How To Tell If They're Gaslighting You — Or If You're Just Dating A Jerk
It’s not the same as ghosting, disagreeing, or lying.
If you’ve ever scrolled through your For You page and come across dating horror stories, or browsed Twitter after the latest Bachelor drama, you’ve probably become familiar with the term “gaslighting.” Unlike many other dating buzzwords related to poor behavior — ghosting, breadcrumbing, zombieing, etc. — gaslighting signals a form of abuse. That’s why it’s important to know the warning signs and the devastating implications the term can have.
When stories like West Elm Caleb go viral or Clayton on The Bachelor is accused of gaslighting Susie, it’s not uncommon for others online to allege their former flames or Hinge matches of gaslighting them. But there’s a difference between being gaslit versus simply dating a jerk or someone who displayed rude dating behavior. Licensed psychotherapist Colette Brown defines gaslighting as “a form of deliberate manipulation and psychological control one exerts over another person in order to gain power over [them], and in doing so erode that person's sense of self-worth, individuality, and identity.” While a partner’s behavior may tempt us to claim them as a gaslighter, the complexity of the concept doesn’t always make it an appropriate term to use.
If you’re stuck wondering what to make of the frequent use of the word, or if you’re curious if it applies in your current relationship, therapists weigh in on what gaslighting is — and what it isn’t — below.
What Is Gaslighting?
As a form of emotional abuse, gaslighting isn’t a term to lightly toss around, despite what social media posts might lead you to believe. “Gaslighters mainly [use the tactic] a form of pleasure or entertainment with the goal of taking emotional, psychological, and economic control over someone else,” Brown says. “Gaslighters are able to do this because they are skilled at establishing intimacy and closeness quickly — as in the phrase ‘love bombing’ — and they often use lies and misinformation to further manipulate others.”
“Gaslighting is not the same as lying and it’s not the same as manipulating, both of which cover a much broader scope.”
This manipulation can come into play in much more sinister ways, too, licensed psychologist Dr. Sarah Schewitz tells Bustle. “Gaslighting is lying or manipulating with the intention of convincing someone they are ‘crazy.’” When someone you’re dating starts to make you question your own reality, the red flags can sometimes be hard to fully comprehend. “Gaslighting is not the same as lying and it’s not the same as manipulating, both of which cover a much broader scope than gaslighting,” Schewitz says. “The specific component that needs to be present to call it gaslighting is the attempt to make you look or feel ‘crazy’.” Schewitz gives the following example: you and your partner agree to exclusivity and both delete your dating apps, but when you discover that your partner is still on the apps and you confront them, they say that you never had that conversation and they make you start to feel like you did imagine it.
Like Brown mentioned, gaslighters often use love bombing as a tool to gain your trust and a feeling of closeness early on into the relationship. This allows them to woo you into a false sense of security, and it becomes progressively more difficult to see their abusive behaviors for what they are. They will often set themselves up as your sole support system, gaining an upper hand when it comes to giving you the space to make your own decisions, and potentially to keep you stuck in the relationship. “Gaslighters also isolate their victims, causing them to lose the support and trust of their friends and family until the victim is fully reliant upon the gaslighter emotionally, psychologically, and/or financially. For example, a gaslighter may distort facts to suit themselves and keep their victim off balance; if after you suggest ordering Indian food for dinner after they raved about their love of Indian food after an exotic trip to Goa, they say, ‘Nah, Indian isn't my thing. Let's do Thai’.”
While the tactic of gaslighting is intentional, it can certainly be a symptom of a larger issue. “Gaslighting is usually used by people with personality disorders, like narcissistic personality disorder, or psychopathy where the person is not capable of empathy or conscience,” Brown says. This can sometimes lead to the gaslighting partner to have a warped sense of reality themselves, to the point where they can’t see anything like a mirror into their own abusive behaviors.
It can also be accompanied by other psychological issues and destructive behaviors. For example, Schewitz offers the following scenario: “Your partner is an addict and you confront them about money they overspent from the mutual bank account. Your partner knows they used that money to buy drugs. You know it too. However, they proceed to accuse you of spending the money and forgetting. They bring up examples of other things you have forgotten in the past as a way to prove that you are forgetful and cannot be trusted to recall things accurately.”
After a while, these abusive tactics can start to feel normal in a relationship. “Often if those work, they will amp up their manipulation and use bold-faced lies with little to no finesse,” Brown says. Once these behaviors start to feel acceptable in your relationship, it can be difficult to come to terms with the damage they cause, so it’s important to spot the warning signs and patterns as early as possible.
What Is Not Considered Gaslighting?
As Schewitz shared, the key element to gaslighting is lying in order to make the victim question their reality. This involves a depth of psychological exploitation that goes beyond a general “experience of manipulation,” according to licensed marriage and family therapist Natalie Bell. “It also requires that the person experiencing manipulation develops a dependency on the manipulator for ‘the truth,’ rather than trusting, knowing, and believing their own experience of reality.”
Some of the conversations on social media have begun to shift our collective understanding of gaslighting and misattribute the term to less devious dating behaviors (a là West Elm Caleb), licensed psychotherapist Samantha Zhu tells Bustle. “It's not enough for someone to say ‘calm down’ or ‘you're overreacting’ to be labeled as gaslighting — there needs to be [a] pattern of behavior that's directed at diminishing and invalidating someone's reality to a degree that an individual starts to doubt their feelings, reality, [and] self-worth,” Zhu says. You can probably walk away with more ease and identify that they are a jerk after one interaction.” But it’s not as easy to cut off someone who’s gaslighting you, Zhu says, “because of how they get under your skin through manipulation and confusion tactics.”
Ghosting or being lied to may sting, but gaslighting has devastating consequences that can affect the victim long-term.
The distinctions between gaslighting and disagreeing with a partner are also important to make, says licensed clinical social worker Neathery Falchuck. “Gaslighting is meant to erode a person's sense of self so that they become more compliant to the abuser's dominance,” Falchuck says. “Disagreeing with someone just means you have different ideas, opinions, and needs and it doesn't make you a bad person … disagreeing is not meant to belittle or demean another person or deny their reality.”
Ghosting is another behavior that often gets misconstrued as gaslighting. “Meeting a person through a dating app and experiencing them as loving and kind, and then being ghosted, is not gaslighting,” Bell says. While ghosting is hurtful and there are better avenues to express that you’re not interested in dating someone, it doesn’t constitute abuse. “Meeting a person through a dating app and experiencing them as loving and kind, then experiencing coercion to take out a loan and [take on] debt for their benefit [then] depending on their thoughts and perspective when doubt surfaces … is 100% gaslighting.” If you’ve seen The Tinder Swindler, this may sound familiar, and is helpful in drawing the line between gaslighting and other manipulative or “bad” behavior. Ghosting or being lied to may sting, but gaslighting has devastating consequences that can affect the victim long-term.
How To Spot Gaslighting In A Long-Term Relationship
Gaslighting can be difficult to catch right away because it can develop over time. “It's a pattern of behavior designed to make the individual question their reality, experiences, judgments, perceptions of the world, and themselves,” Zhu says. “We often find the word used in relationships because it's more than a one-time occurrence, but it also makes it more challenging to spot because of all the nuances and subtleties in our relationships.”
Checking in with yourself about the ways in which your partner might be trying to distort your perception of reality can help if you think your partner is gaslighting you, Zhu says. “Gaslighting can be easier to spot when we ask ourselves questions about whether someone is trying to persuade us to doubt ourselves and experiences … Do the facts become so twisted that they become the victim and you end up feeling at fault for everything? Do you apologize constantly but you're not even sure what you're apologizing for, and have they caused so much distortion in your reality that you become confused and uncertain about your decisions?”
Ultimately, self-awareness and caution are key, Bell explains. “Beware of anyone using manipulation tactics in your relationship[s] or upon meeting you. These unchecked attempts to control may build over time, and create the groundwork for gaslighting.”
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
Colette Brown, licensed psychotherapist
Dr. Sarah Schewitz, licensed psychologist
Samantha Zhu, licensed psychotherapist
Natalie Bell, licensed marriage and family therapist
Neathery Falchuk, licensed clinical social worker supervisor