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Can a Gaslighter Accuse You of Gaslighting?

I won’t lie. Last week, my soon-to-be ex-wife accused me of gaslighting. I’ve heard that term many times but didn’t really know what it meant. But looking into it, it also describes some of her behavior. So can a gaslighter accuse you of gaslighting?

A gaslighter will use a variety of manipulation tactics including accusing you of being a gaslighter. Ultimately their goal is to control you by lowering your self-esteem, and accusing you of exactly what they are doing to put you on the defensive is one way of doing that.

But there’s more to know about gaslighting than just that.

And am I really guilty of it? And because I see some of the same things in her does that mean she is a gaslighter? So in this article, we’ll explore exactly what it is, how to know if you are doing it (maybe we do it to each other), and how to recognize it in others.

But we’ll also explore the key difference between a genuine misunderstanding, a difference of opinion, and gaslighting.

Let’s dive in deeper.

gaslighter accuse you of lg

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser will say things to the other person that ends up causing them to doubt their own reality or sanity. They will often twist the facts to make their position sound legitimate with the end result being damaging to the self-esteem of the other.

But what does that really mean?

Sometimes a gaslighter will do something emotionally or verbally abusive and then deny it later. Or maybe they act like the person they are gaslighting is blowing something out of proportion and convinces them that it really wasn’t as big a deal as they made it.

But in a way, doesn’t that potentially describe a lot of people and a lot of arguments?

After all, as my therapist says, we all have our own truth. And often that may not align with someone else’s perception of the same events.

The difference is that the gaslighter does it intentionally.

In other words, if my wife and I have a disagreement and later remember the events differently, if we both genuinely believe the facts the way we remember them, that’s not gaslighting.

But if one of us genuinely remembers what happened, but pretends to remember something different to somehow hurt the other, that IS gaslighting.

I can honestly say I’ve never intentionally gaslighted anyone, including my soon-to-be-ex. But has she gaslighted me? We’ll explore that below.

How do you respond to gaslighting accusations?

If you have been accused of gaslighting, take the following steps:

  1. Take a moment before responding. Think about what was being discussed and decide if you genuinely believe what you said. If you did only speak the truth, even if they disagreed with it, you weren’t gaslighting. Remember, gaslighting is intentionally trying to make the other person feel crazy. Just because they disagree with you doesn’t make it gaslighting.
  2. Avoid the urge to escalate the argument. It’s hard to hear someone say something about you that is a serious accusation. But escalating it or trying to get back at them isn’t going to help anything. Stay calm and think about what they said.
  3. Ask them why they think you were trying to intentionally manipulate them. An accusation of gaslighting is serious. For someone to make that accusation, they are essentially calling you emotionally abusive. You deserve to know why they think that.
  4. Genuinely listen to what they are saying. Assuming they are genuinely a good person, there must be a reason they think what they think. That doesn’t mean they are right, but they are clearly in pain. Listening, as opposed to just waiting your turn to speak, can enable you to get to the root of the issue. And sometimes something you say or do can trigger an old memory and response and it may have nothing to do with you.
  5. You can be empathetic and still set healthy boundaries. Just because you listen and genuinely want to understand how you may have hurt this person doesn’t mean you have to accept something you genuinely don’t think is accurate. You can empathize with their feelings but still set and enforce healthy boundaries if their words turn bullying or inappropriate.
  6. Explain your point of view. Remember it’s OK to disagree. But if you genuinely believe what you said, and you weren’t being overly critical or belittling of them as a person, you weren’t gaslighting.
  7. Apologize if you were wrong. If you did say things that were critical or belittling or skewed the facts with the goal of making them feel bad about themselves, it’s crucial to take 100% ownership and apologize. Sometimes good people do bad things, and everyone reading this has done things they aren’t proud of. Just make sure to avoid the word “but” in your apology. True ownership doesn’t make excuses for bad behavior. Own it.
  8. Get some help. A therapist is a great person to talk to as they will be neutral. Friends will naturally take your side, and they likely only know your perspective. So even if well-intentioned, they will naturally be very biased and don’t always give the best advice even if they mean well.

How do I know if I am a gaslighter?

The motive behind behavior determines whether a person is a gaslighter or not. A gaslighter intentionally lies or skews the truth to make the other person question their own memories of the situation, or possibly question their own sanity. Just having a different opinion does not make you a gaslighter.

So think about your own motives.

Would you lie to someone to get them to see your perspective? Do you tell people their opinion (I’m not talking about facts, but opinions) is wrong just because you believe something different?

Do you try and invalidate others’ emotions?

Do you constantly tell this person they are over-reacting or blowing things out of proportion? Ultimately people have the right to believe or feel however they want to feel. Now you, in turn, have the right to set clear boundaries of how, when, and how often they express those feelings.

But don’t ever tell someone they are not entitled to feel the way they feel.

Honestly, in this scenario, I can see where I sometimes tried to make my wife believe she was overreacting to situations. She is a very emotional person and can have big feelings that can change with some regularity.

I admit to never fully understanding her feelings and often being confused why she was acting one way one moment, and then something small would trigger a completely different and powerful emotion a short time later.

But I also could have done a better job of accepting her emotions and setting and enforcing healthy boundaries around what kind of behavior I was willing to accept.

However, it is still true that I never lied or distorted my own perception of the facts in order to alter how she feels about herself. And ultimately, that’s why I don’t really think I ever gaslighted her.

But there have been very clear instances since she asked for a divorce where I have seen her distort the facts to alter how I feel. And with our dwindling list of mutual friends, she admitted to me (and apologized) that she had lied as to the real reasons she wants a divorce to make it easier on herself in the eyes of our so-called friends.

Does that make her a gaslighter? I’m not sure yet as I write this.

But I did detail how I’ve noticed her re-writing our history in a recent article. If you have ever had a problematic relationship and noticed your partner has selective or altered memories which make them look better and/or you look worse, that article is worth a read.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Why is my friend’s list dwindling?

I saw dwindling friends above as many of our mutual friends don’t really speak to me anymore.

And it’s no doubt because of my wife badmouthing me to them. Were some of the things that were said to them true? No doubt. But there has also been some exaggeration, and some outright lies.

I had to answer to my 14-year-old daughter the other day whose cousin (my wife’s niece) had told her that back when her mother and I were dating in 2005, I was supposedly “sleeping with a bunch of women” at the place where I used to work.

I confronted my wife about it and she denied ever saying that. But of course, there’s no way my niece would even know anything about those years unless my wife told her, as my niece was a child then.

But my wife did at least acknowledge that it was incorrect information. And she kind of clarified it with our daughter.

And to be fair, I did go back and forth between my wife and my previous girlfriend for the first 6 months of our on-again/off-again dating history. I’m not a saint here.

But there was just one woman; not multiple. And I wasn’t working there by the time I met my wife and the other woman worked at a different location of our company.

So the truth was very different than what had been said.

And the damage was done. And at the end of the day, what happened in the first few months of dating back in 2005 has NO bearing on why she now wants a divorce.

So not only is it wrong, it’s totally unnecessary and only being said with the intention of making me look bad. Gaslighting though? I’m still not sure.

And while there’s plenty of dirty laundry I could air about her, I’m choosing not to as I don’t get any joy or benefit from malicious gossip, nor does it provide any value to my life.

In the end, it takes 2 to make a marriage, and it takes 2 to break it. We both failed each other and our kids.

Do gaslighters know they are gaslighting?

A true gaslighter is aware they are gaslighting as the behavior, by definition, involves the intentional manipulation of another to gain control or to have them question their own beliefs or sanity. It is not possible to engage in that kind of manipulation unintentionally.

Now I have seen some people talk about “unintentional gaslighting”.

And the video below actually references a parent talking to a hurt child and telling the crying child that it doesn’t really hurt that bad and using that as an example of unintentional gaslighting. But if that really is gaslighting, then everyone alive on the planet has done it.

So for my article, I’m focused on intentional gaslighting.

And as we’ve discussed, a difference of opinion or remembering the facts of something differently, if genuine, is not gaslighting.

For example, my wife frequently brings up me procrastinating on getting a vasectomy and her getting pregnant with our 3rd daughter as her top reason for wanting to divorce me.

Now I did indeed procrastinate on getting the vasectomy. We both agree on that.

But lately, she’s made claims like “I was clear that a 3rd child would end our marriage”. I, in turn, feel certain she never said that or anything even remotely similar to that.

Most of our discussions at that time (2015-2016) were light-hearted and funny with me usually saying something like “I don’t want anyone snipping around down there”, and maybe her laughing and saying something like “you better hope I don’t get pregnant!”.

I don’t recall any serious discussions about it, and she does. 

Does that make either one of us gaslighters since we remember the same facts so differently? Not unless one of us is intentionally lying about it now. And I know I’m not lying.

Now her refusal to take any ownership of getting pregnant (I procrastinated on it; I never lied about it) is another story. After all, I’m pretty sure it takes 2 to make a baby.

And I can’t imagine not wanting my 3rd daughter here for anything, even if it were to save my marriage.

Is gaslighting manipulation?

Gaslighting, meaning intentional lying or distorting of the facts with the goal of making someone else doubt themselves or their sanity is manipulation and a form of emotional abuse.

The key is whether they are doing it intentionally or if it’s just a difference of opinion.

For example, my soon-to-be-ex has a photographic memory of every mistake I’ve ever made. But she’s very slow to admit her own faults and will often nitpick my claims as a way to avoid taking 100% responsibility for her actions.

And the fall of 2012, after she quit drinking, our marriage was in trouble.

And I repeatedly asked her to go to marriage counseling with me as I could see we were not in a good place. In retrospect, I could have also seen she was struggling after years of issues with alcohol and living in a new state with 2 young kids, she was probably at her wit’s end.

And she was now feeling everything she used to dampen with alcohol.

But in looking back on that time recently, despite her intense memory of the exact dates of every screw-up I’ve ever had, she has no recollection of the times I asked (and she refused) to go to marriage counseling.

So is she intentionally pretending to not remember that as a way to gaslight me?

Honestly, despite how good her memory is the rest of the time when it comes to my mistakes, I actually don’t think it’s intentional on her part. But her memory is always sharpest when it comes to my mistakes.

And her refusing to go to marriage counseling after I repeatedly asked would definitely fall into her bucket of mistakes.

Can you Gaslight someone unintentionally?

If the intention is pure and honest, a simple difference of opinion is not gaslighting. If an argument turns critical or contemptuous and heated, it is possible though, in the heat of the moment, to gaslight someone without really intending to, simply by losing one’s temper.

But really by the textbook definition, gaslighting is intentionally trying to manipulate someone by lying or making them question themselves.

So you can’t really do that by accident.

Going back to the situation with my wife, there have definitely been arguments over the years where both of us have lost our temper. She tends to get defensive in those situations and my go-to is to get critical.

Of course, if you know the work of John Gottman at all, you know both of those behaviors are 2 of his 4 horsemen; his top predictors of divorce. Despite being aware of his work and even writing about that in a recent article, it’s still something I’ve struggled with. At least until the last 6 months when I got much more into meditation.

Just click that link to read my article on my site.

So in my arguments where I have gotten critical of her, was I gaslighting? In short, maybe. I would sometimes say things in the heat of the moment I didn’t mean to express the pain I was feeling that at the time I believed she was causing.

But I wasn’t really trying to manipulate her or make her think she was crazy.

But I was trying to hurt her with my words as I felt like she was hurting me. What I’ve since come to realize is that I’m not responsible for her emotions and she can’t make me feel anything that I don’t want to feel.

I am responsible for my emotions and she hers.

Do gaslighters apologize?

A true gaslighter who is intentionally lying or manipulating another to make them feel bad about themselves is unlikely to apologize. And if they did apologize it would likely be as a means of further manipulation.

But as we’ve discussed, there’s a difference between a good person who does bad things and a bad person.

So don’t assume that every person you meet who has an off day or says something mean is a gaslighter. We have all said and done things we wish we hadn’t. Be honest.

So if someone you think may have been gaslighting you apologized, think about:

  • Does it seem genuine?
  • Is this a recurring pattern? (gaslighting and then apologizing)
  • Is their behavior having long-term effects on your self-esteem
  • Are you comfortable setting clear and healthy boundaries, and enforcing them?
  • If they apologized, did they follow that with a list of justifications? (“I’m sorry, but I only did that because . . . )

A frequent recurring pattern or the inability to take 100% accountability is key to deciding whether this is a good person who did a bad thing or a bad person.

And even then, that’s not etched in stone.

I have said critical things to my wife over the years and I’m not a bad person. She struggles to take 100% accountability for her actions, and she’s also not a bad person.

So in life and relationships, the key, I guess, is to find another imperfect person like yourself and plan to love them exactly as they are without expecting them to change.

And that is ultimately where my wife and I both failed each other.

How do you hold a gaslighter accountable?

Hold a true gaslighter accountable by:

  1. Set a clear boundary for behaviors that you are willing and unwilling to accept from them. For example, they are free to state their opinion, but they cannot tell you your opinion is wrong.
  2. Try to examine the facts rationally and don’t get bogged down in the emotion of the situation. An argument, especially one in a relationship has a high emotional element to it. This can skew our reality.
  3. But don’t allow them to make you question yourself. Question yourself if you are genuinely unsure of the facts. But not because they are belittling you and what you believe to be true.
  4. Take a moment away, if need be, to collect your thoughts. It’s easy to get distracted and emotionally distraught in the heat of the moment. So make it clear you need some time alone before continuing the discussion if you need it.
  5. Don’t apologize for anything you don’t truly believe you owe an apology for. A gaslighter wants you to question yourself. Ultimately the goal is to control you. And if you often apologize for things you really aren’t at fault for, it will damage your self-esteem and put you under their control.

That last one is interesting.

As you recall, above I mentioned that my wife struggles with apologizing for mistakes. If she does, which is somewhat rare, it will almost always be followed with a “but . . . ” list of justifications that basically nullify the apology.

It’s not taking true ownership.

But she will often say “I’m sorry” constantly over little things where no fault was seen or mentioned. So it’s odd that she’ll say that often but rarely at the times where it is truly needed and would do the most good.

And it’s not like I’m without fault.

I struggled with the same thing for most of my life, and with being rigid in my thinking, but began to make the change around mid-2013 when I got back into martial arts and began to examine and reevaluate my values.

But that’s an ongoing process for me too.

But if you think you are truly being gaslighted, take the following steps:

  1. First, remove yourself from the immediate situation. In the heat of an argument with a genuine gaslighter or narcissist, you are unlikely to resolve the issue.
  2. Let them know you plan to finish the discussion at a later point. After all, just shutting them out is a form of stonewalling, also known as the silent treatment. This is also a form of emotional abuse. So let them know you just need time before continuing.
  3. Decide if the person was genuinely gaslighting you or if they just have an actual difference of opinion. One way to decide that is if their statements seemed designed to belittle you or hurt your self-esteem. A good person with a difference of opinion can state their opinion without being critical of you as a person.
  4. Get some perspective. A therapist is a great person to talk to as they will be neutral. Friends will naturally take your side, and they likely only know your perspective. So even if well-intentioned, they will naturally be very biased and don’t always give the best advice even if they mean well.
  5. Look at your history with this person. There are good people who sometimes do bad things and then there are just bad people. All of us make mistakes and occasionally say things we regret in the heat of the moment. That doesn’t make them a gaslighter. But if there is a consistent pattern of manipulation or emotional abuse, that can point to the person genuinely being a gaslighter.
  6. Examine the central issue from all sides. Assuming you don’t yet think the person is a true gaslighter, look at the situation and try and see both your side and theirs. Do you think they genuinely believe what they said? If so, and you think something different, why is there a difference of opinion? Could there be something you or they don’t yet know or may not have considered?

Final thoughts

So in this article, we took a deep dive into gaslighting.

It was a term I’ve heard thrown around for years but didn’t really know what it meant. Unfortunately, I began investigating it after my wife (soon to be ex) accused me of it last week.

But as we discovered, sometimes the person who accused you of gaslighting is actually doing it themselves, sort of as a defense mechanism. But sometimes people do it without even really being aware of it. And without the intent to manipulate another, it really isn’t actual gaslighting.

Sometimes good people do bad things. And that’s not really gaslighting if the intent wasn’t to hurt you.

Image by janrye from Pixabay and Image by ROBSON JUNIOR from Pixabay


Jeff Campbell