The Seven Stages of Gaslighting in a Relationship

Among the different kinds of manipulative behavior, gaslighting is the one that tends to cause most harm to the victim. In fact, it makes them dependent, distrustful, and extraordinarily vulnerable to the wishes of their manipulator.
The Seven Stages of Gaslighting in a Relationship
Cristian Muñoz Escobar

Written and verified by the psychologist Cristian Muñoz Escobar.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Emotional manipulation is a strategy in which one of the parties always seeks benefits at the expense of the other, even if psychological abuse is necessary to achieve them. This emotional abuse is difficult to detect in certain situations due to the differences in how it manifests itself. Nevertheless, the main aim of someone who performs gaslighting in a relationship is to keep their victim’s fears alive of being abandoned, rejected, frustrated, etc.

Gaslighting is a term that originated from the play Gas Light (1938). In this film, which told the story of a marriage, the husband lowered the gas lights at night. His wife noticed this change, but he convinced her that it was only happening in her head. His purpose with this action was to make her lose confidence in what she saw so that she’d start to trust him even more than herself.

The gaslighting individual emotionally manipulates their victim into doubting their own perception and mistrusting their own memory. However, how does gaslighting occur in a relationship? Why does the victim tend to put up with it for so long?

The stages of gaslighting

Gaslighting is a relational attitude with the purpose of making the victim doubt themselves and lose their sense of reality, identity, and self-esteem.

This phenomenon can occur in all kinds of relationships. The process usually has seven stages. These vary, depending on how the gaslighting is carried out.

Man manipulating a woman
Gaslighters aim to control others.

1. It consumes the victim

Always being on the offensive causes constant wear and tear on the victim. The gaslighter’s goal is for them to be consumed by a state of pessimism and anguish, fueled by doubts about their own perception and themselves.

2. The lies

The perpetrator knows that they’re lying. Their negative narrative, based on general assumptions and accusations, leaves aside concrete and verifiable facts. They lie with tremendous confidence, which puts the victim on the defensive and they doubt their own thoughts.

3. Repeating the same lies

Using the same strategy as Paul Joseph Goebbels, the individual carrying out the gaslighting repeatedly tells the same lies so their victim eventually believes them to be true. Their ultimate goal is to control the relationship, always maintaining a subtly aggressive and offensive position.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” 

-Joseph Goebbels-

4. Condescension

The manipulator’s skillful condescending attitude manages to confuse the victim. It projects in them the thought that far from being selfish, the perpetrator is looking out for them. Consequently, they feel that the manipulator is really trying to help them. “Don’t worry if you can’t do it, I’ll do it for you.”

5. Codependency

This is the zone in which the gaslighter feels most comfortable, doing everything possible to make their victim feel vulnerable. In fact, they know that the further down this path they go, the more power they’ll have over them.

6. Confronting and challenging the victim

If the victim refutes the lies of their victimizer, they’ll deny the accusations and continue with their lies, insisting that they’re true. Furthermore, they’ll blame the victim and start to intensify their attacks so that the truth of the facts remains distorted. In addition, they’ll look for a way to make them feel guilty by confusing them and sowing doubts in their mind.

7. Dominance

The ultimate goal of the gaslighter is to have absolute control and dominance in the relationship. To do this, they intensify their coercion over the victim and pressure them to feel insecure and fearful. In this way, they can manipulate them at will.

Signs of gaslighting

The gaslighting effect in a relationship tends to occur gradually. At first, the perpetrator tends to appear harmless and trustworthy, until they gain the complete trust of their victim. Once, they’ve established this link, the manipulation starts.

The following behaviors occur at a general level in the victim.

  • Apologizing excessively.
  • Thinking that they’re inept.
  • Not understanding why they feel sad.
  • Believing that they’re not good enough for other people.
  • Feeling a great sense of guilt.
  • Doubting themselves and questioning their decisions.
  • Justifying the perpetrator. 
  • Preferring to get away from everyone in order not to explain their situation.
  • Looking back to past times when they felt in control of their lives, with far more influence over what happened to them.
sad woman thinking
Gaslighting produces feelings of guilt and low mood.

What to do to stop suffering from gaslighting in a relationship

The first thing to do is to nip in the bud any ties to the gaslighter. However, this won’t be a simple situation for the victim, since they may have a genuine attachment to the perpetrator.

The second step is for the victim to be aware of their actions and to regain confidence in their own judgment. Lastly, psychotherapy is an excellent option to work on their frame of mind, strengthen self-esteem and, if necessary, establish better relational patterns. In this sense, it must be remembered that, if you want to have healthy relationships and secure attachments, your own well-being is always paramount.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.