Over the last five years or so, “gaslighting” has become a super pervasive psychological buzzword — and as a result, many people can fortunately now recognize this form of abuse. Just in case you’re not aware or need a refresher, gaslighting refers to a type of manipulation through which the abuser gradually makes you start questioning your own judgment and reality, disempowering you and eroding your self-esteem. While it may be easy to identify some of the more blatant examples of gaslighting, however, experts say there’s a subtler form that can often go undetected.
“Far from consciously and strategically manipulating other people, many gaslighters don’t intend to emotionally abuse their significant other,” explains Dr. Carissa Coulston, relationship expert at The Eternity Rose. “They may have been raised in a family where gaslighting was the norm, or they may have been a victim themselves in the past.”
Licensed therapist Billy Roberts adds that gaslighting is not always a conscious process — in fact, quite to the contrary, it’s often a way for the gaslighter to manage their own unconscious vulnerabilities and fears.
Still, Coulston stresses that even unintentional gaslighting can be very harmful to your relationship.
“It damages your partner’s confidence and self-esteem over time and can result in serious mental health conditions, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, along with feelings of being helpless. The gaslit partner may become overly dependent on the gaslighting partner, losing their sense of self and confidence. Alternatively, they may become paranoid, guarded, anxious, and hypervigilant.”
Experts agree that it’s definitely possible to be gaslighting your partner without even meaning to or realizing you’re doing it. But the first step to changing your behavior is being able to acknowledge it. Read on for some telltale signs that you’re an accidental gaslighter — and what to do about it.
Examples of Accidental Gaslighting
When Your Partner Has a Different Opinion, You Tell Them They’re “Wrong”
It’s normal, and even healthy, for partners not to agree on absolutely everything. How you handle it when your partner has a different point of view is important, too — experts say if you shut them down as if your perspective is “right” and they are flat out “wrong,” that could be considered gaslighting.
“You may refuse to accept that other people are allowed to have a different response to a situation or a different idea about something and may be compelled to correct your partner whenever there is a lack of alignment between their opinions,” explains Coulston.
Any conversation where you continue to push to have your experience, feelings, or opinions noted as the only objective truth can at the very least feel like gaslighting, adds Emily Simonian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and head of learning at Thriveworks. “It usually doesn’t feel good when someone is aggressively trying to persuade or convince you of something. Your partner will likely feel unheard, misunderstood, and maybe even skeptical of your intentions because of the intensity of your insistence.”
You Tell Your Partner They’re “Too Sensitive” When You Hurt Their Feelings
How do you respond when your partner gets upset by something you did or said? Do you hear them out, and actively try to empathize with what made them feel that way? Or do you instantly go into defense mode so as to shun any accountability?
“A common subtle sign of gaslighting is saying that someone is ‘too sensitive,’” says Roberts. “While this might seem like a throwaway remark, what you’re really doing is invalidating your partner’s feelings. This can make them develop a sense of shame for something that was truly hurtful.”
In other words, by denying your partner’s emotional reality, you’re making them question the legitimacy of their own feelings — when instead, you should be trying to understand them.
You Play the Victim When You’re Called Out for Something
Being able to take responsibility for your wrongdoings is crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship. So, if your instinct is to somehow blame your partner (or others) when they bring a problematic action or behavior to your attention, that could be considered manipulation, says Dr. Betsy Chung, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert at the XOXO dating app.
For example, if your partner catches you in a lie and you respond with, “I only lied because I knew you’d react badly,” that could be considered a form of gaslighting because it redirects your partner’s attention toward taking care of you, explains Chung. They may even start to feel guilty for calling out your bad behavior, start to blame themselves, or become hesitant to confront you about problems in the future.
You Often Speak in Absolutes When Defending Yourself or Attacking Your Partner
“Phrases that use absolutes, like ‘never’ or ‘always’ are dangerous because they leave little room for subjectivity,” says Simonian.
For example, say your partner mentions to you that they feel hurt when you take a super long time to respond to their texts.
If you instantly respond with, “I always text you back right away,” you’re suggesting that their reality (in which sometimes there’s a delay) is wrong. In all likelihood, it wouldn’t be accurate to say you “never” or “always” do anything. If your partner is making an observation, and you’re unwilling to hear them out or accuse their observation of being inaccurate, that’s a form of gaslighting.
You’re Guilty of “Toxic Positivity”
There are lots of different ways to respond when your partner vents to you — say, about their job, a friend, or some other life challenge. But if your instinct is to respond by dismissing their feelings while offering positive reassurances like “Don’t dwell on that, you have so much to be grateful for!” or “Don’t even worry about them, think about all the other amazing people in your life!” that can be seriously problematic.
There’s even a term for this — “toxic positivity” — and even though it may stem from good intentions (to make your partner feel better and help you avoid uncomfortable negative emotions), it can do more harm than good. In fact, Christian Jackson, a licensed professional counselor, says it might even be considered a type of gaslighting because you’re refusing to validate your partner’s emotions.
“This can be harmful because if there is a consistent, unintentional denial of one’s experience, then the communication gap can grow,” explains Jackson. “When your partner’s had a hard day, they’re likely looking for some empathy. Sometimes, it’s better to be heard and understood rather than encouraged.”
You Refuse to Back Down and Admit You Might Not Remember Something Correctly
Find yourself constantly embroiled in battles over what did or didn’t happen in the past? Hunt Ethridge, a certified dating coach and relationship expert, says if your partner is more apt to back down while you tend to stubbornly defend your memory of the event, that may mean you’re unknowingly gaslighting them. After all, nobody’s perfect — and the odds are that occasionally you’re the one misremembering something.
“Once you start accusing the other of lying or being wrong, everyone’s defenses go up and it’s much harder to find common ground,” says Ethridge. “So if you have it within you to say, ‘You know what, I don’t remember saying that, but if I did, I’m sorry,’ you are going to show your partner that you don’t always have to be right. That way, when you do take a stand, they will know you are as sure as you can be. Even using phrases, ‘to the best of my knowledge,’ or ‘I’m pretty sure that’s what happened, but what do you remember?’ keep the door open to admitting that no one is infallible.”
How to Stop the Cycle
If any of these signs sound familiar, don’t stress. It’s definitely possible to overcome your unintentional gaslighting — and the first step is to simply recognize that some of your tendencies may be problematic.
The next time you’re in conflict with your partner — which is when those gaslighting habits usually emerge — Simonian suggests being more curious about their thoughts and feelings, and making an active effort to listen.
“It is important to understand that you can empathize with their perspective, without agreeing with it,” says Leanna Stockard, licensed marriage and family therapist at LifeStance Health. “Your relationship has space for the two of you to see it a different way, and you’re both allowed to have thoughts and feelings about it.”
Letting go of the need to be right and acknowledging your partner’s experience will not only end unintentional gaslighting but also help you resolve conflicts more quickly, according to Simonian. She also recommends avoiding defensiveness and using absolutes like “always” and “never” in your discussions as much as possible.
Remember: just because you may be accidentally gaslighting doesn’t mean you’re a “bad” person or partner. While this behavior can be destructive, Jackson notes that very often it’s a trauma response — and the best way to get to the bottom of what’s triggering your gaslighting ways is to ask yourself what you were protecting yourself from. Some of these knee-jerk defense mechanisms can stem all the way back to childhood. That’s why Chung highly recommends seeking help from a licensed therapist or counselor in getting to the root of these habits.
“Psychotherapy can increase awareness of gas-lighting behaviors, uncover the origins and reasons for the behavior, and develop healthier ways to get needs met,” she explains.