Every time we meet somebody and decide we like them, it’s only natural to begin picturing a future with them. A lot of us dote on the concept of an “ideal partner”. Whether an ideal partner tailored for our being exists is a persistent debate, but we choose to believe it. What’s life without love, right?
There’s no denying that success stories are aplenty – “love at first sight” that blossom into compatible, healthy relationships that last. Is this sheer luck or calculated decision-making?
A lot of times, relationships that we anticipate will work out, end up draining us. “How did that happen?”, we wonder. Of course, certain equations are simply incompatible. However, some leave you gasping for breath and wondering when a seemingly wonderful relationship became a cesspool of drama, confusion, and pain.
If you’re in a relationship that has you questioning yourself, and reality itself – chances are, you’re being gaslighted. Read on to know more about the stages of gaslighting in relationships, and if you’re a victim of the same.
What Is Gaslighting?
The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines Gaslighting as the manipulation of another person into doubting their perceptions, experiences, or their understanding of events.
The term “gaslighting” originated from a 1938 mystery thriller called Gas Light, penned by Patrick Hamilton, a famous British playwright. The play was adapted into a movie in 1944, which starred Ingrid Bergman as Paula – a wife who is deviously deceived by Gregory, her husband, into questioning her perception of reality; with Charles Boyer playing the role of the manipulative husband.
In one of the scenes, the gas lights of the house flicker as Gregory turns them on from the attic. While Paula questions Gregory about the lights, he asserts that nothing is happening and that it was all Paula’s imagination. Hence the term “gaslight” came into popular existence.
While the term was earlier used only to refer to extreme manipulation – that induced mental illness, and/or justified admitting the victim into a psychiatric institution – the term is now used more colloquially to refer to manipulation that causes distress and confusion.
How Does Gaslighting Manifest?
Gaslighting in relationships is a tactic used to establish a power dynamic. This manipulation is often found in romantic relationships, much to the woe of people looking for secure equations.
However, it is not restricted only to romantic relationships; it is also found in several other equations where one party can benefit from manipulating the other for personal gain.
The sad part is that we often don’t realize that we’re being gaslighted until the administration is severe and we’re forced to seek clarity and help. The gaslighter can thrive off of the importance we give to the equation, which more often than not blinds us to the abuse.
Be it a family member, a friend, or a colleague, gaslighting is prevalent and very plausible – simply because the abuser may have our respect and/or admiration and/or love.
Stages of Gaslighting:
Gaslighting happens in a gradually ascending manner. Divided across 7 stages that get abusive progressively, gaslighters can creep onto unsuspecting victims and subject them to this abuse as they deem fit. Read on to understand the stages of gaslighting – in no particular order.
Stage 1: Lies
This stage sets the precedent for the abuse to commence. Out of nowhere, the gaslighter begins to gradually lie to you about anything and everything.
Have you ever stood wide-eyed and blinked, trying to process a sudden claim made by the gaslighter? This claim might be completely baseless, vague, and seemingly improbable to verify.
For instance, you’d be taking a night off from usual household chores because you might have had a long day at work. Your partner suddenly claims, “I don’t know why you work and waste your time instead of focusing on what’s important. Your employment is unnecessary.”
Did your mind go “????” as you read this?
Relationships with gaslighters begin on a wonderful note, where a lot of glorification and chemistry makes way for trust between the partners. The solid foundation of this trust is why you get puzzled at the claim and attempt to read the lines, believing that your partner actually made a reasonable statement.
Stage 2: Blame Games and Evasion Tactics
While you’re still dwelling in the arena of confusion and bewilderment created by the gaslighter, the abuse progresses to the next level.
At this point, you’re a little hazy while trying to comprehend your surroundings. The gaslighter capitalizes on your confusion and begins to attempt activities that you’re thoroughly against. Knowing that their seeds of abuse have been sowed, they continue to advance their personal agenda.
A common, heartbreaking example of the above is seen in romantic relationships – where the gaslighter begins to cheat on the victim. When you bust them red-handed, do they completely evade the topic?
Do they immediately blame you for their action – which you clearly had nothing to do with? Do they pile up a bunch of claims that are impossible to comprehend or correlate? Do they counter-accuse you of the thing they did?
To top it off with a cherry, do they attempt to convince you that you’re straight-up imagining things?
Yes, Stage 2.
Stage 3: Repetition of Abuse to Build Tolerance
To convert an act into a habit that we can perform out of muscle memory, we practice and test our tolerance levels to the activity at a gradually increasing pace.
The victim is slowly meted out a gradually progressive level of gaslighting. This increases their tolerance to the abuse. The abuser systematically administers the abuse, to increase the victim’s tolerance by steady gaslighting tactics in calculated amounts.
At this point, you wonder where the relationship went wrong and why you’ve been under the weather for quite a while now.
Stage 4: Resort to Aggression When Confronted
At this point, you decide it’s time to have a conversation about what has been happening with the abuser. Unsuspectingly, you try to address how you feel to them; attempting to explain what you know is the problem.
Except, they react to your statements in an overtly explosive manner. Their response to your claim is filled with aggression – in the form of taunts, verbal abuse, allegations, and more lies.
“You’re making stuff up.”
“That never happened.”
“You are so ungrateful!”
“Abusers use statements like the ones above to create doubt in a person’s mind. In other words they make them think they’re going insane”, says Janie McMahan, licensed marriage and family therapist.
When your grievances are met with hostility, and the abuser is unwilling to pay heed to you – take note. Aggression is one of the vilest tricks in the abuser’s bag, and it’s also admittedly one of the most useful tactics they employ to ambush their victim.
“Don’t retaliate. Gaslighters rarely back down and will typically seek revenge if retaliated against”, says Stephanie Moulton Sarkis – Doctor of Philosophy in Mental Health.
Stage 5: Tire Out the Victim
“Nope, not me. Once bitten, twice shy.”
While observing such an equation from the outside, it’s easy for bystanders to assume the above. Obviously, you can’t be that blind and tolerant, right?
This would ideally be the case, except your tolerance level for emotional abuse would have been built by the abuser’s systematic administrations of aggression and evasion.
The victim would want to confront their abuser about what they’ve been doing; why the relationship has turned sour and incorrigible. But the abuser would’ve gotten you so used to their behavior; and whenever you do try to confront them, you only face more abuse.
This abuse includes ghosting, verbal abuse (including insults, taunts, and jabs), physical abuse, etc. Tiring out the victim to their gaslighting and scaring them into tolerance and submission allows the gaslighter to further pursue their agenda.
It arrives at a point where you’d rather learn to digest and maneuver around their abuse than confront them – and that means this stage is complete.
Stage 6: Form a Codependent Relationship
Several studies have been published regarding the establishment of a narcissist-codependent relationship between abusers and their victims.
According to Psych Central, the term codependency was used to refer to spouses of alcoholics. Upon realizing that signs of codependency existed beyond the scope of relationships driven by alcoholism, the term began being used elsewhere as well.
When there is gaslighting in relationships, the abuser drives the victim into adopting the following traits:
• Low self-esteem – The abuser picks on existing insecurities to lower your self-esteem.
• People-pleasing – While you question the motives of your abuser, you begin to believe that good behavior rewards you. This “good behavior” towards the abuser largely involves tolerating their abuse. You believe that presenting a pleasant front despite their behavior towards you fetches you points.
• Low boundaries – A huge part of your abuser turning you into a codependent involves blurring the boundaries you establish for yourself and others. Due to the periodic abuse and your tolerance built towards it, your sense of boundaries becomes incomprehensible. This is used to invade your private and safe space of self.
All of the above creates an environment where the following heart-breaking equation is forged: You look for comfort in the same place you’ve been abused. The abuser fosters a space where the victim believes that the only place to derive solace after an episode of gaslighting is the gaslighter himself.
This allows for an extremely toxic equation; while some victims are in denial about this behavior, some victims completely understand what is happening and still choose to continue the relationship. This is because of the nature of the relationship they have with the abuser.
Stage 7: Apologise and Repeat the Cycle
Unironically, positive reinforcement is a tactic used by gaslighters to keep their victims in a loop.
Has someone ever apologized to you – a basic apology that held a visible amount of remorse, after putting you through hell? Ideally, we’d understand that their apology does not even begin to make up for what they did.
However, in relationships where gaslighting is often used, the victim is extremely tired and wants nothing but for the abuse to stop. In situations like these, an apology feels like a shockingly positive input from the abuser.
While apologizing, gaslighters employ their sensitivity; just enough for you to believe that they’re truly remorseful. They make promises to mend their behavior, and you want to believe them – so you do.
For a few days or so, the abuser provides the victim an illusion of a safe space; enough to retain them and let them recharge. And then, the abuse begins, again.
You need to realize that the sun would rise in the west before a gaslighter mends their ways. This cycle is what they need to keep you stuck in a loop until their intentions are dealt with satisfyingly.
Truths You Need to Realise
Before anything else, if you suspect that you’re a victim of gaslighting, one thing remains: None of this is your fault.
The abuser thrives off of your self-doubt, and your questioning of reality. They did this to you, and there’s no other way to put it.
Gaslighters alter your perception of everything and deplete your resources: emotionally, physically, financially, and more. While all of this is extremely unfortunate, you still need to realize that their behavior is by no means a product of your actions.
Abusers tend to pick their victims after research, and you are probably a source of supply that they seek to deplete for their gain. You may be in denial, or you might have been regarding their abuse or the nature of your equation itself.
While it is tempting to punish and hate yourself for your denial, again – your denial was a result of their planned actions, not yours.
After such an ordeal, you deserve recuperation, safe spaces, and absolute kindness – from others and especially yourself. Don’t punish yourself for what has happened or continues to happen.
What they did to you does not make you damaged goods. They’re the ones who require fixing, and you were, are, and always will be whoever you want yourself to be.
Just know that there are multiple ways out; and that the abuser does not hold the power, you do.
It may seem like whatever happened – the abuse, the denial, and the utter confusion, is going to leave lasting damage that will affect your future.
The effects of the abuse can be healed, with the help of therapy. Talk to your friends when you’re ready; most importantly, seek professional help from a therapist.
Mental health professionals are trained to make you understand the entire ordeal, and they can help you heal and recuperate from the effects of gaslighting in relationships.
I hope you’ve been able to find answers to the questions that led you here. Nobody holds power over you, and if you feel like someone else does – it does not mean you can’t reclaim your life back from them. You absolutely can, and deserve to.
Nobody deserves to be gaslighted; and the more you are aware of the stages of gaslighting, the easier it is for you to evade this abuse, or escape it.