By Esther Perel
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? — she’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast transcript — the show is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
Simply put, I can’t tell if I’m being gaslit and this is having a very negative effect on my well-being, or if I’m just an overly sensitive person.
Anytime I put up a boundary, my partner freaks out and makes a huge deal, telling me I’m being insensitive to him. He has a big personality, is very quick-thinking and articulate, while I often find it hard to communicate. The arguments are very dramatic and intense and he never lets things go no matter how much I ask him to give me a break. He reminds me during these arguments that I’m ruining the relationship. We broke up over these arguments a few months ago, only to get back together after he assured me they wouldn’t continue.
The Phone Call
Esther Perel: So, you wrote the question, but if you could ask it to me again as we speak today?
A newsletter about modern family life by Kathryn Jezer-Morton.
Caller: I am wondering if I’m being gaslit by my partner or if it’s a case that I’m just being overly sensitive. I feel that I get certain treatment, when we’re alone, that feels very hidden, but in speaking to him, he says I’m overly sensitive, that I’m overly boundaried and that, actually, it’s more that I’m treating him badly, and he gets angry at me for me being bad.
And he admits that sometimes his behavior isn’t great and he’s working on it. And he’s worked a lot on it. I just have no idea if I’m basically a bad person and if I’m treating him like crap and not being sensitive to him, because that’s what it sounds like.
Esther: So, tell me something — let’s just go a bit back. How did you come to formulate the question the way you do? What is the history of your relationship that led you to this question, “Am I being gaslit or am I overly sensitive?”
Caller: So, he has a tendency — for example, over New Year’s, we went away together, we were in the car and I wasn’t feeling well, and he just kept on shouting at me that I wasn’t being nice to him. And he was shouting at me. And originally, I thought he was joking. And I was like, “Yeah, I know I am.” But I was quite premenstrual at the time, or I was menstruating and I felt awful, so I was just a bit of a curmudgeon.
And I was like, “Yeah, I know. I feel bad. Just let me feel bad.” And he just kept on shouting, “You’re not being nice to me! You’re not being nice to me! Ooh!” And we were literally going to our friend’s doorstep, and he just left me there and just acted like everything was perfectly normal. And it seems to often be, as well with social settings, that we’ll be going out and he’ll do something to pull the rug out from underneath me and be like, “What’s your problem?”
Another example is, I was at therapy, and I came back and I wasn’t feeling particularly great. We had been talking about boundaries, because I do have concerns that my boundaries aren’t very good and it’s something that I work on.
Esther: What do you mean by that? That’s a big statement.
Caller: Yeah. So, I know that I don’t necessarily know how to put up boundaries. I was in a job before where, basically, I worked myself to a state of very poor health, and a lot of that had to do with working with someone who wouldn’t let me say no. So, no matter how much I was like, “I’m not available,” they just kept on pushing me.
Also, that particular industry, in that particular job, there was a real need for me. There was nobody else to do the job. I had to travel and move, and I was exhausted, but because there was such a need for me, I felt I didn’t have a choice. I let myself just get torn into that and away from my life and away from the people that I care about. And eventually, I got to a point where I completely burnt out.
Esther: And you are telling me this also because in some way something parallel is happening between you and your boyfriend?
Caller: Yeah, exactly.
Esther: Right? You are on the verge of burnout. If I ask you — because you say, am I being gaslit or am I overly sensitive, which of course is what people who are gaslit often end up feeling is that they are being overly sensitive, that they are not clear, that they’re doubting themselves, that they’re confused, that they no longer trust their own sanity — you went to look for the definition of what being gaslit means?
Caller: I definitely looked it up at some point, but I don’t quite remember it at this moment.
Esther: Right. So, without even defining the term, if you are telling me, “I’m in a relationship where I don’t trust that what I think has validity. I find myself often saying I feel something and then I’m being blamed for the very thing that I just uttered. The blame is constantly shifting. I am accused of being the gaslighter, and then I end up completely confused, and it makes me question the situation.” It’s like what we call in my field, projective identification, “You are telling me that I’m doing to you what you’re exactly doing to me,” and I distrust myself. I begin to question my mental health because you keep telling me that my mental health is not steady, or something happens and you tell me that’s not what happened, or that “It is your fault” if it happened, or that “I’m doing these things and I’m saying these mean things because I actually am trying to help you,” or that “It’s not such a big deal. So what if you’re menstruating? That shouldn’t explain why you’re treating me the way you are,” or that “You are overthinking it,” or that “When I’m mean, I was just joking,” or that “You’re too emotional.”
These are seven common gaslighting phrases. If any of these are continuously occurring to you or if you simply, even without that, say, “I am constantly questioning myself, I’m constantly doubting myself, I’m constantly in a state of confusion,” et cetera, et cetera, then the answer to your question doesn’t really matter. What you know is that this is not a good situation.
Caller: But that’s the thing is … I don’t know.
Esther: Now you’re going to give me the other side, “But we also have nice times. But when I’m about to pull away, he apologizes profusely and he promises that he will change, that he’s working on it and that this will never be happening again,” until two hours later.
Esther: Now, you’re going to seesaw back and forth in the ambivalence, “Here are all these things, but maybe what if he what says has validity and is true?”
Esther: “And maybe I am indeed so insecure, and maybe I do indeed have a problem with boundaries, which, of course, I’m having with him too. So, in the end, maybe he knows me better than I know myself.”
Esther: And when I say, “I’m hungry,” he says, “No, you’re not really hungry. You shouldn’t be hungry right now.” And I’m beginning to wonder, “Well, maybe then I’m not hungry.”
Caller: Yeah, that’s literally what happens. I’ll be like, “Oh, let’s get some food,” and he’ll be like, “No, no.” I’m like, “Well, I’m, I need something.” And I’ll end up getting a protein bar, something to tide me over until we’re eating, and then he’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, by the way, while you went into the shop to get a protein bar, I got a chicken sandwich.” Then, I’m just like, “What?” Yeah, it comes from everywhere. It feels very controlling.
Esther: It’s either reality manipulation, scapegoating, coercion, or straight-up lying. Those are probably four of the main gaslighting tactics. Shifting blames would be another. And the interesting thing, as I listen to you, is, you have the answer to your question every time you give me another example to reinforce that you actually know what’s happening.
Caller: But the thing is that he has shown me, in so many ways, that he does love me and … We have, honestly, the best time. He’s my best friend in the world. I don’t know how to lose him. And that’s the thing is, I see him as a really good person, as a really kind and warm and friendly… And if you see him with his friends, he is incredible, incredible. It’s so confusing. Exactly, again. But then he turns around and does that to me.
Esther: Now, a question I would ask him is, “Who did this to you and nobody stopped them? Who did you see do this in your family and nobody stopped them?”
Caller: I feel that would be really hard for him. And I would be worried about, not challenging, I think, for him, something like that would be —
Esther: But do you know?
Caller: I’d imagine I have an idea.
Esther: That’s my question. He may be a wonderful friend, but that does not dictate how he’s going to be with his girlfriends. Those two things don’t necessarily always go in sync. I would ask him, where did he learn this, and who did he see do this, and who never stopped it? And I would then ask you this parallel question — this of course is not a question you’re going to ask him, but I’m asking that to you because you probably know him … how long are you together?
Caller: Two years.
Esther: Okay. Then, I’m going to ask you, who did you see in such a dynamic? Where did you learn not to be able to say no? Because this is not about “Am I being gaslit or am I being overly sensitive?” Without defining, without focusing just on these two terms, you’ve described the reality. Then, you say, “But he loves me,” and that may very much be the case as well. But he also needs to control you, but he’s also intensely insecure and therefore he needs you to be one down, but he also has a hard time hearing you say “I’m hungry” without instantly denying it or defying you or qualifying it or deciding if you have a right to be hungry at this moment or not because he knows better than you what your stomach needs.
So, regardless of how much he loves you, he still would need to learn to differentiate and to be able to let you have an experience, and respond caringly and compassionately to it without having to decide if your experience is valid or not before he decides how he wants to respond because he’s the master and the judge.
Caller: Oh my God, yeah. That is qualifying my experience. That’s it. It’s like every single experience I have, all of my friendships, all of my work, it’s being qualified. That’s exactly it, and being like, “You’re doing this right and you’re doing that wrong.” It’s like being stuck in a box. And the thing is that I know that I am brilliant and I have beautiful friendships and I was excellent at that job and I’m excellent at most things that you put in front of me, and I feel that really deeply.
I know what I’m doing, and I care about myself, and I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself, and I’m continuing to learn, and I’m conscious of where I go up and where I go down, but …
Esther: And if you had a friend, since you have very good friends, if one of your friends was in a situation that is similar to yours, what would you say?
Caller: Just step away. It’s just not that easy. We’re completely entwined in each other’s lives as well.
Esther: And then, what would you say to your friend who says, “It’s not that easy. We’ve got our lives completely intertwined with each other. I have invested two years of my life here. I know he loves me, but I’m being obliterated, I’m losing my mind, I’m continuously put in a situation where I have to doubt myself”?
Caller: Yeah, I’d be like, “I’ll take care of you.” I don’t know.
Esther: Have you spoken with your friends?
Caller: Yeah, a bit. I don’t like to speak badly about him because they all know him. So I want to honor the relationship, in a way. I’ve spoken to my sister a bit.
Esther: And has anybody said, “Keep going”?
Caller: Yeah. Then, I had one friend who had flagged it early, and when she flagged it, that was also the time, literally the same day when I had the breakdown for work, or the day that I literally just heard from my doctor being like, “You can’t do that job anymore.” And I was not sleeping through the night.
And I was literally talking to him about it, and he was like, “Well, I’m thinking about maybe we should break up.” So, he, nearly always, when I’m at a level of peak stress, he’ll put something else on top. Then I never went back to work after that.
Esther: So, if you are struggling with something, he will trump you? If you bring up a feeling, he’ll bring up another one that he thinks, in that moment, is more important than the one you just brought up?
Caller: Yeah, every single time. So when I was talking about that boundaries thing, he flipped. When I was back from the therapist and I was just literally standing in the kitchen being, “I just need to eat some dinner.” So I was like, “Right, I’m just going to make myself some food. I’m gonna take care of myself, I’m gonna nourish my body.”
And I was like, “Okay, I just need … I’m a bit weird right now, I just need a little bit of space because I,” blah, blah, blah. Then, he started at me, and I was like, “No, I can’t handle this right now. I’ve explained the fact that I’m feeling very vulnerable. I’m just like letting you know that.” And he was in a great mood when I came in, and then, suddenly, he turned, and then he started shouting at me and shouting at me, and I was like, “Stop shouting at me.”
Then he freaked out about me not understanding what a boundary was, me turning my boundaries against him. Then we had this long discussion about what qualifies shouting or not, and then we literally got into the depths of what the semiotics of the word shouting is to both of us. Then he made me say that he hadn’t been shouting at me in terms of the way that he understands the word “shouting.”
Esther: So, you covered all four, right?
Esther: You covered the coercive strategies, you covered the shifting of the blame, you covered the questioning of your reality, you covered the manipulation, the disqualifying. So, you’ve answered your question.
Esther: What has made it so difficult for you to know that you have to go or to act on it? Where does your challenge come from in terms of saying no, in terms of saying, “This is what I know I need to do, and I’ll deal with the consequences. In fact, I’ll be liberated. I’ll suddenly realize how much I’ve been hijacked and what kind of a hostage situation this has been. And I will be able to, once again, liberate myself with my friends, and then my friends are going to start telling me how they had noticed it, that and the other, and I’m going to say, ‘How come you never told me?’ And they’ll tell me, ‘We kept trying to tell you but you couldn’t hear it because you were completely enveloped in this saga.’”
Caller: Yeah, it’s bizarre. I know that you’re right, I know that.
Esther: You are brilliant. You’ve answered your questions. You have your answer. This is not a question of discernment, this is a question of, you’ve tried it before, you may try it again, he’s going to beg you, he’s going to plead with you, he’s going to be his best self for half an hour, and he may be a perfectly good, kind person, but he’s got some things to deal with if he’s going to be in a relationship.
Esther: And so do you.
Caller: Yeah. Well, yeah, I think that’s the thing — if I’ve tried so hard, and I’m 35, I’ve been in enough relationships, and he genuinely has worked a lot on himself, and I can see how he’s come along in a big way.
Esther: Do you know what?
Esther: I don’t know what you mean, because every example you’ve given shows me somebody who has very little ability to see what he does. And, of course, for any gaslighter there must be a person that is letting themselves be gaslit. These two go together.
Esther: But there hasn’t been a situation where you describe him saying, “I realize, I notice, I take responsibility, I’m sorry, I was projecting, I was dumping.”
Caller: Well, he has done that.
Esther: When? When you leave?
Caller: No. We do talk after these things happen. I’ve been listening to you forever. I never knew that he knew about you, and he sent me something, one of your YouTube videos about when couples get to an impasse, and he was like, “Let’s look at this and let’s talk about this based on the tools that are there.” And I really appreciate that.
I can see him trying. But the thing is, we’re actually at a point right now where we’re not really speaking, and I asked for the keys back for my flat after everything that happened that I’ve been talking about recently. It was too much.
Esther: That piece of your excusing him and analyzing and justifying and excusing his behavior is part of the gaslit cycle.
Esther: “He’s doing this but he doesn’t really mean to do this, he feels bad about it afterwards, and so, now, I need to make him feel better about him making me feel bad.”
Caller: Yeah, yes. Yes.
Esther: This is twisted.
Caller: Completely twisted. Because I was on the phone to him yesterday. I wanted to let him know that I was going to be speaking to you because I thought that that was respectful. I also was like, “Look, in the long run, I feel we’ve been running on what I want. I just want to know what you want.”
Then, of course, it came back around to how much all of his friends told him that he’s great, and then I, of course, was like, “Well, you’re a great person, and I want you to know that you’re a good person.” And I do think that, but it still comes around to having this treatment, and I still seem to be the person going to him telling him that he’s good, and then I’m the bad guy again.
Esther: And does that come from him as well, “You’re a wonderful person”?
Caller: No. I get, “You’re a lovely person.”
Esther: “You’re a lovely person,” okay. If you are indeed such close friends, and if he’s indeed such a wonderful person, then you may want to find this relational structure that will actually highlight that. Being his friend may give you much more of the wonderful qualities that he has than being his girlfriend.
Caller: Yeah, that’s true.
Esther: At least for right now. So, he can stay in your life. It’s not clear that he will. Generally, when that dynamic occurs, it’s more common that the person will be more vindictive and not want anything to do with you. They’ll try, they’ll come back, they’ll come back until they finally realize that maybe they’re not going to get what they want, and then they’ll say, “Fuck you.”
But if he does stay, have him in your life, but have him in the structure of a relationship that gives you access to the best qualities that he has. If he’s such a wonderful friend, be a friend.
Caller: But I love him.
Esther: That is a wonderful thing, but that doesn’t mean you need to make a life in that dynamic.
Esther: It doesn’t change if people don’t actively take ownership over what they do to create this kind of dynamic, and that means you and him.
Caller: Yeah. One of the reasons that I contacted you is, I know that I’m autonomous in this relationship, but it’s really hard to admit that I’ve let somebody walk all over me and that I haven’t been strong enough to tell them to piss off. It makes me question myself so much more.
Esther: Which is one of the reasons why these dynamics sometimes go on for a long time, because he has his denial. His denial is to shift the blame on you. But you have your denial, which is, “This isn’t really happening. I could walk away at any time. I am a strong woman, I am autonomous. Nobody tells me what to do.” But in fact, that’s not what’s happening. So, it’s one denial meeting another denial, so to speak.
Caller: Yeah. I hear you.
Esther: And what you just said, “But I love him,” so what? I hear you, it’s a deep feeling, but the question remains, and what do you want to do? That your feelings of love are mired into a relationship that is ultimately going to make you lose your entire sense of yourself.
Esther: So, you will continue to say, “I love him,” but the “I” will have dissolved in the process.
It’s not easy. You’re going to surround yourself with friends, and you’re going to have to be honest with your friends and let them know what’s going on, not by blaming him, but by telling them that you found yourself in a relationship where instead of increasingly becoming bolder and stronger and more recognized, it’s all the reverse that is happening.
And that’s not because of what he does only. If, on the other end, you say, “I want to do some couples work and I want us to both go and deal with this dynamic,” go ahead. It won’t change alone. Somebody has to see this in action to be able to intervene. Each of you will make perfect sense when you talk alone to your own respective therapists.
Caller: Yeah. Couples counseling is on the cards right now. We’ve seen a couples counselor before and it didn’t … she wasn’t great. And my concern is that he’s going to charm them, and he is not going to show the truth of the dynamic when there’s another person present.
Esther: Then, you’ll put that on the table too.
Esther: A good clinician sees the invisible and sometimes hears the inaudible.
Caller: Thank goodness for you, and thank goodness for this phone call, It’s just like clearing the clouds from my brain.
Esther: Look, I’m going to ask the question again, and then we are going to say good-bye. But it is the question that you didn’t answer, which is, where does your challenge come from? Because you couldn’t say, “Saying no is difficult for me, so I found a person with whom I can practice that muscle.” These things are a mindfuck.
Esther: But you may want to say, “I wanna practice my no, and I found the best place to do so because here is a person who doesn’t hear any of them. So, I practice boundaries with somebody who doesn’t respect any of them or sees them all as an attack on him or sees them as a weakness of mine, but they’re all qualified.”
Or you may say, “That doesn’t have to be the way I’m looking for a relationship.” I know you’re 35 and I know that you love him and I know that you think you’ve had your share, but maybe that should bring you also a level of awareness that says, “Is this how I want to live?”
Caller: But I think that’s the thing, it’s, I don’t know how I’ll have a healthy and wholesome relationship. I just keep on seeming to get battered or something.
Esther: “Why do I, a smart, accomplished, professional, insightful, autonomous woman, find myself in relationships with men where I end up in this kind of battered position?” That is a very powerful question.
Esther: “And how do I learn to see it sooner rather than later?”
Esther: “And how do I say, ‘I’m breaking the cycle,’ and then act on it?” Is this a good place to stop?
Caller: In my head, I’m only just beginning.
Esther: Because I’m leaving you with some big questions rather than slap answers, because you have the answer. To the question that you came with, you know the answer before you came. To what is the cycle that you are repeating, we didn’t get to, but we suspect there is one because this is not your first time. Different melodies for the same dance.
If we were seeing each other regularly, this would be the moment where I say, “To be continued.” But it will be continued, but without me. But I’m inviting you to take this and do something with it.
Caller: I will. Thank you.