7 Stages of Gaslighting in a Relationship
“If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth.” ―attributed to various sources
“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.” —Paramahansa Yogananda
Gaslighting is a form of persistent manipulation and brainwashing that causes the victim to doubt her or himself, and ultimately lose her or his own sense of perception, identity, and self-worth. The term is derived from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband tries to convince his wife that she’s insane by causing her to question herself and her reality.
In its milder forms, gaslighting creates a subtle, but inequitable, power dynamic in a relationship, with the gaslightee subjected to the gaslighter’s unreasonable, rather than fact-based, scrutiny, judgment, or micro-aggression. At its worst, pathological gaslighting constitutes a severe form of mind-control and psychological abuse. Gaslighting can occur in personal relationships, at the workplace, or over an entire society.
Multiple studies and writings have focused on the phenomenon of gaslighting and its destructive impact. Here are seven stages through which a pathological gaslighter dominates a victim (excerpted from my book, How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Psychological Bullying). Depending on the situation, there may be variations in the order and the number of gaslighting stages involved:
1. Lie and Exaggerate. The gaslighter creates a negative narrative about the gaslightee (“There’s something wrong and inadequate about you”), thereby putting the gaslightee on the defensive.
“My wife is a pathetic loser, and she needs to know the truth.” ―Anonymous husband
“The work your department does is a waste of time and resources. How do you even justify your employment?” ―Anonymous manager
“I hate it when you put groceries on the checkout counter that way. I told you before I HATE it!” ―Mother to daughter at supermarket
2. Repetition. Like psychological warfare, the falsehoods are repeated constantly in order to stay on the offensive, control the conversation, and dominate the relationship.
3. Escalate When Challenged. When called on their lies, the gaslighter escalates the dispute by doubling and tripling down on their attacks, refuting substantive evidence with denial, blame, and more false claims (misdirection), sowing doubt and confusion.
“When I caught my boyfriend sexting with someone, he flatly said it didn’t happen — that I imagined the whole thing. He called me a crazy b----.” ―Anonymous
4. Wear Out the Victim. By staying on the offensive, the gaslighter eventually wears down their victim, who becomes discouraged, resigned, pessimistic, fearful, debilitated, and self-doubting. The victim begins to question her or his own perception, identity, and reality.
5. Form Codependent Relationships. The Oxford Dictionary defines codependency as "excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner.” In a gaslighting relationship, the gaslighter elicits constant insecurity and anxiety in the gaslightee, thereby pulling the gaslightee by the strings. The gaslighter has the power to grant acceptance, approval, respect, safety, and security. The gaslighter also has the power (and often threatens to) take them away. A codependent relationship is formed based on fear, vulnerability, and marginalization.
6. Give False Hope. As a manipulative tactic, the gaslighter will occasionally treat the victim with mildness, moderation, and even superficial kindness or remorse, to give the gaslightee false hope. In these circumstances, the victim might think: “Maybe he’s really not THAT bad,” “Maybe things are going to get better,” or “Let’s give it a chance.”
But beware! The temporary mildness is often a calculated maneuver intended to instill complacency and have the victim’s guard down before the next act of gaslighting begins. With this tactic, the gaslighter also further reinforces a codependent relationship.
7. Dominate and Control. At its extreme, the ultimate objective of a pathological gaslighter is to control, dominate, and take advantage of another individual, or a group, or even an entire society. By maintaining and intensifying an incessant stream of lies and coercions, the gaslighter keeps the gaslightees in a constant state of insecurity, doubt, and fear. The gaslighter can then exploit their victims at will, for the augmentation of their power and personal gain.
Preston Ni is the author of (click on titles): How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Psychological Bullying and How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People.
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