The 4 Different Types Of Gaslighting In Romantic Relationships — And Examples Of Each

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Perhaps by now, you have heard the term “gaslighting". It comes from the 1944 movie called Gaslight, but originated with a 1939 play of the same name.

The film follows Paula through the process of being emotionally manipulated by her husband, Gregory. Gregory removes pictures from the walls, creates strange noises coming from the attic, and makes the gaslights in the house dim and brighten. 

He then denies that any of these things are even happening, insisting that Paula is going crazy or losing touch with reality to such an extent that eventually, she believes it. 

In general, "gaslighting" means purposely making someone doubt their own truth. 

It’s an ugly, painful process designed to gain power and control, and it’s usually, but not always, done on purpose. What surprises most people is that there are different types of gaslighting that can happen in romantic relationships — not just one. 

In addition to knowing the types of gaslighting one may encounter, we also need to know how gaslighting is different from other common relationship problems. We will explore that here, too.

Below, find four types of gaslighting you may encounter in your relationships, as well as examples of how they might look. 

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Here are the 4 different types of gaslighting in romantic relationships & examples of each:

1. Mismatched words and actions

This happens when a partner is claiming to be doing one thing while actually doing another or is outright lying, promising something is true for them when clearly it’s not at all.

For example:

If one partner claims to love the other yet continues to show interest in exploring elsewhere, or if someone declares and insists that they have changed a severe problem behavior that they clearly haven’t, this can lead you to question yourself and, ultimately, out of love or devotion to the relationship, accept their reality over yours.

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2. One-upmanship

This happens in various ways, all of them meant to establish the upper hand in a relationship.

Some may use putdowns or insults which may be completely baseless or the more dangerous kind which is based on a kernel of truth but is exaggerated and then used against the partner.

For example:

Sometimes, the person with the "lower status" in the relationship — the one who is less educated, less successful, less loving or kind or caring, for example — declares themselves as superior despite it being clear that they are not. The person doing the gaslighting likely acts as if it’s clear and unquestionable.

This can make you doubt your own value and worth and personal strengths, handing over relationship power that actually belongs to you.

3. "I know best"

This is the closest one to actually saying, “You’re crazy.”

For example: 

It may involve insisting their version of reality is the “right” one — with no attempt to understand your perceptions or experiences which are just as valid as theirs — as if it were obvious, when it plainly is not.

This can make you question your own reality and erode your ability to rely on yourself and your gut sense.

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4. Emotional neglect

This is a tricky one because it is, by definition, unintentional. This type of gaslighting can come from a partner who is well-meaning and actually does love you.

An emotionally neglectful partner may do such things as claim they don’t feel something they clearly feel. Like, for example, “I’m not angry,” when they are clearly angry.

They may also seem to be blind to your feelings, whether they be positive or negative, seeming to overlook or ignore them as if they aren’t happening.

For example: 

They may make “off” assumptions about you and your feelings, even when it seems quite obvious. They may even tell you that you shouldn’t or don’t feel what you feel or claim that you’re being overly emotional or dramatic when you are simply having a genuine reaction to something.

Emotionally neglectful partners do these things because they grew up in families that were emotionally blind, and they did not learn how to recognize, understand, or read feelings in themselves or others. Nevertheless, the unintentional effect on you is an erosion of your trust in yourself and your sense of valuing your own feelings, which are the deepest expression of who you are.

How to tell gaslighting from normal relationship problems

Many of the gaslighting behaviors described above can happen in any relationship as part of the normal course of getting to know each other and living as a couple.

In fact, most of us have engaged in some of these behaviors, even if unintentionally. This makes it difficult to know whether your partner is a gaslighter or just struggling with normal things.

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Traits to qualify as gaslighting:

  • It must be happening consistently over time. Is your partner trying to weaken or deceive you? Or are they simply expressing their own truth, which is different from yours?
  • It happens in multiple areas of your relationship. Most gaslighters tend to use gaslighting to cope with problems in general, so it’s usually (not always) happening in multiple ways in the relationship.
  • Your gut sense is warning you. You know the old saying, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” Your gut is tuned into the warning signs of gaslighting. If you sense something’s not quite right, that’s your body telling you to pay attention.
  • No signs of internal struggle. If you see your partner struggling inside themselves with the issue you’re experiencing as gaslighting, it’s probably not gaslighting.
  • An absence of heartfelt effort to include or understand you. Gaslighters declare things, they are not curious or interested in your side, only in declaring themselves the one who is right.

To prevent gaslighting, trust but verify.

Trust your own gut sense. But not so much that you don’t bother to verify. If your gut smells “smoke,” keep your eyes wide open and watch closely for the fire.

It’s very important to not throw out a partner who is genuinely struggling, especially if the source of the behaviors is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. Those acting out of a lack of emotional awareness from CEN are not acting out of malice or a quest for power and can learn emotional skills once they understand the problem.

But, in general, gaslighting is a warning sign of much bigger problems in a partner. It should not be tolerated or accepted. It’s your job to protect your own heart, your reality, your experience, your feelings, and your sense of self. Do not let anyone take that away from you, no matter how much you love them.

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Jonice Webb has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and specializes in childhood emotional neglect. She is the author of the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect