partner dangerously vulnerable to the gaslighter's control.
To make matters worse, gaslighting is often so subtle and disorienting that it's extremely hard to identify when you're experiencing it. However, mental health experts say that if you know what to look for, you're more likely to break free of its hold. Read on to learn the top 10 red flags that you're dating a gaslighter—any of which may mean it's time to exit the relationship before it's too late.
They double down when caught in a lie.
Dishonesty on its own, however abhorrent, is not necessarily a sign of gaslighting. The defining moment takes place after the initial dishonesty, when you confront them about it. If the person you're dating doubles down on the lie, performing mental gymnastics to justify it or maintain their claims, this is a sign of gaslighting—and it's especially toxic.
"People who engage in gaslighting have a very loose relationship with the truth," explains Caleb Birkhoff, LMFT, a couple's therapist based in San Francisco. "They tend to talk in circles, trying to create a convincing narrative that excuses what they've been accused of, or deflecting attention back to you, mostly in an effort to have you question what really happened and maintain an inequitable amount of control. Keep a look out for words like 'always' and 'never,' as they are helpful tools in crafting their story."
They isolate you.
It's easier to pull the wool over someone's eyes when they're secluded from outside perspectives. Many gaslighters will attempt to isolate their partners from friends and family, making it harder for them to see that the relationship is abnormal or unhealthy.
"One of the most devastating strategies that goes along with the isolation is that they will have you in charge of your own isolation. The success is higher if it's your decision to withdraw from your support system," Birkhoff says.
They triangulate relationships.
Another way that a gaslighter may exert control over your relationships is by triangulating them. This occurs when the gaslighter pushes for minimal or no direct contact between the two triangulated individuals so that they can control the narrative between them.
Avigail Lev, PsyD, a licensed therapist and director at Bay Area CBT Center, says that oftentimes, the gaslighter will fabricate a conflict between two triangulated individuals, creating a deep divide that makes everyone involved reliant on the gaslighting middleman. "Using another person to invoke jealousy, insecurity, or doubt is a hallmark sign of gaslighting," notes Lev.
They play the victim.
Gaslighters are often quick to play the victim, which helps distract from the many ways their actions cause harm.
"Gaslighters are skillful at positioning themselves as the victim in situations that they're responsible for. The conversation is quickly, and seamlessly, shifted to how hurtful it is that you would accuse them of something, or how painful it is to not be trusted, or lands on that thing that you did that one time. You might find yourself apologizing even for things that aren't your fault," says Birkhoff.
They make you question your memory.
Another key feature of gaslighting is that you come to feel that you can't trust your own memory. This is because the gaslighter has obscured the facts and evidence so artfully that everything is up for debate.
"Being told that you have memory issues or that certain incidents never transpired is another sign," says Lev. "Regularly experiencing confusion or ambiguity regarding conversations or plans might also be indicative of gaslighting."
They belittle you.
It is possible to be verbally abusive without also gaslighting someone, but the two often do go hand in hand, says Birkhoff.
"People who are gaslighters tend to belittle their partner's feelings and opinions and undermine their confidence. It's more aggressive and calculated than simply dismissing them," he explains. "It's their goal to keep you feeling small, powerless, and confused. By attacking your sense of self and self-esteem they offer themselves as the only people who love you and tolerate who they describe you as."
Lev says this can noticeably change your disposition over time. "Feeling dissociated, numb, paranoid, or often frightened implies potential gaslighting," she tells Best Life.
They refuse to take responsibility.
Blame shifting is another crucial red flag to look out for when it comes to gaslighting. If your partner can't seem to apologize for their mistakes, big or small, this could be a sign that they'll do anything to avoid accountability.
"They deflect the blame onto others and deny any wrongdoing or shift the focus to something else to avoid taking ownership of their mistakes," says Birkhoff. "The conversation will never be straightforward, or concise. The more you try to nail them down or paint them into a corner, the louder they will object."
They make you question clear evidence.
Sometimes, all of the evidence is pointing in one direction. If you still question your interpretation thanks to your partner's input, you may be dating a gaslighter.
"Gaslighting is when you feel something very true, and another person has the ability to talk about that thing and make you question the truthfulness, even if you have physical evidence," explains Leslie Dobson, PsyD, a clinical and forensic psychologist based in Long Beach, California. She adds that these individuals are often charismatic, confident, and assertive—all of which can make you feel more vulnerable, small, and unsure of your beliefs.
They claim to understand your feelings better than you.
No one understands you the way you do—but don't tell that to a gaslighter. By keeping you reliant on their perceptions of your feelings, there's less risk of you coming to the conclusion that you're being manipulated.
"Encountering frequent projection, where they assert to understand your feelings better than you, is another red flag. For example, if you say you're not angry, but they insist you are, it's projection," explains Lev. "Becoming angry due to their persistence is termed projective identification, where you've now identified with their projection. Gaslighters often employ this to make you express their unresolved issues."
Ultimately, this can make you feel like you can't trust yourself, says Dobson. "Over time, gaslighting reduces our self-esteem, confidence, and congruence," she tells Best Life.
They stir up emotion—both good and bad.
For a gaslighter, it pays to keep emotions running high. According to Gary Tucker, a licensed psychotherapist and chief clinical officer for D'Amore Mental Health in Orange County, California, there are two key ways they do this.
First, they are likely to try to create a deep emotional bond that serves as the foundation for their other manipulations. "They may use a tactic called love-bombing, where they shower you with compliments and gifts to make you feel special," he explains.
Next, they may wear you down with emotional pleas, hoping to persuade you to believe them or to do what they want. "This type of cruel behavior is intended to control you and weaken your emotional defenses. The person attempts to dominate you in order for you to accommodate their wants and needs. This desire could be for sexual control or emotional control over you," Tucker tells Best Life.
It's important to note that sometimes, emotional abuse is a precursor to physical or sexual abuse. If you believe you may be in an abusive relationship, there are ways to get help. Learn more by calling 1-(800)-799-SAFE or by visiting the website for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
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