The Gaslight Effect and How to Identify Toxic Relationships

Have you ever been in one of those relationships where something didn’t feel quite right? That person made you feel happy and loved at times, but other times had you questioning your self-worth and even your own sanity.

This type of behavior is not limited to a relationship with an intimate partner; it can be experienced with friends, family and even people in the workplace.

If you have ever felt this way, you may be experiencing the gaslight effect.  

Robin Stern, Ph.D., is the co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, as well as an associate research scientist at the Child Study Center at Yale University.

She is also the author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, a book published in 2007 that highlights this type of toxic relationship and helps those experiencing it find viable solutions.

Photo Courtesy of Jenni Goldstein

Now let’s start with what exactly defines a gaslighting relationship. Dr. Stern emphasized that this type of relationship entails making a person think they are crazy or insane.

“Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt or to destabilize somebody, hoping to make that person second-guess their phone number, question their memory, question their perception, question their sanity and their character,” said Dr. Stern.

There are many tell-tale signs of being in a gaslighting relationship, and Dr. Stern mentioned some of the most common and prominent ones.

A few signs include, “When you hear yourself apologizing many times a day, or you’re constantly second-guessing yourself,” she said. “You used to be able to make decisions easily but now you can’t. Asking yourself, am I too sensitive a dozen times a day, or am I too anything a dozen times a day.”

Typically a toxic relationship slowly builds up over time, and the transition is often slow and discreet. So many people don’t realize that they’re in a gaslighting relationship for a while because they transition through the three stages gradually.

Photo Courtesy of Jenni Goldstein

“As I describe in my book, there are stages of gaslighting,” said Dr. Stern. “When you’re first involved you might dismiss it or think it’s not that big of a deal. As time goes on and the gaslighting continues, you end up defending yourself: ‘No I’m not like that.’ Whatever it is you feel you’re not doing, you are defending yourself in an effort to convince the person that’s gaslighting you that you’re right and he’s wrong. But the thing about it is that during that stage you end up luminating over and over again, ‘Well maybe he’s right, maybe I am too sensitive, maybe I am too attached to my family, maybe I am a scatterbrain,” whatever it is you’re being accused of at the moment, you’re defending yourself and at the same time second-guessing yourself.”

It can be hard to realize when you’re in a gaslighting relationship because you care for that person and want their approval or validation. Many people often lose their own sense of perception and adopt their partner’s/the gaslighter’s. However, Dr. Stern left behind some advice for when you finally realize you are in a toxic relationship.

Photo Courtesy of Jenni Goldstein

“One of the things that I talk a lot about is sometimes you can’t see the signs that you’re in a bad relationship, whether it’s a gaslighting relationship or any other kind of relationship,” she said.

Particularly when it comes to gaslighting, when things are going wrong you often can’t quite pinpoint the problem. Dr. Stern has a creative way of problem-solving in these instances.

“I use a metaphor; when you’re on a plane and you’re not sure what’s going on, when you look around you and the flight attendants are smiling and they’re still serving dinner, or they’re walking up and down the aisles you relax, as opposed to if the flight attendants are alarmed.”

So what are your flight attendants and what can you look for?

One of her biggest pieces of advice is this:

“When you know that there’s something wrong, you need to consider leaving. Because if you’re not willing to leave, you don’t really have the leverage. Once you can name the problem, you can begin to address it.”