'Gaslighting', quite tragically, now has a cemented place in our modern lexicon. The term was one of Oxford Dictionaries' words of the year in 2018, and it's become a buzzword that reflects the politically charged moment in which we're living. Post #MeToo and #TimesUp, it's undoubtedly helpful to have a phrase in our armoury to call out the psychological manipulation that often leaves women doubting their own sanity.
The term takes its name from the 1938 Patrick Hamilton play (and more famous film adaptations) in which a man dims the gas lights and then persuades his wife that she's imagining it, and has become most closely associated with romantic relationships. But a book published by Dr Stephanie Sarkis, a psychotherapist and expert in mental health, exposes the manipulative technique in all spheres of life: from love and family to politics and the workplace.
Though we associate it with dating most commonly, it happens in friendships, too, and Dr Sarkis has dedicated a whole chapter to the phenomenon in Gaslighting: How to Recognise Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People... and Break Free. "The word frenemy comes to mind," she writes. "Doesn’t this sound like your friendship with a gaslighter? He does things that really, really bother you, but you hang in there. You get nothing good from the friendship – likely because you got used to gaslighters early in your life and this seems normal. You might think, What would I do without this 'friend'? Well, for starters, you would have a happier life!"
Caroline Plumer, psychotherapist at CPPC London, says we might more easily miss instances of gaslighting in our friendships, over our romantic relationships. "Not only is gaslighting more commonly associated with dating, but we also tend to be (at least initially) more on our guard in romantic relationships," she says. "With friendships, we are more likely to come from the default of believing our friends genuinely care and want the best for us, so it can be challenging to spot when this isn't the case.
"What is true across all relationships is that they should be give and take, and make us feel good about ourselves. If interactions with a friend are draining you, or making you question or feel bad about yourself, then it's worth taking a deeper look at that and figuring out whether it's you, them or the dynamic of the two of you together."
It's natural to disagree and clash at times with friends, but no one should be distorting the truth, or manipulating you, for their benefit. Caroline warns that if a friend is consistently saying things that make us doubt ourselves or our perception of situations, it's worth reassessing that friendship. Gaslighting may also look like being dismissed, shut down or told off.
"If we can distance ourselves from these types of unhealthy relationships, then we absolutely should," she adds. "If you do feel a friend is gaslighting you, you're within your rights to tell them you disagree but you don't see the conversation going anywhere productive so it's best to stop."
You don't have to engage, even if you can't completely cut off the friendship if you have mutual friends.
Extracted below are Dr Sarkis' tops tips for spotting gaslighting in friendships.
How to spot the signs
1. Beware the gossip
"Gaslighters are terrible gossips. They love learning unfortunate tidbits of people’s lives and sharing it with others," Dr Sarkis writes, adding that it gives them "a feeling of power and control over others". While a friend who's a gossip "is just passing information to others (albeit inappropriately)... the gaslighter wields information like a weapon." Beware of how he or she talks to you about other people. "Does he gossip about them and seem to thrive on their misfortunes? This is a sure sign of a gaslighter, and I can guarantee that he is talking about you to them, too." She recommends limiting the personal information you disclose to the friend in question and challenging them when they gossip about someone else. Say, "I don’t know whether she would want me to know that," change the subject and walk away.
2. Don't take the bait: splitting and lying
Gaslighting friends "love to see a fight, and get excited by the fact that they made the fight happen," says Dr Sarkis. As such, they'll feed you lies about what other people have said about you. "If gaslighters tell you someone said something about you, automatically assume it is false. Gaslighters have no problem lying, especially when it means having greater power over others. This is because if gaslighters don’t have anything to gossip about, they will make it up." But don't "take the bait": simply say "oh" or "okay", recommends Dr Sarkis. Not only is your "friend" trying to cause a fight, but they're also trying "to isolate you from others". She adds: "Gaslighters would love nothing more than for you to view them as your only friend."
3. Be suspicious of why they're befriending your spouse or partner
"Gaslighters will often go to lengths to form a special bond with your spouse/partner. Be very wary," warns Dr Sarkis. "Gaslighters know exactly what many people in longterm relationships want to hear. This has nothing to do with whether you have a healthy relationship or not – anyone wants to feel listened to and needed." Dr Sarkis believes gaslighter friends aren't to be trusted with your spouse and will go to great lengths to "steal" them from you, "particularly if you have disclosed that you are having problems in your relationship. Whatever information you tell the gaslighters, they will use that to get your spouse hooked." She recommends warning your spouse to expect extra attention from this toxic friend, but adds that, ultimately, whatever happens between them – if anything – is out of your control. "The gaslighter sees taking your partner as a game to be won. She doesn’t care about you, your spouse, or your relationship. She certainly doesn’t care about your feelings."
What to do
1. Stay away or cut off contact
Restoring your life to normal is simple, according to Dr Sarkis. "If the gaslighter is a friend, your best bet, hard as it may be, is to cut all ties with them. This is usually the only way to get rid of the toxic influence of a gaslighter," she concludes. "If you don’t, this person will continue to wreak havoc in your life – guaranteed. There is a small chance that the gaslighter will become preoccupied with someone else and drop you like a hot potato, but until then she will likely make your life drama filled."
2. Never give anything to or borrow anything from them
Loaning or borrowing anything from a gaslighter – particularly money – is a disaster, Dr Sarkis says, and if you do so, expect to never see the item again. Simplify your life by avoiding this at all costs. "If the gaslighter gives you an item as a 'gift,' either say 'No, thank you' or, if you really must take it, be aware that it may come back to bite you. Gaslighters are famous for 'gifting' you something, then claiming that you stole it from them." The gaslighter's motivation here, Dr Sarkis believes, is their "need to get even with people who they feel have wronged them."
3. Never let them look after your children or pets
In the same vein, never entrust them with your pets or children. "Gaslighters don’t care. If you give them the responsibility of watching your children or your pets, they’ll take that as carte blanche, putting themselves in a position of power over the most valuable beings in your life. Please don’t rationalise that you don’t have anyone else to watch your child or pet. There’s got to be a better option than leaving them with a gaslighter who may cause them serious harm."
4. Act bored or ambivalent
Short of dramatically and abruptly cutting off ties with them, the best way to end the friendship is to be so boring and/or ambivalent that they walk away first, Dr Sarkis suggests. "Gaslighters love to get people stirred up. If you respond to gaslighters’ inflammatory remarks with 'that might be true,' 'okay,' and 'maybe,' they will soon become bored with you. If you act ambivalent or bored and fail to let them get a rise out of you, they will quickly move on."
This article was originally published in March 2021 and has since been updated.