The following piece touches on intimate partner abuse, which may be upsetting or triggering for some readers.
“You’re bad with money.”
That was the argument Krysta’s now ex-husband used in order to gain full control of their shared finances. He insisted the 30-year-old entrepreneur’s shopping habits — something he’d heard her mom tease her about — were reason enough for her to forward her paychecks to him. Anytime she questioned his stress over the state of their finances, he would blame her love of eating out for his concern.
“I stopped the conversation there,” says Krysta. “I knew at that point I would never receive an answer, and it would always be flipped back onto me.”
This is a classic case of gaslighting.
To gaslight someone is to make them question their reality through repeated lies. It is not a new term, but it has become part of the zeitgeist over the past couple of years, in part spurred by writer Lauren Duca using the term to describe our tumultuous political climate. It can happen in a number of different situations, and we commonly use it when talking about romantic relationships.
“[Gaslighting] may be intentional or unintentional, but that doesn’t matter,” says Preston Ni, communication studies professor at Foothill College and author of “How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Psychological Bullying.” “It puts another person down. It is repeated with such frequency that the victims start to believe their own inadequacy or inferiority.”
Krysta’s relationship was filled with instances of gaslighting, each more serious than the last. Hannah Adams, MA, LPC, therapist at the Bergen Counseling Center, confirms that this is often the case. “Gaslighting can be subtle in the beginning and grow to be a more central theme in the relationship,” she says.
And not every person who gaslights is an abusive partner — a lot of people gaslight without knowing they are doing it. So if you feel uncomfortable about something your partner has said or done, bring it up. If they are receptive and willing to change their behavior, great. If they’re defensive and turn it back on you, you should keep two things in mind during your interactions with them.
How They’re Teasing You
For many people, teasing is a form of flirting — it can be playful and a way to gauge the other person’s wit and humor. Clearly, not all — or even most — teasing is a red flag. What differentiates playful teasing and gaslighting is how you feel about what is said. The comments are also often hostile and oppressive.
“[Gaslighters] make you feel bad about yourself,” says Ni. “If this person teases or makes fun of you in a way that makes you feel that way, then that’s [a] good enough [reason] to put a stop to it.”
Still, not all verbal abuse counts as gaslighting. Ni gives the example of a couple fighting over one of them always being late. If they are yelling at each other about the tardiness, he sees that as verbal abuse. If one partner makes a comment like, “You must not be that bright if you don’t know how to tell time,” that’s gaslighting — lateness is an issue unrelated to your level of intelligence.
“A gaslighter can put down a person’s appearance, or make something up [about them],” he says. “A gaslighter can call this person dumb [or] idiotic for being normal.”
Your Feelings About Their Feelings
We are trained to pay attention to how we make others feel, but we don’t always check in with ourselves to ask how others’ behavior affects us.
Adams says her clients who experience gaslighting often feel as if they’re to blame for their partners’ emotions. “[They think they are] responsible for making the other person feel better, which can often mean putting [their own] emotions to the side,” she says.
When Krysta and her ex started dating, they lived four hours apart, she in Tampa, Florida and he in Tallahassee, Florida, where he was attending medical school. He invited her to stay with him one weekend, which to her sounded like a fun visit. After the weekend, however, he sent her a text complaining that she had distracted him from studying for an exam. Apparently he had expected her to cook, do laundry, and entertain herself. She had no idea that he wanted any of those things but when she told him that, he didn’t back down. “He still somehow made me feel bad for taking him away from studying,” she says. “The last thing I wanted was for him to fail an exam.”
If you bring up feelings of distress or dissatisfaction only for your partner to shut you down, it’s time to raise the flag. “This can lead to thoughts like, I should try harder and my unhappiness is my own fault,” Adams says. “This, in turn, makes it difficult for that individual to leave the relationship.”
Ni says it’s important to pay attention to your partner’s tone and intent. Ask yourself these questions: Is what my partner is saying based on facts, or are they getting something out of this lie? If so, what? What price might I pay by falling into this trap? If you’re able to identify the intent of a comment, you’ll be able to talk about why it makes you feel uncomfortable with your partner. Communication, as always, is key.
That’s why Krysta has vowed not to hold back when it comes to expressing her concerns in future relationships. She divorced her husband nine months ago, and they are no longer in contact. While she believes he is not a bad person (“He’s a product of his environment,” she says. “He treated me the way he saw his dad treat his mom.”), she is now more guarded when it comes to dating. “At the first sign of anything close to what I’ve experienced, I will speak [up about how it makes me uncomfortable] and, if it continues, I will walk away immediately,” she says. “[Therapy has taught me that gaslighting is] a lot more common than we would like to think, and it needs to be addressed as soon as it [starts] to let the other person know that it’s [not OK].”
If you are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence and are in need of support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.