Gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which one person induces another to doubt their own sense of reality, starting with being pressed to see an unhealthy relationship as coming from love and good intention. There is surprisingly scant research on gaslighting, considering the attention it has received.
Researchers Klein, Li and Wood (2023) report in the journal Personal Relationships the results of a study based on in-depth interviews of gaslighting survivors. Once the survivor has accepted their “epistemic incompetence”–insecurity regarding one's grasp on reality—“[T]he perpetrator is able to use this to their advantage, mainly by avoiding accountability for their own behavior and controlling their survivor’s behavior”. The authors conducted a qualitative study of 65 gaslighting survivors, predominantly women, asking them 15 open-ended questions about their experience in prior abusive relationship and analyzing the narratives for common themes on gaslighting-related 1) relationship dynamics, 2) behaviors, 3) motivations, and 4) consequences for survivors.
Love-bombing. Most respondents reported that the relationship kicked off with love-bombing. While there is a normal honeymoon phase in all new relationships, in retrospect the romantic engagement in relationships that end up in gaslighting is intensely exaggerated and ultimately hollow. Love-bombing is characterized by early intimacy, premature sharing, and the formation of a premature strong bond. It often involves sharing of traumatic experiences, short-circuiting caution, and creating instant intimacy. Love-bombing makes it hard to separate later, due to feelings of indebtedness and confusion about the perpetrator's goodwill.
Survivor isolation. Gaslighters bad-mouthed their partner’s friends and family [and in my experience, often therapists]. Jealousy leads to canceled plans and stoked fears of abandonment, leading survivors to do anything to make the gaslighter happy. Isolation enables further gaslighting by cutting off alternative perspectives, and it solidifies the abusive bond, making it hard for others to intervene.
Perpetrator unpredictability. Gaslighters were unpredictable, swinging from being loving and affectionate to distant, angry, or argumentative—withn the span of hours, days or weeks. “Cold shouldering”–suddenly cutting of communication—was an important move, not directly a part of gaslighting but a power play to keep the survivor off-balance and desperate to get back in good graces.
Specific Gaslighting Behaviors
Insults and accusations. Comments by gaslighters were largely intended to cast doubt on the survivor’s credibility, with familiar charges of being “crazy” or “overly emotional”. Discounting the other’s grasp that abuse was taking place, especially under the sway of the traumatic bond established by love-bombing, often left survivors conflicted, shamed, and guilt-ridden for questioning their partner’s intent2.
Blaming. Gaslighters often blamed survivors for things that were not their fault, things that were clearly not under their influence. Even things like infidelity were blamed on the survivor. Blame painted the survivor a perpetrator by ascribing things to them they didn’t do and painting the actual perpetrator as a helpless victim, following the so-called DARVO playbook: Defend, and Reverse Victim and Oppressor.
Motivations for Gaslighting
Avoiding accountability. The most common gaslighting motive was to avoid accountability, most commonly to excuse infidelity— often accompanied by accusing the survivor of being “crazy”, “imagining things,” or “paranoid."3
Control. A desire for control was the next most common reported motivation for gaslighting. One participant mentioned being harassed constantly while preparing for medical school, the perpetrator trying to convince her she wasn’t good enough or smart enough to be a doctor. Controlling behavior ramps up when the survivor shows independence or autonomy.
Consequences for the Survivor
Diminished sense of self. Gaslighting survivors reported negative impact on sense of self, with feelings of being no good. For example, “I felt very confused, worthless, unlovable and broken”. Others noted feeling lost, a “shell” of who they were.
Guardedness and mistrust of future relationships. Many survivors were left feeling unsure whether they could trust others and get close again, and they aligned with a diminished sense of self, having doubts not only about their lovability but also about their capacity to sustain a healthy relationship or notice red flags in future relationships, afraid of retraumatization.
Recovery and Post-Traumatic Growth
Time with others. Survivors reported that spending time with friends and family could be restorative. This was the most common thing people did to recover. Spending time with people who supported their sense of self and helped re-establish trust in their sense of reality was pivotal.
Re-embodying activities. Developing a good body relationship was key, with activities like yoga, meditation, and physical exercise. Study authors point out that such body-oriented activities have been shown to bolster self-concept clarity. Creative, reflective activities including journaling, writing, and making art were also part of re-embodiment.
Post-traumatic growth. A number of respondents expressed experiencing post-traumatic growth, responding to adversity by creating a deeper sense of meaning and learning about life and oneself from the experience. Respondents reported a decreased need for others to feel whole, noting enjoying time with oneself more and finding inner peace. Developing a stronger sense of self and learning boundaries improves possibilities for future satisfaction.
This work is critical, calling for increased attention societally, in individual relationships and in clinical settings. Identifying the common tactics used in gaslighting helps people take evasive action before the perpetrator forms that early, pathological bond that is so hard to break later on. Data on gaslighting dynamics and tactics helps individuals by providing an externally valid framework that goes against the gaslighter's machinations, empirically grounding survivors' sense that what's happening isn't right and that the gaslighter is distorting reality.
Trauma-informed approaches are useful to address specific residual ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving etched by gaslighting dynamics. Researchers can develop assessment tools to help identify when gaslighting is taking place, based on empirical findings.
Not all relationship dysfunction is gaslighting, however, and relationship problems are often a two-way street—for example, where there is shared developmental trauma creating conflict between seeking intimacy and unconsciously avoiding it, which co-authors and I call "irrelationship."
Study author Willis Klein points out (personal communication), "It's important to note that gaslighting exists on a spectrum. Some cases may be easily identifiable as gaslighting, and others easily identifiable as not gaslighting, but there will also be trickier cases. Spotting gaslighting is made even more difficult as it depends on an element of plausible deniability, if gaslighting is too obvious it's unlikely to work.
"Making things even more complex, it's possible that some gaslighters don't even realize that what they are doing is gaslighting. I think that, in cases of confusion or regular disagreements in relationships, both people will be open to changing their views in light of well-reasoned or irrefutable evidence."
If you are concerned you are in an abusive relationship, and want to learn more or seek assistance, the National Domestic Violence Support Hotline has useful information and trained staff. To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory
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1. Unfortunately, not all players are on the up and up. People with “Dark Triad” personality traits are often hide in plain sight. The dark triad includes narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy – add “everyday sadism” to make it a dark tetrad.
2. Criticism was not only to psychological traits such as emotionality, intelligence or personality, but also to physical characteristics, style of dress and behavior in all settings. Sexual accusations, name-calling (e.g. "slut"), undermining sense of self, and complaining about the other person being after money were all reported.
3. Mixed motivations were common–avoiding accountability and control go hand-in-hand. However, coercive control, more overt efforts to set rules, use verbal abuse, aggression and threats were less likely to happen when avoiding accountability was a dominant motivation, presumably because it is harder to gaslight someone into thinking one is not to blame when the destructive actions are overt.
Citation: Klein, W., Li, S., & Wood, S., (2023). A Qualitative Analysis of Gaslighting in Romantic Relationships. Personal Relationships, pre-print of accepted article.
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