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Posted on November 23, 2022

How To Recognize if Your Spouse Is Manipulating or Gaslighting You

People get into relationships expecting mutual trust and respect. No one goes into a relationship expecting it to become toxic. However, not all forms of “toxicity” in a relationship are overt. Some, like gaslighting, are more insidious than others.

Gaslighting is a term popularized in the late 2010s. The word itself came from the title of the 1944 movie, Gaslight, where a man manipulates a woman into doubting her own sanity. In real life, gaslighting is less likely to involve elaborate jewel heists and more likely a means of exerting power. 

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation and emotional abuse. It involves undermining another person’s reality. Gaslighting is about maintaining power and control over your partner. Most gaslighters, the term for abusers who use gaslighting, use it as a tool to avoid accountability for their actions, often turning the tables on their partners for perceived issues in the relationship.

A research paper titled “Gaslighting: A marital syndrome” was published in 1988 detailing how gaslighting affects women whose husbands have been or were involved in extramarital affairs during the course of the study. The research showed how vulnerable women are to becoming victims of gaslighting due to the perpetuation of existing gender stereotypes when the women involved raised valid concerns about their spouse’s cheating. 

However, this does not mean that men cannot become victims. According to a study by YouGovAmerica, 32% of men have experienced manipulation from their partners at least once in their lives. Male victims of psychological and emotional abuse are also less likely to be believed due to gender stereotypes. Due to those gender stereotypes, men may also be less likely to recognize when they are being gaslighted.

To be able to recognize gaslighting, it is important to understand what gaslighting is not. Gaslighting is different from having a genuine disagreement with your partner. Gaslighting occurs over a long period of time, with repeating instances, and is unique in that:

  • Partner A is consistently listening and adjusting their behavior according to Partner B’s perspective. 
  • Partner B is consistently negating Partner A’s perspective and undermining their confidence regarding their perception. Partner B also always insists that they are in the right and that Partner A is being irrational and exhibiting toxic behavior.

Gaslighting is a method to stop the immediate conflict but only at the expense of making the victim insecure and tearing down their self-confidence. In extreme cases, and especially with multiple abusers, victims can develop anxiety disorders and paranoia due to the constant attack on their sense of reality. If you are a victim of gaslighting, it may be difficult to recognize the fact that you are being abused due to your abuser conditioning you to think that you are overreacting.  Before you make any decisions, it is important to speak with a Manhattan divorce lawyer.  

What Are the Signs That My Spouse or Partner Is Gaslighting Me?

It may be difficult to recognize outright gaslighting behavior especially if you have already been accustomed to experiencing it that it has become normal to you. However, here are some telltale indicators that you may be able to spot that point to gaslighting behavior.

They lie and deny something happened even in the face of evidence

Often this comes as being dismissive of their partner/victim’s feelings, saying that they are exaggerating or overreacting when a concern is brought up. They may also say that the partner/victim is being emotional in an attempt to minimize the impact of the actual concern. 

This is common in adultery settings but also in general situations when they don’t want you to find evidence of a misdeed. (“I never did that, you must be going crazy.” or “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”)

They deflect and project guilt

One common way to catch a gaslighter in action is how they respond to guilt. When gaslighters are guilty of something or are called out for problematic behavior, they tend to deflect and switch up the conversation to something their partner/victim supposedly did. 

Your spouse may accuse you of making things up and lying even though you are telling the truth. This attempt to transfer blame and accountability is very characteristic of gaslighting. (“You stayed late at work again today. You’re cheating on me, aren’t you?”)

They engage in manipulative behavior

Gaslighting is an abuser’s way to exercise control over their victim. Often, this can involve the use of manipulative language. Your spouse may say things like “if you really cared about me” or “if you really loved me” in an attempt to get you to do something, even if you would have done it anyway. This is a form of emotional coercion.

They make you question your own mental health

Being consistently questioned and doubted about things that you experience can have a great impact on your perception of things. You yourself can begin to second-guess and doubt your version of what happened. If a person like your spouse who supposedly cares about your well-being is concerned about your mental health, that must mean there is a problem, right? Unfortunately, gaslighters fake this concern specifically to cause you to question yourself.  

Your spouse might hide things from you and tell you that you are becoming forgetful or paranoid. This might make you unable to trust yourself which is how abusers keep control of their victims. 

They try and turn people against you

To maintain control over their victim, a gaslighter may try to isolate their victim to prevent them from realizing the extent of the abuse they are experiencing. This also helps the abuser hide their identity as being an abuser. It’s important to remember that most abusers do not seem abusive outwardly.

Your spouse may try using other people against you or lying about how other people perceive you to show that they (your spouse) are the only one who truly cares about you. They might also damage your credibility with your family and friends. This is a part of undermining your self-esteem in other relationships, making you more reluctant to tell others about the abuse. (“Your brother is spreading rumors about you.” or “I saw one of your friends saying bad things about you behind your back.”)

They don’t apologize or show you empathy 

In a healthy relationship, when one party expresses hurt, the correct response would be to empathize and acknowledge their emotions. A gaslighter would diminish and invalidate their partner/victim’s feelings and make it seem like it’s an irrational reaction. A victim of gaslighting may feel like their side is never heard and that they have to justify their emotions for their partner. 

This is a part of undermining your reality, by saying that you shouldn’t think or shouldn’t feel the way that you are thinking and feeling, they are making you feel like your emotions should be subject to their validation. (“You shouldn’t be jealous and overreact when we were just talking. Nothing even happened between us.”)

They make you doubt your contributions to the relationship

Through their gaslighting, your spouse can make you think that the dysfunctional aspects of your relationship are because of your actions and not because of your spouse’s gaslighting. You may feel the need to overcompensate because of your perceived fault. 

This highlights how gaslighting is about maintaining uneven power dynamics in your relationship whereas a healthy relationship would have a two-way dynamic. Your spouse may use your perceived guilt to force you to make decisions you are not comfortable making. 

I Think I Am a Victim of Gaslighting. What Should I Do?

As a victim of gaslighting, here are some things you can do to help regain your sense of self back.

  • Seek the company of people you trust – You may approach a therapist, a family member, or a friend whom you know would be able to empathize with your experience. Being able to affirm your emotions can help a great deal to regain your confidence and trust in yourself
  • Gather evidence – Thanks to the advent of social media and technology, it’s easier to “keep receipts”. This involves keeping messages from your spouse, taking screenshots of conversations, and generally making sure that you keep your back covered. This will help you retain your sense of reality and prevent your spouse from causing you to doubt yourself.
  • Remember that correcting your spouse’s behavior is not your responsibility – It’s understandable to want to try and make things work even if you have been hurt by your spouse. You can choose to confront them about the gaslighting, however, the problem with confronting a gaslighter is that you’re putting the burden of proof upon yourself when you are the victim in the situation. Even though you may want to help your spouse change for the better, the change should be initiated by them and not you.
  • Do not engage in debates – It’s important to preserve your emotional energy and not waste it in unproductive discussions. A gaslighter’s aim is to twist the narrative for their self-benefit. “Winning” the argument is not worth the time and effort you expend in trying to make them see your perspective. Don’t exhaust yourself psychologically.
  • Realize that the gaslighting is not your fault – An important factor in recognizing that you are a victim of abuse is recognizing that your abuser is the one who should be accountable for their actions. While you may have been convinced that the dysfunction in your relationship is your fault, the gaslighting was initiated by the other person and they should be the one who must change the behavior
  • Recognize when it is time to step away from the relationship – If confronting your partner is not an option and you feel that they won’t change the behavior, it may be time to go your separate ways. Separating yourself from your partner may help you regain your self-esteem and help you reduce your self-doubt. 

Deciding to divorce a spouse can be difficult. If your spouse has been abusive, it may even further complicate the situation. Alongside seeking an experienced New York divorce attorney, it may be helpful to consult a therapist or a counselor as well.

At the Law Office of Richard Roman Shum, we provide compassionate assistance and quality legal counsel to spouses who seek to exit abusive relationships. Richard Roman Shum, an experienced New York divorce and family law attorney, has helped many families navigate the legal and emotional complexities of divorce. Call us today at (646) 259-3416 or fill out our online form to schedule a free and confidential consultation with one of our skilled New York divorce lawyers.

For cases of domestic abuse, you may also call the NYS Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline at 1-800-942-6906 or The National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233).

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