When disagreeing becomes abuse

16 June 2020

What’s ‘gaslighting’? It’s trying to convince someone they’re wrong about something – even when they aren’t.

Most commonly, it’s when someone frequently disagrees with you, or refuses to listen to your point of view.

Many of us are guilty of mild ‘gaslighting’ from time to time – refusing to hear what our partner has to say, even if they’re in the right, or persistently disagreeing over some minor quibble, even when we aren’t sure of our position. It’s mostly harmless, a form of pettiness – an unwillingness to be proven wrong.

But, in more extreme cases it can be abusive. When it’s done repeatedly, over a long period of time, it can make you doubt your own ideas about things – or even question your sanity. It can have a highly negative effect on your self-esteem and confidence. Someone might deliberately ‘gaslight’ you as a way of controlling you.

Why is ‘gaslighting’ dangerous?

‘Gaslighting’ is dangerous because it undermines someone’s sense of self-belief. If you tell someone they’re wrong about things over and over, it can make them feel insecure or less confident in their point of view. Eventually, they may come to agree with the person who is attacking them – believing that they must be right.

The abuser might question your memory of events (‘Are you sure it was like that? I don’t think it was’) or try to convince you that your emotional reaction to something is inappropriate or disproportionate (‘You’re acting crazy’).

Why does it happen?

Sometimes, the partner doing the ‘gaslighting’ doesn’t know they’re doing it. Sometimes, it’s as much to do with their own insecurities around being wrong, or having less power in a relationship, as it is out of an active desire to undermine their partner.

These insecurities might come from experiences in childhood or in previous relationships. Or they might just be the kinds of insecurities that lots of us struggle to deal with – after all, it can be difficult to admit when you’re wrong.

In other cases, however, it can be a deliberate tactic used to make their partner feel less confident and less likely to challenge them.

How do you begin to address it?

If you feel the way your partner engages with you is – intentionally or not – a form of ‘gaslighting’, it’s important to do something about it. It can be easy to let it become habitual – with the consequence over time of damage to both your mental well-being and your relationship.

The first thing to do is to try to see the situation from the outside. This will have two effects: firstly, it will allow you to see more clearly whether what you are experiencing is a form of a ‘gaslighting’, and secondly, it will allow you to see your partner’s behaviour in a less emotional way.

Take a step back: do you think ‘gaslighting’ is what’s happening? It might be useful to talk to family and friends – people you trust, who can give you an objective opinion. It might be good to talk with more than one person: that way you may get different perspectives.

And then, try to understand: is what they’re doing out of a desire to control you, or because they struggle with the idea of not being in control themselves? Taking a more analytical approach to our partner’s behaviour can help us to understand that it isn’t always designed to hurt us, even if it does. If you do feel they’re ‘gaslighting’ intentionally, it’s important to understand that this is not ok.

Talking things over

You and your partner need to find a new way of communicating. Although it can be difficult, it’s important to address this issue directly. Your partner will need to know how their behaviour is making you feel. Obviously, if you’ve got into a pattern of your partner dismissing your feelings, it isn’t always easy to get through. But they will need to understand the effects of what they’re doing before anything is going to change.

Find a time to talk when you’re both in a good mood. Don’t try to bring things up in the middle of an argument, as anything you say then could be perceived as an attack. You might like to give a little forewarning of the conversation, letting your partner know that you’d like to talk later about something that’s been on your mind.

Then, it will be a case of trying to negotiate around the topic of what’s happening. Pitch the conversation in a way that’s less likely to make your partner feel defensive. And listen to your partner too – let them know that you want to understand where they’re coming from, and that you want to make your relationship together work.

How we can help

You may find that, if things have been going this way for a while, a little outside help is needed to get the conversation started. A counsellor will help both you and your partner to put your perspectives across and to listen to one another. Counsellors won’t take sides or tell you what to do – they’ll simply listen, and help you to have a good conversation. If you’d like to talk with one of our counsellors, singly or as a couple, give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.


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