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Gaslighting: How to Spot the Signs Amidst World Challenges

Some thoughts to focus on to determine if you're in a gaslit relationship.

Key points

  • The pandemic was fertile ground for gaslighting in relationships.
  • Talking about relationship dynamics with your partner can be helpful.
  • Try these strategies to step out of a relationship fueled by gaslighting.

Lockdown during the pandemic got me thinking about people in their homes and how, when it comes to relationships, that could easily go either way. A strong relationship, family unit would probably be doing well, but the things that could go wrong probably did. As a practicing therapist who has a specialty in gaslighting relationships, I thought it would be great to give you a primer and some examples to recognize if you are in a gaslighting situation.

As could have been predicted, the pandemic proved fertile ground for gaslighting. Everyone was more anxious and de-stabilized from months of feeling out of control. With every ‘next day’ being unpredictable and not knowing when the ‘end’ of the pandemic would come and without even knowing what the 'end' would really mean. In the first months, Joanne and her husband, Bret, like most of us experienced anxiety and fear of getting sick, and for Bret, anxiety about potentially losing his job. They shared grief about losing a close friend, uncertainty even of the food supply, and then devastation about the global reach of Covid.

Returning to ‘normal’ now doesn’t seem likely, any time soon. A new normal means different things to different people. For some relationships, like Joanne’s and Bret’s, it means the possibility of more alone time, a bit more distance from each other than in the time of lockdown. For relationships where power and control are prized by the ‘gaslighter’—this is a time where they might begin to be triggered or feel threatened, and double down on the gaslighting.

Let's take Joanne. Joanne could not wait to have some alone time, but, even as she thought about it, she knew she would pay the price. More haranguing, more trying to manipulate her reality, more nasty comments.

The pandemic was hard for her. While she and Bret had a good relationship, the truth was that they never really spent much time together. Enter lockdown and time together. Over time, she began to feel suffocated by Bret's constant attempt to control her.

He was on her every moment, monitoring her every phone call. She is quite even-tempered and inclined to be very transparent, so easily said, "Oh, that was my sister on the phone", or "...that was my co-worker." What really began getting to her was his constant negative assessment of the people in her life. He was always telling her that people were only in touch with her because they had nothing else to do, "They are in lockdown too, and must be bored out of their minds if they are calling you," he would say with a snicker. Mostly she just ignored him, but, over time, Joanne began to wonder if he was right, especially when Bret questioned her connection with the colleagues she rarely spoke to before the pandemic.

As a result of the constant criticism, Joanne desperately wanted more time without Bret, but every time she wanted to meet a friend or colleague outdoors, Bret would say, "Don't you realize they are just using you and don’t really care about you? It’s so obvious."

Joanne now feels exhausted, worn down by the pandemic, and torn down by Bret. She is second-guessing herself all the time. "Maybe he is right and I just didn’t see it before", she thinks.

At some moments Joanne thinks she sees clearly, and she reaches inside for compassion. She gives Bret easy ways out by thinking he is going through a lot. His job is in jeopardy, his friends moved out of town because of pandemic contagion in city life. He sometimes is an insecure guy, but he really loves her. She believes that. She thinks that he is likely jealous of her closeness to others, or perhaps envious of her not having a place to go himself. His campaign is relentlessly designed to convince her that the only reason people are seeing her is that they also are eager to get out of their house, and doesn’t she agree that she needs that inflated sense of importance to cover her low self-esteem?

Unfortunately, Joanne’s story is not uncommon. During this time of lockdown, intense feelings of anxiety and helplessness, living with day-to-day life being so out of control, Joanne begins to feel even more helpless.

If you know someone who is struggling in a relationship that sounds like this one—or if the interactions with your loved one sounds like these interactions—and, if you feel less than the self you used to be, if you second guess yourself all the time, if you feel not ‘good enough, you may be in a gaslighting relationship. The twisting of the conversation away from the subject at hand, the topic you brought up, or a snarky remark about you are hallmarks of gaslighting.

When you see it or hear it, you can:

  • Step out of the conversation or the power struggle.
  • Let your gaslighter know you are okay with agreeing to disagree.
  • Turn to friends who know you well, for a reality check.
  • Spend time with people who treat you in a way that lifts you.
  • Talk with your partner about the dynamic called ‘gaslighting’ and determine for yourself if they are ready to work on their part.
  • Psychologically prepare yourself to leave, even if you ultimately don’t have to.
  • Take care of yourself so you are as strong as possible: eat well, sleep, exercise.
  • Create mindful moments where you remind yourself that you deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion.

As you work through what may be happening, seek help from a trusted friend, a professional, or relative that you trust.