Gaslighting: You’re Not “Crazy”—No Matter What Your Partner Says

Is your partner gaslighting you? If you’ve ever felt crazy in a relationship, this is for you.
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A Tale of Two Realities

For Elena, she and Brett lived in separate realities. In hers, she’d known their marriage was a mistake from the start and wanted out. In his, the marriage was fine and she needed help for what he likely experienced as a rather sudden change of heart.

Navarra finds that couples often experience separate realities—after all, we all live in the confines of our own imaginations—and struggle to understand or acknowledge the other’s viewpoint. “We all have our own histories, experiences and perspectives that create our realities,” says Navarra. “When partners have different perceptions, they need to take the position that both realities are right; there isn’t one truth.”

Without clear communication, it’s hard to access someone else’s reality, especially when one partner is emotionally expressive and the other shies away from emotion. “The emotionally expressive wife will get better responses from her husband if she is careful to avoid criticizing her partner’s lack of emotional responsiveness,” says Navarra, noting that the reverse is also true. “She should focus instead on her own feelings and what it is that she wants, without expecting him to have the same emotions.”

More troubling—and truer to gaslighting in its purest form—is when one person no longer trusts his or her own intuition or feelings. When that happens, Stern recommends very simply getting back in touch with one’s own feelings by noting throughout the day, ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like that,’ and ‘this makes me feel good’ or ‘that makes me feel bad.’

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That exercise can help someone achieve the essential first step: recognizing that there’s a problem in the first place. “When people are physically abusive, you can point to it and say that’s an awful behavior,” says Stern. “But when someone is undermining your confidence and telling you different stories than you believe, you can’t always put your finger on it.”

When doubt seeps in, a third party can be a lifesaver. “Talk to your friends, listen to them,” says Stern. “Running things by them if you’re not sure is a really wonderful way to stabilize yourself.”

But she’s clear that when gaslighting becomes a defining pattern in the relationship, the only solution is the courage to walk away.

Today, Elena is living happily on her own, traveling, getting in shape, and trying to revive her career. So is Brooke. She’s now in a happy, healthy relationship and has finally severed her ties with Jon, who came in and out of her life “like a ghost that just circled,” wreaking havoc for many years after they split. “It was like a cancer in me,” she says. “I think back and wish I could tell myself that my emotions were valid, to scoop myself up and give myself a big hug and say, honey, it’s not worth it.”

*All names have been changed to prevent hate mail from any “crazy” exes. 

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