Gaslighting and Marital Conflict

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a less subtle form of emotional abuse that seeks to control a partner through a pattern of over the top criticism and reality distortion. The term “Gaslighting” comes from the classic from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband persistently torments his wife into doubting her sanity.


Gaslighting in modern relationships is not as dramatic. The kind of gaslighting we see in couples therapy is typically a relentless pattern of deception, unreasonable criticism, mean-spirited scrutiny, and contemptuous verbal aggression.

But gaslighting, like other forms of emotional abuse, occurs on a broad continuum. The milder forms often respond to science-based couples therapy, but extreme gaslighting typically is far more problematic.

Patterns of Gaslighting

  • Some spouses are not even aware that they are gas-lighting, they are merely acting on attitudes from their family of origin or bias from their cultural programming. We often see cross-cultural couples struggling with issues of thwarted expectations, gender politics, and power imbalances that can reach the level of gaslighting.


  • Others partners are amateur gaslighters.  When caught red-handed in infidelity or other transgressions, they may engage in ridiculous explanations of their bad behavior that are as pathetic as they are desperate.


  • Some gaslighters simply believe they know better. But once in couples therapy, they’re surprised to discover how their behavior has caused their partner to feel controlled and marginalized. Once aware, I have seen these gaslighters make steady progress into a more equitable relationship.


  • On the other hand, there are hard-core gaslighters, such as Cobras.  They are meticulously deliberate in their efforts to utterly dominate their spouse. They intentionally seek to thwart their partner’s agency and control their perceptions as well as their behavior. The foundation of this most toxic form of gaslighting is full-on contempt.  Toxic gaslighting is the polar opposite of empathic validation. According to Gottman, this severe form of spousal abuse can not be treated in couples therapy.


8 Ways to Tell If You Are Being Gaslighted

1. Your Imperfections are Always Front and Center.

The Gaslighter is hyper-focused on your flaws and weaknesses. They seem to delight in elaborating on your shortcomings and deficits. Your “issues” are discussed not with an eye toward resolution, but as a relentless attack. Gaslighting is about establishing and exploiting an ever-widening power differential in the relationship.

 2. Your Relational Anxiety is Always Expanding.

Gaslightees are anxious and fretful. They lack confidence in their ability to reliably please the gaslighter, so their self-esteem is constantly eroded. They can never anticipate when the gaslighter will become angry or sarcastic, so they become increasingly anxious and wary over time. Gaslighting is a relational trauma in which your perception of reality is invalidated.

3. You Tip-Toe Around Them in the Hopes of Being Tolerated.

There is no reasoning with a gaslighter. They are always right, and you are always wrong. You feel stressed and nervous as they pick and pick and pick at your imperfections. There are mental health consequences of being a gaslightee. Depression, anxiety, and even traumatic stress are common symptoms.

4. Your Gaslighter Rarely Admits Flaws and Is Highly Aggressive When Criticized.

Gas lighters operate on the outer limits of authentic intimacy. There is nothing wrong with your relationship. Do not attempt to adjust the power imbalances. They control the horizontal. They control the vertical. For the next hour sit quietly as they control everything you see and hear.

And what you will see and hear, if you just shut up and listen, is that everything that you are thinking, doing or feeling is wrong. It’s no surprise that Narcissistic Personality Disorder and/or Anti-Social Personality Disorder are often found in Gaslighters. Extreme gaslighters will lie to your face and insist they are telling you the truth.

Complaining to the gaslighter is a losing strategy. They might smirk at their own shortcomings because they believe your flaws are epic by comparison. They will deflect your complaints as just another indication of your immaturity, unreliability, etc. etc.

5. You Surrender Your Self-Worth.

It’s common for gaslightees to eventually capitulate and accept their partner’s opinion of them. They apologize for breathing. They accept the notion that they are deeply flawed. One of the signs of gaslighting I see in couples therapy is a partner who is always saying “I’m sorry” when there is nothing to be sorry for.

6. You Lean on the Gaslighter for What Few Shreds of Approval They Might Deign to Bestow.

Hard-Core gaslighters mix it up to keep the gaslightee off balance. They may offer an occasional crumb of approval. This random reinforcement creates a crippling emotional dependence on the gaslighter, which is, of course, their ultimate aim.

7. You Are Isolated and Alone.

In cases of extreme abuse, some gaslightees will curtail their social contacts, often by intimidation, and retreat into their cramped critical universe. Gaslighting is often found with other controlling behaviors such as controlling access to transportation, money, friends, and family.

 8. You Defend, Deny Or Discount Their Gaslighting Behaviors.

If friends or family pick up on your gaslighting partner, you rush to their defense. “It’s not what you think” “He’s under a lot of pressure at work.” “She’s a bit overwhelmed right now.” “He doesn’t always act that way.” 

Inexperienced therapists might confuse such comments for positive sentiment override, sympathy, or empathy. They are nothing of the sort. These comments reveal an internalization of the gaslighter’s perspective.

When the gaslightee eventually colludes in their own gaslighting, the gaslighter has achieved their goal of total spousal domination.

Gaslighting Treatment

As I said earlier, like other patterns of emotional abuse, some of the tamer forms of gaslighting are treatable. But some gaslighting behaviors are an indication of extreme psychological and emotional abuse. A State of the Union clinical assessment might be an appropriate first step to consider.

But the odds are pretty good that an abusive Cobra husband would resent the involvement of outsiders, see no value in a clinical assessment, and refuse to cooperate.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

  • Jenny says:

    I didn’t even know this term until a friend of mine told me about it. I was reading about emotional and verbal abuse but found this term and decided to learn more. Well I never realized that I was being gaslighted until now. I noticed one day that I was always saying sorry to people for no reason. There was a time when my boss asked me for my lunch order and I was afraid to order anything remotely complicated because I was afraid that I would get yelled at as I do with my spouse. My spouse gets upset for the smallest of things and is enraged anytime I tell him he has hurt me. Today I said that I was hurt by his actions and then it all began. The name calling, the abusive language, explaining why I I am crazy, why I am a horrible wife and mother, how I don’t care enough etc. Etc. All because I had feelings and expresses them. Take note of the behaviors before you are sucked in and it’s way too late.

  • AWG says:

    Been a gaslightee for years. He has progressively become worse and had me thinking at one point that I was mentally ill. Thankfully, not for long. Now, its “oh poor me”, literally daily. He acts like a victim to his family but if they truly knew what he does to me–they’d be ashamed. I didn’t even know the term gaslighting until he accused me of doing it to him. Funny. He is every, single one of these. He’s also a narcissist. His family would think the opposite as he puts himself down incessantly to them. To me, hes always right, predicts the future and changes events and things said. He blames me for all wrong in his life. Its insane. Not sure how much more I can tolerate before I head for the door.

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