8 Things Gaslighters Do Without Even Realizing It — And How To Respond

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woman sitting on a bed, looking shady

The play Gas Light, by Patrick Hamilton, tells the story of a cunning man with a strategy to convince his wife she is going insane by hiding and moving items and pretending she is confused and “crazy.”

When he lowers the gas-powered lights and convinces her that it is her imagination, she starts to question her sanity but never doubts that he has harmful intentions. Thus, gaslighters are often painted as malevolent and self-serving.

The reality is that most, while self-serving, are not likely to be the evil character of Hamilton’s play, determined to destroy a spouse's mental health. That doesn't make them innocent, and they are the ones responsible for changing their behavior, but sometimes a person may gaslight another without consciously choosing to. 

How does a person become a gaslighter — and can someone gaslight you without knowing it? 

And how should you respond to a gaslighter? 

RELATED: 18 Signs Of Gaslighting & Examples Of How It Plays Out In Abusive Relationships

RELATED: 5 Signs Of Gaslighting You Need To Watch Out For With Master Manipulators

The making of a gaslighter

People are generally not born gaslighters who manipulate others to regain or maintain control. The gaslighter is satisfied when they have convinced you they are right and you change to their way of thinking. They may have been the victim of a home where one parent is pitted against the other, one child is the hero and star, gaslighting is modeled and learned to see themselves and others in “absolutes.”

This up-close witness and experiential learning are how little gaslighters are formed. Other life experiences may have demonstrated control and manipulation as the model for success. Many gaslighters are often trying to get others to see things “their right way, their only way.”

Gaslighters are adept at keeping you “off balance,” second guessing yourself, wondering if you are too sensitive, too loud, too tidy, or too anything. If you are always making excuses and apologizing for them, while being desperately unhappy, you may be living with a gaslighter. 

How this happens without the gaslighter realizing it

While some gaslighters may purposefully choose this in order to make you feel inadequate, a partner may accidentally contribute to gaslighting you due to a self-protective habit from the past. Perhaps in the past, your partner learned that it was unsafe to admit they made a mistake, that they were frequently misunderstood and that their values and boundaries were ignored. 

With the help of your trusted therapist, long-time friends and family you garner enough emotional resilience to speak up and say a loud and decided NO to further manipulation, mental chaos and confusion.

RELATED: 10 Subtle Signs He's Gaslighting You (And Making You Feel Crazy)

Here are eight forms of gaslighting, and how to respond to a gaslighter 

1. They deny and dismiss your feelings

Let’s say you invited a couple, your new friends from the PTA, for dinner. All is going well and you launch into a funny story that your partner corrects so often that they carry the punch line and contradict your version. Your new friends look confused, laugh nervously and you are upset and embarrassed.

Later when you mention it, hoping to avoid a repeat, they say, “You're being too sensitive, or "You're making a big deal out of nothing." 

How to respond: While an abusive partner cannot be "talked out of" abuse, a partner who doesn't intend to do harm may be able to see the way it hurts to be spoken to in this way. Try starting with "I" statements during a time when you are not already in conflict.

For instance, "I was really upset last night at dinner when you contradicted my story in front of new friends. Next time can you tell me your version in private? " 

2. They minimize your concerns

The next day you are still hurt and tell your SO you are worried your friends will think you are a liar. They respond with a sarcastic laugh, “You are still on about that.” Your SO's expression has the taint of scorn and you start to doubt that you have read the situation correctly.  

How to respond: You may be tempted to swallow future concerns but don't do that. Sure, take a moment to digest the incident but address it soon by explaining that your concerns are valid and you even if they don't agree.

3. They blame you for things that are not your fault

The next few days are pleasant and uneventful as your SO exudes charm and gives you space to recover from an emotional battering. On the drive to their parent’s brunch, you ask them to slow down and remind them that this is a well-patrolled construction zone but they ignore you until the sound of a siren signal the reality of a speeding ticket. Somehow they manage to blame you for a noon time brunch, the lack of reminder, and a request to water the garden that morning.

How to respond: With repeated incidents of gaslighting and the suspicion that your partner is unaware of the distress and harm he is causing you, it is time to frame your complaint not as a single offense but as a pattern that is repeated. 

Consider asking in advance to talk and signal that you want their full attention. Tell them that each of these events has something in common, they make you look foolish and too cautious in the relationship. Let your SO know that you are finding it hard to be relaxed and yourself.

RELATED: If Your Partner Does These 9 Sneaky Things, They're Gaslighting You

4. They use emotional blackmail or guilt to control

The following Saturday night, they mention a night out with friends and when you remind them about over-drinking and unpaid traffic tickets, you are met with an exclamation and a wounded voice that says, “I don't have any fun, you are always trying to control me, can’t I enjoy myself just once?” You back down at the sound of a raised voice but you are soberly quiet at the thought of being someone’s fun police. They are barely out the door when the self-blame voice in your head accuses you, “You can’t do anything right.”

How to respond: The bigger question to ask yourself is how to end the imbalance in the relationship and the perception that somehow you are the bad guy? If your previous conversations have been effective, then continue the dialogue with your SO also clarifying the insinuations and solving underlying truths.

5. They lie or distort the truth

You face many situations where you walk away subdued but when your SO twists the truth in their favor, you finally speak up. This time it is in the Therapist’s office and they have no choice but to backtrack, pretend the facts are irrelevant or they have forgotten the details. You are now in the habit of asking friends for confirmation because you don’t trust your memory.

How to respond: The therapist's office is a good place to clarify and reset your relationship so take a few minutes before to determine what you want to achieve and a few minutes at the end of the session to confirm. You might preface with something like this, "To confirm what we have agreed on ..."

6. They isolate you from friends and family

It may have started as an innocent complaint about a cousin but they have since pointed out the many ways that your family is against you, that they are unworthy of your love and affection. More unhappy than you can remember you are torn between your imperfect family and a critical partner. After a weekend with your parents, he nitpicks every glance and attitude and points out how they undermine, interrupts, and discount you, all the things he does without realizing it.

How to respond: It is easy to become defensive and the conversation then becomes a tennis match where you trade accusations and excuses. Don't get trapped in an unproductive pattern. Instead, wait until they are finished, admit to the parts that are true, and remind them that you already know your family's imperfections and love them despite this. 

RELATED: What You Need To Know About Starlighting, Gaslighting's Spiritual Cousin

7. They use sarcasm and humor to belittle you

You can think of many examples where your family and friends have hurt you but have always been able to count on their loyalty and kindness. Increasingly you see the difference with your partner who scoffs, rolls their eyes and groans to belittle you, both in the company of others and alone. You are beginning to suspect the relationship's toxicity, but your self-esteem is so far gone you don’t trust a decision to stand up for yourself and ask for change.

8. They twist your words and actions

The day you decide to confront their behavior, discuss the harm and ask for change, they are ready to counterattack using a full arsenal of all you have said and done, and missteps you have made and suddenly your vulnerable self is laid bare. You are in shock and wavering between damage control and relief. What has been subtle in the past is now in full parade. 

They include criticism disguised as constructive, verbally abusive statements, minimizing their own abusive behavior and no recognition that winning at all costs is a loss for the relationship.

Can a gaslighter change? 

If your partner gaslights without realizing it, they may be ready for change and will do so as they become conscious of their motivation and behavior, are empathetic and regret the harm they caused you. The change however is only sealed when they learn new ways to communicate, active and compassionate listening, curious questioning and acceptance of your differences.

While some gaslighters may purposefully choose this in order to make you feel inadequate, a partner may accidentally contribute to gaslighting you due to a self-protective habit from the past. Perhaps in the past, your partner learned that it was unsafe to admit they made a mistake, that they were frequently misunderstood and that their values and boundaries were ignored. 

If your partner refuses to see your side and have compassion for you, or if they refuse to seek professional support, like couples or individual therapy, it's possible they are not gaslighting you by accident and that they realize exactly what they are doing. In no uncertain terms, this could count as abuse and you deserve better. 

RELATED: How Gaslighting Abuse Survivors Makes Them Question Reality

Reta Walker is a therapist who specializes in healing relationships. She offers one-on-one sessions, couples retreats, and courses to help couples get back on track.