An expert shares nine examples that you’re experiencing what is known as “quiet gaslighting” by a narcissistic partner.
Not all forms of gaslighting are loud and explicit. Some gaslighting is more sinister and covert. This is what I like to call “quiet gaslighting” – the type of gaslighting that may not make a sound or visible impact to onlookers still but leaves victims visibly distressed. If you’re in a relationship with a gaslighter, a narcissist, or otherwise toxic person, you may have experienced both overt gaslighting as well as covert forms of gaslighting. Here are nine examples of what quiet gaslighting can look like in a relationship with a narcissist:
The cruel comment disguised as a calm question or remark. The gaslighter stages an argument by asking a provocative and insulting question or making a cruel comment in a calm tone in front of others. When the victim reacts, the gaslighter acts innocent and asks why the victim is angry or tells the victim to lower their voice to guilt the victim into silence. On the flip side, the gaslighter can also start out by screaming at the victim behind closed doors, only to feign confusion when the victim is sullen in public in front of others as a result of what they’ve just experienced. This way, they can depict the victim as emotionally disturbed while they play the calm and collected partner.
The narcissist soothes you while casually relaying disturbing information that they know will hurt you. This is a hurt and rescue tactic. The narcissist may appear to come to the rescue after they know they’ve hurt you but continue to relay disturbing information they know will hurt you. For example, they might say something like, “I am so sorry I’ve hurt you by not calling you back,” as they hug you, only to continue to say, “But it does seem I will have to go on vacation with my ex.” This is a sadistic pairing that causes emotional whiplash in the victim. These types of gaslighters pair “hurt and rescue” to create a stronger trauma bond with the victim.
Rewriting a story by cherry-picking details that serve their argument and presenting it as fact in an attempt to override someone’s reality. Narcissistic gaslighters know how to cherry-pick details to serve their argument and re-write reality to suit their purposes. They are very much like the “online trolls” of romantic relationships, constantly playing devil’s advocates driven not by evidence but rather malice and personal agendas. Yet they do so far more persuasively. They may take the gist of what you’re saying and repeat it back to you in a manner that distorts reality. For example, you may tell a narcissist how you felt about the cold way they treated you in front of your family members. They may then respond saying something like, “So what you’re saying is that you need me to be positive and fake all the time,” completely ignoring what actually occurred and deliberately misrepresenting your motives.
The gaslighter gives you a “look” or gesture that communicates an inappropriate emotion in response to a valid point or action. This is also known as a dog whistle. Perhaps you bring up a concern at the dinner table and the narcissist gives you a foreboding look to communicate that they will not be having this discussion again, even if you’ve only brought up this concern for the first time, essentially stonewalling you. Or, you dress up for an event and the narcissist gives you a look of contempt as they pretend to compliment you. When you ask them what is wrong, they pretend you’re imagining things. These incidents can cause emotional distress and confusion for the victim who doesn’t understand what they did wrong. In reality, it’s the narcissist who is having inappropriate reactions to positive and constructive actions on your part.
Moving items around so the victim believes they have displaced something and spends time looking for it. The gaslighter pretends they know nothing about it, while secretly feeling duping delight. Many survivors report that their gaslighting partner would steal or move their personal items and rejoice in watching them try to find these items. They would pretend they had no idea where these items were. This is quiet gaslighting in its most chilling form, as it suggests the narcissist or psychopath enjoys seeing their victim “lose it” over a situation they manufactured.
Giving false information to a victim to persuade them to do something that serves their interest while pretending they are helping the victim out. If a narcissist or psychopath really wants you to do something while keeping their hands clean, they will give you false information under the guise of concern or your best interest to quietly gaslight you into doing it. For example, if they want to discourage you from buying a house, they might impart false crime statistics about the neighborhood you’re planning to buy the house in while telling you they’re excited about you buying the house but concerned about your welfare. If you find out and confront them, they will double down, continuing to present their false reality as truth.
Nitpicking or covertly criticizing a victim before an important event, holiday, or special occasion. This type of quiet gaslighting occurs so the victim’s mood is deflated by the time they go out and the narcissist can make themselves look like the popular, charming person with the “nagging” downtrodden spouse. This can be quite subtle – the narcissist might pick at what the victim while pretending to “help” them or mention another love interest in passing during a romantic holiday vacation to spoil the mood. The victim then feels on edge and is visibly upset around friends and family members. The narcissist, who is usually sulky during holidays, appears happier after poking at the victim and “comes to the rescue,” pretends to ask the victim why they’re so upset or pretend to cheer on the victim in front of witnesses – knowing full well they were the cause. To their mutual friends, the narcissist may say something like, “I just don’t know why Rebecca always gets so moody during the holidays. We’re just here to have a good time!”
Refusing to acknowledge and compliment big news, while hyperfocusing on a minor detail. When a victim of a narcissist discloses happy news, the narcissist may gaslight the victim quietly by not even acknowledging it and instead send them a comment about something completely irrelevant. For example, if Laura shares with Brian that she made partner at the law firm, Brian might text her back saying, “I noticed you left the dishes in the sink again. Make sure that you clean up before you leave the house.” When Laura asks Brian why he’s not responding to her achievement, Brian might pretend he didn’t see the text even though he did, respond sarcastically to minimize the news, or call her “crazy” for trying to “force” him to acknowledge her. This is an attempt to “erase” the reality of Laura’s accomplishments and get her to focus on fabricated flaws instead. What makes this quiet gaslighting is also the way Brian responds when confronted – rather than admitting that he is envious and resentful, he pretends he didn’t see the text, or makes her out to feel crazy for wanting acknowledgement in the first place.
Expressing verbal support for the victim, while betraying them in action. In the television series Wilderness, we see both quiet and blatant forms of gaslighting take place. One of the most glaring examples of quiet gaslighting is when Olivia’s husband promises to change after cheating on her and pleads for a second chance. Soon, he gets a call from his mistress and starts telling his mistress in hushed whispers that he does not even want to be with Olivia. This “quiet” gaslighting is more subtle because it’s about the discrepancy between words and actions – he tells Olivia he chooses her above all else, but within the same hour is also reassuring his mistress at the same time of where his loyalty lies. In reality, he is not loyal to anyone but himself.
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist, you are not alone and you deserve to heal. Consulting a trauma-informed professional well-versed in these tactics can help ground you in your reality and keep you safe from manipulation.