We’re about halfway through a series talking about what it means to communicate God’s way in our relationships. In our last post we talked about some of the most common examples of manipulation in relationships that mess this up. We acknowledged that we all sometimes choose to play games rather than speak plainly and honestly, and we all need to work hard to stop it and honor God with our words.
But we also discussed the reality that there are some people who habitually use manipulation as a weapon, to the point that it becomes abuse. While the tactics we talked about last time tend to be more commonly used by all of us, today we’re discussing gaslighting tactics far more indicative of a very serious problem.
Matthew 15:18-20 – The words you speak come from the heart – that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you…
Sometimes we need to acknowledge that what we’re dealing with isn’t the basic human sinfulness we’re all guilty of. There are people whose hearts have become so deeply tied to the enemy that what comes out is dark and devious and horribly wicked.
These people are not beyond God’s reach, but they do need to be seen for what they are and dealt with according to the standards of Scripture. God calls us to high standards and asks us to put up strong boundaries enforced with wisdom, grace, and love.
So, with that in mind, let’s get into it.
Gaslighting and Manipulation – Recognizing the Gas-lighter
Perhaps you’ve heard the term, “gaslighting.” It’s a pretty trendy buzz-word right now and is a very general term for the practice of using psychological manipulation to cause confusion in the mind of the victim. Gaslighting tactics seek to subtly plant seeds of doubt with such consistency that the victim’s memory, perception, and sanity come into question, not just to himself but to others as well.
There are a great number of strategies used by the gas-lighters to accomplish this goal. The first steps in taking away their power are to learn how to recognize their games and then to refuse to respond as they desire.
Last week we looked very briefly at five examples of manipulation in relationships. All of those tactics are often used by chronic manipulators, but now we’re ready to look at seven more serious examples of manipulation and gaslighting tactics used by abusers.
Just as we did last week, we’ll explain each of the gaslighting tactics, give an example of each, and offer one very basic response. Again, the seriousness and danger will escalate as we progress.
How to Recognize and Respond to Common Gaslighting Tactics
Before we start with the list, let’s remember that the misbehavior of others does not give us an excuse to misbehave ourselves. We must respond with integrity and refuse to play games in response. We’re not looking to learn how to manipulate the manipulator. That would be wrong.
At the same time, we must be vigilant. We can’t bury our heads in the sand. We are called to be as shrewd as snakes and as harmless as doves. May the Lord give us everything we need through the power of His Holy Spirit to accomplish it.
Gaslighting Tactics #1: PROJECTION
Romans 2:1 – You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in His justice, will punish anyone who does such things.
This is a way for the manipulator to defend himself against his own faults by attributing them to another. It is different from deflection (which we talked about last week) in that it is not in response to an accusation or confrontation, but rather in anticipation of one.
The abuser will be sure to spend so much time accusing the victim of a wrong he/she is in fact guilty of that the target will have no room to ever bring the issue up in the opposite direction. Most of the time the gaslighter will also express great anger and disdain for anyone who would engage in such terrible sin, likely believing that the glaring hatred for someone who would participate in such a thing would exonerate him/her from suspicion of the same.
Example = A manipulator who is cheating on his wife will constantly accuse the wife of cheating or find reason to raise suspicion while railing against anyone who would cheat on her husband so that the wife becomes so focused on proving her own innocence that she doesn’t notice the signs of his infidelity – or she is so afraid to bring up the signs she has noticed for fear they will somehow implicate her or validate his accusations.
Response – First of all, as the verses above promise, understand that no one will escape God’s justice forever. Trust Him first. Second, absolutely do not try to defend yourself against the accusations. They are nothing more than gaslighting, and a defense only validates the manipulator.
Simply state the truth, and refuse to engage further. (Example scenario response – “I am not cheating on you. I will not cheat on you. I have too much respect for God and his design for marriage to sin in that way.”)
Finally, understand that if you are being unreasonably accused by a manipulator chances are pretty good, you’re being told what he is actually doing or planning to do. Don’t look the other way and pretend this isn’t true. Do what you need to do and prepare boundaries accordingly.
Examples of Manipulation in Relationships # 2: MOVING THE GOAL POAST
Psalm 106:3 – There is joy for those who deal justly with others and always do what is right.
Using this gaslighting tactic, manipulators constantly change the expectations set for their relationship partners, but without acknowledging it has been changed. This creates a great deal of confusion for the partners, causing them to question their memory and sanity.
Example = The gas-lighter may ask that dinner be ready by 6:00 every day, but then get home from work at 5:30 one day and ask why dinner isn’t ready, insisting the request was for dinner to be ready when he/she gets home from work.
Response – As in so many of these cases, the best response is no response. Don’t measure yourself according to the standards of people, answer only to God. If your conscience is clear before Him, then let it be clear. If a response to the gaslighting is necessary, keep it to the true facts and try your best to keep emotion out of it.
So in the example above, you might say, “It’s nice that you were able to get home early today. We agreed that dinner would be ready by 6:00, and it will be.” And that is all.
Gaslighting Tactics #3: DOUBLESPEAK, MINIMIZATION, & RATIONALIZATION
Psalm 141:3-4 (ESV) – Set a guard, oh Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies!
Psalm 86:11 – Teach me Your way, oh Lord, that I may live according to Your truth! Grant me purity of heart, so that I may honor You.
These are three different things, but they have in common the end goal of making light of the inadequacies of the subject.
- Doublespeak is a broader term which includes any language that intentionally distorts the meaning of words to make a situation more palatable.
- Minimization more specifically uses language that makes light of inadequacies, while
- Rationalization makes excuses for or explains away the problems.
Example = If a manipulator got fired for cause he/she might use doublespeak calling it being “laid off” which would minimize the situation and then rationalize it by saying the boss had it out for him.
Response – The response to untruth is truth. When reality is twisted, we must respond with what is real. If a situation is minimized it needs to be restated plainly and realistically. Example scenario = “You were fired, not laid off and it was because you were late over and over even after being warned, not because your boss had it out for you.”
Examples of Manipulation in Relationships # 4: LOVE BOMBING & SEDUCTION/CHARMING
These gaslighting and manipulation strategies are particular favorites of Narcissistic Abusers who desperately need their partners (supply) to both adore them, and require nothing from them. If these manipulators sense tension or waning interest they will overwhelm their victims with over the top signs of affection for a time. Just long enough for the victims (and everyone around them) to believe they are the center of the abuser’s world.
Then it will very abruptly stop, (except in public) and often be followed with the exact opposite behavior. The intent is to stay in control and keep the victims confused – completely unable to trust their evaluation of the relationship. This is classic gaslighting!
There is also the secondary motive of bolstering the abuser’s image to the people of influence in the victim’s life so that if the victim does seek advice people will be more likely to have the abuser’s back.
Example – After a fight in which you confront the abuse, you receive grandiose gifts delivered to you at work, back rubs and lots of extravagant physical affection at home, suggestions to do some big splashy thing like take an elaborate trip together or take on that big project you’ve been wanting done.
These last for about a week, or just long enough for you to let go of any boundaries you tried to implement after the fight that triggered the whole thing and then suddenly stop and are followed by extreme anger if you bring up the change as if you are being bratty or spoiled to expect that kind of behavior.
Response – The goal here is to keep your head, and not be sucked into believing the temporary behavior of the love-bomb. As the proverb above states, if you are full, you won’t be duped into thinking the bitter food tastes sweet. Understand who you are in Christ, and go to Him to have your cup filled. If you’re not desperate for the affection of the manipulator you will be able to see these tactics from a mile away and not be taken in by them.
Put good strong boundaries in place, and keep them no matter how affectionate and “changed” the manipulator seems to be. One who is truly changed will support and live within your boundaries, not try to get around them or get you to give them up.
Examples of Manipulation in Relationships # 5: PLAYING THE VICTIM
James 1:2 – Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.
When playing the victim, gaslighters can turn any situation into an abuse against themselves. Even when their own actions have caused a situation to go bad, they will find a reason why it wasn’t their fault and was, in fact, the result of the intent of the world at large to destroy them.
Example – Instead of apologizing for her bad behavior, admitting she has an anger problem, and seeking help after getting into a screaming match with a co-worker, the manipulator will tell you how her father was abusive and she never learned how to deal with anger, and no one seems to understand how damaged she was by her childhood.
*While the childhood trauma may be real, a healthy adult does not use it as an excuse to act badly, but instead, will seek the help needed to overcome the trauma and take responsibility for her own behavior.
Response – A healthy adult takes responsibility for her own life. When a situation turns to victimizing herself, gently and lovingly remind the manipulator that she is a grown up and gets to choose to grow beyond the injustices in her life.
Don’t try to do the work for her. Ever. This only further enables the victim mentality. Encourage her to set boundaries for herself, and set a good example by having good, strong, healthy boundaries in your own life.
Gaslighting Tactics #6: MISREPRESENTATION (Fabrication, Falsification & Omission.)
Jeremiah 9:1-9 – If only my head were a pool of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for all my people who have been slaughtered. Oh, that I could go away and forget my people and live in a travelers’ shack in the desert. For they are all adulterers – a pack of treacherous liars.
“My people bend their tongues like bows to shoot out lies. They refuse to stand up for the truth. They only go from bad to worse. They do not know me,” says the Lord.
“Beware of your neighbor! Don’t even trust your brother! For brother takes advantage of brother, and friend slanders friend. They all fool and defraud each other; no one tells the truth. With practiced tongues they tell lies; they wear themselves out with all their sinning. They pile lie upon lie and utterly refuse to acknowledge Me.” says the Lord
Therefore, this is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: “See, I will melt them down in a crucible and test them like metal. What else can I do with my people? For their tongues shoot lies like poisoned arrows. They speak friendly words to their neighbors while scheming in their hearts to kill them. Should I not punish them for this?” says the Lord. “Should I not avenge myself against such a nation?”
Here, manipulators will re-frame what the victim is saying or doing to make that person look bad, or what the manipulators are saying or doing to make themselves look good.
Example – You tell him you don’t like the way he talked to you when he got home from work, and he says, “Oh, I didn’t realize you always handle yourself perfectly when you’ve had a bad day.”
Additionally, there are three common forms misrepresentation might take, and these are basically just ways of lying to get the outcome he wants.
- Fabrication – Making things up, whether it be elements of a conversation, actions, or situations, to support whatever point the abuser is trying to make
Example – When asked about his bad mood all evening, he says you rolled your eyes when he told you he had a bad day at work (when you did not) and it hurt his feelings and made him feel uncared for.
- Falsification – Rather than flat out making things up, falsification changes the details to better fit the objective of the manipulator.
Example – After telling you about a bad day at work, you rolled your eyes (to express frustration in support of his story) and expressed your understanding of his frustration when he told you how his boss made everyone stay late to fix a problem the boss had created. Later, he says you rolled your eyes because you thought he was being petty.
- Omission – This tactic leaves out relevant information rather than adding or changing it in order to support the gaslighter’s objectives.
Example – In counseling she tells the therapist that you have been frustrated with her over the past week and things have been tense, but fails to mention the fact that she has come home from work every day in a bad mood, and retreated to the bedroom to pout instead of engaging with the family in the evenings.
Response – As we’ve said again and again, the best response to a lie is the truth. Simply stated. When you encounter the lies of the manipulator, speak the truth in love. Refuse to engage in debate. Refuse to continue a conversation that is not based in reality. State the truth with gentleness, then walk away, making it clear that you will be happy to continue the conversation when it can be done from a place of reality.
Examples of Manipulation in Relationships # 7: OVERT ABUSE (Name Calling, Bullying, Threats, Physical Attacks)
1 Corinthians 5:11 – I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.
Where most manipulation tactics are covert, which means they are more subtle, overt abuse is right out in the open and obvious. Its purpose is to scare the victim into capitulation and to demonstrate the power of the abuser over the victim.
Example – When you state that you need to make some boundaries, he screams at you and verbally belittles you, threatens to make it impossible for you to survive without him, or to take away your children, or even physically punishes you for making such a suggestion until you back down.
Response – When you’re dealing with an abusive manipulator of any kind, boundaries are very important. But when the abuse is overt, you need to get out! Leave. Get yourself and your children to safety. You can make a plan for the future from there. You can set up a gate in your boundaries that makes a way for the repentant abuser to come back in. But only when very specific parameters have been met – and never quickly!
1 Timothy 4:1-2 – Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead.
Proverbs 26:24-26 – People may cover their hatred with pleasant words, but they’re deceiving you. They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them. Their hearts are full of many evils. While their hatred may be concealed by trickery, their wrongdoing WILL be exposed in public.
Dealing with abusive manipulators bent on gaslighting you into insanity is not easy. The responses we’ve given are next to impossible to actually do with consistency. Learning to detach emotionally from a spouse feels wrong, and in a healthy relationship, it is! But when we’re dealing with a person who is not mentally healthy, we have to learn new ways to put them in God’s hands.
In the end, we are not responsible for the behavior of our spouse. It’s not our job to fix him/her. We are only responsible for our own behavior, and we will answer to God for it one day.
If you need some help learning how to define, establish, and implement healthy Biblical boundaries, I have written a workbook to help with exactly that. Just follow the advertisement link below. But more than I want to sell you a book, I want to convince you of this truth: the answers you need can be found in Scripture. Your situation did not catch God by surprise, and He has given you His Word to lead you to every answer you need. Go find them!
2 Timothy 3:10-17 – But you. Timothy, certainly know what I teach, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra – but the Lord rescued me from all of it. YES, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil people and imposters will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived.
But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the Holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip His people to do every good work.
Thank you for your article and the biblical wisdom throughout. My spouse is dealing with gaslighting from others and I am trying to understand the situation but it is very hard to get an exact answer when I ask her to “give me an example, what was the conversation exactly that took place”. I can’t address the other party until I have the example/evidence that it took place. Otherwise, I look like I am accusing them of something and have nothing to base it on.
That’s tough. If it’s real gaslighting, though, it is going to be really really tough to pin down. That’s what makes it so effective.