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Why People Gaslight

Often, they seek to avoid responsibility for their own behavior.

Gaslighting is now a widespread term, and recent research has started to examine the most common ways to recognize it in relationships, along with the motivations behind the behavior. Recognizing gaslighting more quickly, and understanding what drives it, allows victims a deeper understanding of this devastating interpersonal behavior.

Avoiding responsibility

Individuals who use gaslighting in relationships do so to avoid taking responsibility for their behaviors and to control others. In both cases, relationships are used as a means to an end, a way to receive what one wants at the expense of others’ emotions, boundaries, and, often, personal safety.

Refusing to take responsibility for one’s behaviors can make others question the reality they’re experiencing—which is the ultimate goal of a gaslighter. Most of the time, these individuals refuse to accept responsibility for their most harmful behaviors, but skilled gaslighters also avoid taking responsibility for more everyday behavior—though the newest research suggests that most of their avoidance tactics center around taking attention away from their immature, hurtful behaviors.

If an abusive partner can convince others to question reality about their everyday lives, it makes the path to more significant, harmful behaviors clear and easy. It’s similar to testing the waters, in an attempt to determine just how much they can get away with before they’re discovered or not believed.

There are several forms that avoiding responsibility can take, and being able to recognize those methods can be crucial in stopping the patterns before they become too difficult to escape:

  • Refusing to say they’re sorry. Gaslighters will never apologize in a meaningful way—because, in their eyes, they are never wrong. They may superficially apologize if someone they consider important is observing, or if they feel a quick “I’m sorry” will gain them something, but a meaningful apology that identifies how they hurt you and what they will change in the future is not going to happen.
  • Blaming others for the consequences of their own behaviors. When someone is mistreated long enough, they will typically stop engaging in that relationship (if they can). When that happens to a gaslighter, they will look for any reason possible—aside from their own contributing behaviors—to explain the end of the relationship. Usually, those reasons will place blame onto other people or their victim, completely abdicating the gaslighter of any wrongdoing.
  • Playing a false victim. Anytime they don’t receive what they want out of a situation, gaslighters immediately fall into a victim stance—if you won’t work with them, you’re automatically against them. There is no middle ground, and there is no compromise. They are typically masters at playing a false victim, able to immediately convince anyone who will listen how they have been mistreated, even in the face of significant evidence to the contrary.

Determination to control others

Recent research also indicates that another common motivating factor for gaslighting is the ambition to exert control over others. A gaslighter is addicted to control; they often try to bend even the smallest, most inconsequential factors to their will. Though it may seem pointless to others, it’s actually part of a well-honed process they use to slowly master controlling others; by the time you realize it’s been happening to you, chances are you will be in so deep it will feel impossible to get out.

Exerting control over others can take many forms, and for personal protection, it’s important to recognize what those can be:

  • Refusing to accept input on leisure activities. Everyone loves a well-planned surprise, but if you consistently aren’t allowed input on how to spend your free time, or your wishes are sought out and then disregarded, it’s time to look behind these patterns to determine whether they could indicate a more serious issue.
  • Threatening behaviors. If you tell someone “no” or disagree with them—and find what you receive in return are threats to harm you in some way, however small they may seem at the time, it needs to be addressed. Even if the threats are generalized—“you’ll be sorry”—or as simplistic as “you won’t enjoy the side of me you’re about to see,” they should be taken seriously. Any type of threat, veiled or overt, is a symptom of a bigger problem.
  • Controlling others’ opinions of you. Gaslighters don’t want anyone else to recognize their tactics with victims. To that end, they work very hard to sway others’ opinions of their victims, always with a negative slant. That could mean they inaccurately present themselves as being mistreated or they could chalk themselves up as “rescuing” or “saving” their victims. Anything they can do to change the way others perceive their victims is a win in their book, as it means they are in control of how another person’s character is judged—as opposed to the truth being the deciding factor.

Recognizing gaslighting patterns can be a lifesaver

Current research is clear that gaslighters exhibit common behavioral patterns—a key to potential victims that can help them recognize these patterns before escape has become difficult. Healing from an abusive, gaslighting relationship can take a lifetime, making it all the more crucial to help victims recognize the issues the minute they first occur. Sharpening this intuition could literally save your life.

Facebook image: Hryshchyshen Serhii/Shutterstock


Klein, W., Li, S., & Wood, S. (2023). A qualitative analysis of gaslighting in romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 30(4), 1316–1340.

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