What is ‘gaslighting’ and how can you recognize it? – study

Science and Health

There are four common behaviors attached to gaslighting in relationships, a new qualitative analysis of a survey published last month revealed.

The peer-reviewed article, published in the journal Personal Relationships, recruited respondents from social media forums like Reddit and Facebook.

The 65 respondents, all aged 18 years or older had been in a relationship lasting at least four months where they had been victims to gaslighting. 48 respondents identified as female, while 14 identified themselves as male.

What is gaslighting?

“Gaslighting is an attempt to convince a survivor that they are not a trustworthy epistemic agent,” the researchers write in their study, adding that gaslighting is a form of abuse. 

The researchers added that once a person no longer trusts their own account of events, the perpetrator is able to absolve themselves of all responsibility for any wrongdoing. 

Women demonstrate on International Women’s Day, as they strike to demand the end to domestic and racist violence, wars and the country’s prevailing ”macho” culture, in Rome, Italy, March 8, 2023. (credit: YARA NARDI / REUTERS)

The term, which was originally developed in the 1940s, can be applied to situations across a variety of settings. This includes work, romantic or familial relationships or friendships. 

“Merriam-Webster reported that in 2022, lookups for gaslighting increased by 1,740%, propelling it to the status of the 2022 Word of the Year,” the researchers wrote.

Who are the victims and perpetrators?

While the median age of respondents was 29, the median age of accused perpetrators sat a little higher at 31 years old. 

51 of the accused perpetrators were male, while 14 were women.

The majority of perpetrators were also identified to be heterosexual and Caucasian.

38 of the victims identified their political affiliations to be Liberal, while 25 perpetrators were identified to come from this political category. 

Abuse (illustrative) (credit: INGIMAGE)

Six of the victims identified themselves as conservatives, while 12 perpetrators were identified as such.

The researchers identified four common behavioral patterns that accompanied gaslighting behaviors: Love bombing, isolating the victim, perpetrator unpredictability and cold-shouldering.

Love bombing in the relationships

The researchers found that most participants experienced love bombing in the early stages of their relationship.

“Love bombing often involved inappropriate expressions of affection for the relationship stage,” the researchers explained while adding that it is sometimes difficult to categorize.

“The start of the relationship was intense in terms of emotional intimacy. We shared many details of our emotions and traumas very early, some even on the first date,” Participant One wrote.

“At the beginning of the relationship, both parties were ‘bending-over-backward’ [sic] for each other,” Participant 28 wrote.

“He said he loved me in three days, [t]hat was all a bit of a red flag to me but [I] was also swept up by him as he’s quite charming,” Participant 10 recounted. 

The researchers felt that the function of the love bombing was to discount “perpetrators’ current and future abusive behavior. It also served to make survivors feel indebted to perpetrators, as well as confused about the nature of their partner and relationship. Finally, it was one-way perpetrators began to isolate survivors.”

Isolating the victim in the relationship

Respondents said that isolation often began through their partner’s expression of dislike for important figures in their lives.

Participant One wrote that their partner had a “distaste of my friends’ opinions and questioned my friendships.

“He made me dependent on him, talked poorly about or to all of my friends until I was left with really only him and made me feel absolutely insane,” Participant Seven wrote.

“I’d cancel plans with friends constantly because he would get jealous. He did the same thing with my closest friends and family, until no one reached out to me anymore,” Participant Nine recounted.

“[A]bout a week in he had isolated me from my friends and that same week told me he loved me. He told me horrible things my friends were doing and saying behind my back. About a week later the only friend he had allowed me to see stayed over at his house in his bed and he called me insane and unreasonable,” Participant 49 told the researchers. 

The researchers believe that isolation is utilized by the perpetrator to help them avoid accountability since the victims were unable to absorb outside perspectives. They also believe that it made the victims more dependent on their partner because they had nowhere else to turn for their social needs. Finally, they believe that this behavior was exhibited because social isolation can cause people to lose their grip on reality and become easier to manipulate as a result.

Perpetrator unpredictability in the relationship

Another quality noted by the researchers was that perpetrators would often flip from one extreme emotion to another.

Participant 56 wrote that “arguments started for no reason switching rapidly to being extremely affectionate and sexual.”  

“She stopped talking to me out of no where [sic] with no explanation after we had spent a very intimate night/day together a couple of months into the relationship… She would continuously pop in and out of my life, expecting me to be okay with this and serve her needs,” Participant Two wrote.

The researchers explained that “this erratic behavior would make it difficult for targets to predict their partner’s behavior, which may contribute to the victims’ experiences of uncertainty and confusion.”

Cold shouldering in the relationship 

The researchers explained that the fourth quality, no communicating at all, could also be considered a form of gaslighting. 

“He broke a promise he made and I was upset about it for the rest of the day and didn’t want to talk to him. Then when I was finally ready to talk he told me “you already had your chance” and proceeded to ignore me,” said Participant 18.

In analyzing this case, the researchers explained that they felt like this was gaslighting because it was a form of punishing the victim for taking time to process the transgression. 

Participant 10 wrote that when she broke the rules that her partner set, he would begin “glaring at me with these eyes totally devoid of emotion except hatred and almost shaking, [and] then giving me the silent treatment for a few hours. He says that the worst thing [I] can do in those situations is to give him space but it’s honestly really hard to be around him.” 

Specific gaslighting behaviors in the relationship 

When victims would express distress or direct accusations of wrongdoing, the perpetrators would often claim that the victim was the problem in some way. For example, the perpetrators would claim that the victim was “crazy” or “overly emotional.”

Victims were also frequently accused of cheating or of having memory problems. 

Participant 10, for example, explained that her partner would accuse her of being obsessed with money and that “all women are like this.”

Victims would also receive insults about their physical looks, which if they already had low self-esteem, would reinforce a worldview that they are worthless.

Victims were also often blamed for things outside of their control. 

Participant 52 wrote that “Any time he had done something that [was] wrong, or disrespectful it would be my fault.”

Participant 53 said that the perpetrator “would make it out to be on me for her bad behavior.”

Participant 10 explained that the perpetrator “told me that it was my fault that he cheated on me because [I] went on a work trip for six weeks.”

Why do abusers gaslight in relationships?

The researchers believe that the most common reason is to avoid accepting accountability for their actions.

“My wife had an affair. I felt something was off, as she wanted nothing more to do with me, and [I] kept questioning what was wrong. She kept telling me I was paranoid, crazy, and anxious, and that everything was OK,” said Participant 15.

They may also use it to get out of fulfilling their responsibilities in a relationship.

“I would ask for more help with our kids and be met with anger because he felt working for money and providing were sufficient. I would be told I was insane, unorganized and didn’t take my job as a mom seriously enough since I needed help. Typically led to name calling and being told we need to switch places,” said Participant 43.

“The gaslighting was done basically anytime I expressed something that I was unhappy about or [when I] wanted more of his participation around the house or with our children,” said Participant 52. “I was ‘always crazy and imagining things.’ Any time he had done something that [was] wrong, or disrespectful it would be my fault. Never did he take accountability for his actions or words. He would always put the blame [on] me and basically would say that I imagined what had happened. I was crazy.” 

The researchers added that another component motivating this behavior was an attempt to take control of the victim, situation and relationship.

“He] picked fights the whole way while I tried to study (accusing me of bringing up medical scenarios that were similar to his family history, telling me I was insensitive and unempathetic). Before the test, he brought up career paths I was better suited for,” explained Participant One, describing how her partner sabotaged her attempt to get into medical school. Her partner spent “months telling me how I shouldn’t pick this career path for multiple reasons, starting with money… then how I’m not cut out for it/not smart enough.”