Dealing with a gaslighting spouse can be confusing and difficult, and requires a bidirectional approach. That means the victim should deal with the spouse constructively and at the same time build on their own psychological and emotional coping mechanisms and defenses.
In this article, we will discuss what to do when your spouse is gaslighting you and how to look after your mental health and well-being.
In This Article
How Can You Tell If You Are Being Gaslit By Your Spouse
To identify whether your spouse is gaslighting you, pay close attention to their behaviors, words, and your own feelings.
Signs of gaslighting include lying or withholding information, questioning the victim’s memory and perceptions, verbal abuse (such as name-calling), and discounting and trivializing the victim’s opinions and worth.
Gaslighting is typical in romantic relationships where there is a cycle of abusive and affectionate behaviors. Relationships in which gaslighting occurs often begin with a “love-bombing” phase, which involves excessive affection, attention, and gifts.
Although this can be enjoyable, it can also disorient the victim, especially when manipulative or abusive behaviors start to emerge.
In the beginning, gaslighting is often subtle and then slowly progresses into a cycle of abusive and affectionate behaviors, also known as “warm-cold behavior”. If you notice this in your relationship, it can be a sign of gaslighting.
The gaslighter aims to have power over the victim’s behavior and mental state. Therefore, be mindful of language and actions that feel controlling, undermine you, your worth, and your opinions, and leave you feeling confused and doubting yourself. When you are insecure, it is easier for the perpetrator to control you.
If the relationship has caused you to feel depressed or “crazy” and harms your self-esteem and self-worth, this can mean you are experiencing gaslighting.
Phrases That A Gaslighting Spouse Uses
Gaslighting can often be identified by the language the perpetrator uses. It can take different forms including stonewalling or shutting down a conversation and refusing to engage; countering or defending; blocking/ diverting (changing the topic of conversation or questioning the victim’s perceptions); trivializing (making you feel like you and your feelings do not matter); denial or intentionally “forgetting.”
Below are examples of phrases used in different types of gaslighting.
“I do not want to talk about that”
“You always make me look like I am a bad person”
“If I/ this relationship is so awful, why are you with me?”
“It does not matter what I do, it is always wrong”
“You are so insecure/ jealous”
“I only did that because you did __”
“The kids know you are a bad parent”
“Do you really think they will believe you?”
“You always get so worked up about things”
“You are so sensitive”
“It did not happen that way”
“You are making things up again”
What To Do When Your Spouse Is Gaslighting You
Gaslighting can be subtle so you might not immediately notice that it is happening in your relationship. The first step is to learn how to recognize gaslighting and to collect evidence by making a note of incidents in as much detail as possible.
Soon you will see a pattern emerging, which will help you to confirm your suspicions and to remain confident in your perception.
Psychologists generally advise that you should not engage with a gaslighter and that you should leave the relationship if gaslighting is a common occurrence.
However, when it comes to marriage, not engaging with your spouse is unrealistic, and leaving might not be practical. Therefore, it is helpful to know how to manage gaslighting in your relationship.
Respond Immediately To Their Claims (But Do Not Argue)
Gaslighting can take various forms. Your partner or spouse might question your memory or perception of events, deny facts, or call you names and say hurtful things under the guise of “only joking”.
When it happens, you can respond immediately and put boundaries in place. For example, if your spouse says “this is why everybody thinks you are crazy”, you can ask them to stop and that they should not bring other people into the conversation.
Do not argue with them or explain yourself but respond calmly instead. An emotional reaction (such as shouting) could result in further gaslighting. For example, they might use it as an opportunity to turn the tables and claim to be the victim.
Stand Firm In Your Version Of Events
A gaslighter wants to have control over their victim, and one way to achieve this is to put into question their memory and perception. If you doubt yourself and are no longer sure what is real and what is not, the gaslighter can control your emotions and mental state by making you believe their narrative.
This is why it is important that you know and stick to your version of events. Writing things down is helpful as you will feel more confident about your side of the story. Know that what you saw and heard is true and do not allow them to tell you otherwise.
What you feel is subjective and no one can tell you that what you are feeling is not valid. Thus, if your partner tells you “it is all in your head” or “I did not mean it that way, it was only a joke” you can respond confidently. Here are some suggestions for how you could respond to gaslighting:
“I know what I saw/ heard”
“The way I feel is valid. You cannot tell me how to feel”
“Do not tell me I am being too sensitive/ dramatic”
“That is my opinion and you cannot tell me otherwise”
Avoid Playing Games With A Gaslighter
You might feel compelled to expose the gaslighter or to seek revenge in some way. The likely outcome of this will be that they will gaslight you further by denying (“that did not happen”), deflecting (“you always want to argue with me”), and minimizing. (“it is not that bad”).
The best strategy is not to engage, to know what your truth is, and to avoid arguing or explaining yourself to them. Trying to play them at their game could escalate their behavior and be detrimental to your well-being. Read more about how to expose a gaslighter in this article.
Set Boundaries And Stick To Them
Setting boundaries will help you to manage and potentially reduce instances of gaslighting, and it will enable you to take back control. Be mindful of the fact that the gaslighter may attempt to break down or test your boundaries, thus it is important to remain firm and consistent.
Consider the following
- Where does the boundary lie? Which behaviors will you not tolerate?
- Which behaviors cross your boundary?
- How will you respond to your boundaries being violated? For example, will you remove yourself from the situation and end the conversation?
Learning assertive communication is part of healthy boundary setting. That means you express your feelings and opinions clearly and directly while remaining calm and respectful.
When you notice your spouse gaslighting you, communicate assertively that you will not tolerate the behavior and put the boundary (and the consequence of violating it) in place.
Seek Support From People You Trust
Sharing what is happening in your relationship with friends and/ or family you trust can be helpful to process your emotions and integrate the truth into your mind. If you do not share your concerns and experiences with others, it is easier for the gaslighter to achieve their goal of controlling and confusing you.
Your trusted friends/ family can validate that what is happening to you is gaslighting and that your perceptions are real. This will help you to stand firm in what you know and protect you from the psychological and emotional hold a gaslighter can have on you.
Seek Professional Help
A therapist or other mental health professional can offer an objective view of your relationship and your spouse’s behavior. They can help you to identify gaslighting and you can discuss ways to manage it.
If the gaslighting and other manipulative or abusive behaviors get worse, it is especially important to seek professional help. Gaslighting often starts out being subtle but it has the potential to escalate.
Seeking professional help will allow you to process your emotions, get validation for your experience, and make a decision on the best course of action.
Leaving The Gaslighter
If your spouse’s behavior does not improve or gets worse, and you are experiencing a decline in your mental health, it might be necessary to leave the relationship. A common consequence of gaslighting is diminished self-esteem and self-worth, which makes leaving more difficult.
You may believe (or have been told by the gaslighter) that you cannot manage without them.
In a recent study on the effects of gaslighting in romantic relationships, participants described their experiences and what helped them to recover. For many victims, ending the relationship and spending time with loved ones gave them immediate relief from the effects of gaslighting.
Thus, if you decide to leave, having a support system in place and focusing on yourself and your mental health will make that easier.
Do Gaslighters Know They Are Gaslighting?
Gaslighting benefits the perpetrator by allowing them to have control over a person or situation, and avoid taking responsibility. That means they are motivated to engage in gaslighting and may deliberately pursue their end goal, although they might not be consciously thinking “I am going to gaslight this person”.
In some cases, people who gaslight have learned this behavior in early life, such as from their caregivers. This can normalize gaslighting and the person may not be aware that what they are doing is manipulative. However, many gaslighters are aware of their behavior and purposefully aim to confuse and destabilize their victim.
Regardless of whether or not the gaslighter knows what they are doing, the effects can be just as damaging. This is why it is important to take action by leaving the relationship or creating strong boundaries and psychological defenses.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Can a Relationship Heal From Gaslighting?
For a relationship to change and heal from gaslighting, both partners must be willing to work hard, reflect on their behaviors, and aim for reconciliation. It is often the case that a person who gaslights has narcissistic traits, which makes it unlikely that they will admit they are wrong or have made a mistake.
Unless there is a serious desire and commitment to work on the relationship and the self, it is unlikely that the relationship will be able to heal from gaslighting. However, if the partner is unaware of their behavior and is prepared to admit to their wrongdoing, going to couples therapy could be helpful.
Can You Stay in a Relationship With a Gaslighting Spouse?
If your partner is gaslighting you, they are emotionally and psychologically manipulating you, which is often a sign of an abusive relationship. Generally, it is advised to leave an abusive relationship as the emotional and psychological consequences can be severe, and there is potential for the abusive behavior to escalate.
Staying in a relationship with a gaslighting spouse means that either they have to change or you have to accept the way they are, which will ultimately take a toll on your well-being.
Abusive behavior is not your fault, and it is not your responsibility to fix them either. Your safety and mental health should be your priority, and you should not stay in a relationship out of fear of your partner’s reaction or because you want to please them.
What is Unintentional Gaslighting?
Unintentional gaslighting means that the perpetrator is not aware of what they are doing or what the consequences of their behavior are. Most people have likely engaged in unintentional gaslighting, for example, telling their friend or partner, “it is not that bad”.
Here they might mean well and their aim might be to alleviate distress but because they are questioning your perception of reality it is gaslighting.
If you confront the behavior, the perpetrator will likely dismiss what you are saying because they did not consciously try to manipulate you or distort your version of events. Thus, although it is unintentional, the victim still experiences confusion and will question their perceptions, memory, and sanity.
What Happens When You Expose a Gaslighter?
A gaslighter is motivated to stay in control and avoid accountability. By confronting or exposing them, you are questioning their superiority, and they might feel they are losing control over you and the situation.
The result could be an escalation of gaslighting, i.e. they will continue to deny it, blame you, and/ or call you “crazy”. In some cases, it could also result in them becoming verbally or physically aggressive, and therefore this course of action should be taken carefully. You can read more on exposing a gaslighter in this article.
Klein, W.B., Wood, S. & Li, S (2022). A Qualitative Analysis of Gaslighting in Romantic Relationships. Preprint from PsyArXiv.
Petric, D. (2018). Gaslighting and the knot theory of mind. Research Gate.
Sweet, P. L. (2019). The Sociology of Gaslighting. American Sociological Review, 84(5), 851–875.