how do you tell the difference between gaslighting and just being a dick?
A look at the complicated grey area between the two.
There has never been a wider discussion about emotional abuse than now, and particularly so when it comes to gaslighting. Named after Gas Light, a 1938 Patrick Hamilton play about a man who deliberately drives his wife insane, gaslighting is a way of making someone doubt their own memory and perception, often with disastrous consequences for their wellbeing. From Teen Vogue’s article in 2016 accusing Donald Trump of “gaslighting America” to two successive summers of Love Island think pieces, we’ve seen an explosion in the term’s usage recently. In many ways, this is a good thing: more and people have found a framework in which to consider whether their relationships are abusive. Obviously this alone isn’t enough to solve the problem, given that leaving an abusive relationship is often a very difficult and sometimes very dangerous process. But the realisation, or at least acceptance, that something isn’t right can be an important first step.
However, making that step can be hard. Emotional abuse is harder to pinpoint than the physical kind. After all, every relationship has its moments of conflict. It’s also far easier for its perpetrators to deny. Acts of physical violence are less subject to interpretation: it’s harder to lie outright and say “I didn’t hit you” than it is to say “When I was cruel to you earlier, I was only joking.”
This increased awareness is a positive development, no doubt, but an increase in public awareness of abuse, and its terminology, might end up helping abusers too. It makes it easier for people to deny emotional abuse if the very concept can be dismissed as a fad: I once outright accused an ex-partner -- I believe accurately -- of gaslighting me and his response was “Did you read that in Cosmopolitan? It’s just a buzzword.” This made me feel so stupid, so frivolous, that I ended up acquiescing.
All of this means that it’s important to be as clear as possible about what we mean when we’re talking about emotional abuse, and recognise that not all hurtful behaviour is abusive. “Sometimes bad, toxic behaviour (that we all display sometimes) is now more quickly categorised as abusive when it’s actually just immature or spiteful,” Sarah, a 23-year-old woman with lived experience of abuse tells me. As well as Sarah, I spoke with a number of people who have first-hand experience, in order to consider the differences between abusive relationships and those which are simply hurtful, or dysfunctional -- which is not to say that those aren’t harmful, too.
“At work, I hear this cycle of abuse every day and it's always the fucking same. The abuser creates a ‘drama triangle’, which means they freely move between rescuer, victim and persecutor and set the other person up to be the corresponding role."
Gemma, 29, has experienced an emotionally abusive relationship and now works as a counsellor, specifically working with survivors of domestic and sexual violence. What does she think is the fundamental difference between a partner who’s abusive and one who’s just… not very nice? “I think the main difference is that when someone’s just a dick, as opposed to abusive, you understand that they’re a dick and your mates probably agree with you. If they act in a hurtful way, you at least feel like you can argue with them about that,” she says. “But when someone is emotionally abusive, it's way more insidious. You feel that something isn't right, but nine times out of 10, you think that you are the problem -- because that's what they condition you to think. Your friends tell you you're overthinking it because the abuser has generally charmed them all. Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, they've made all your friends hate them deliberately while only showing you the best parts of themselves to alienate you from them.”
Are they any other signs she’d encourage people to look out for? “The drama triangle,” Gemma says. “At work, I hear this cycle of abuse every day and it's always the fucking same. The abuser creates a ‘drama triangle’, which means they freely move between rescuer, victim and persecutor and set the other person up to be the corresponding role. So they might sweep someone vulnerable off their feet (rescuer) before then criticising that very vulnerability as weakness (persecutor) before then claiming they're actually really depressed and anxious themselves -- and that they find you quite triggering (victim). It doesn’t automatically equate to abuse but, more often than not, abusers are playing this particular set of games.”
Natalie, 23, also had difficulty understanding the extent of her partner’s emotional abuse. “Unlike me, my previous partner didn't enjoy drinking. At that age in particular, (around 21), I very much enjoyed having drunk nights out with my friends. Throughout our relationship, there were a number of occasions when I got particularly hammered and the next day had very little memory of what had happened. In hindsight, this was a sign that I wasn't very happy! Whenever this occurred, my partner would be angry and tell me stories about how offensive and disrespectful I’d been to him, as well as to my friends and colleagues. This always horrified me; I would feel so ashamed -- and I had no reason not to believe him. However, as time went on, I started hearing more and more conflicting reports from my friends. These were far more aligned with how I believe myself to act when I’m drunk: chattier and wobblier than usual, sure, but never even remotely rude or offensive.”
Unlike Gemma and Sarah, who are both entirely certain that their former partners were abusive, Natalie still isn’t sure how to classify it. “I have reflected on this but I’m still not sure where the line between an abusive and non-abusive relationship is. I do believe my ex was in the wrong but I think he had good intentions and wanted me to be safe.” But it’s worth remembering that just because someone’s behaviour is well-intentioned -- or you perceive it to be -- it doesn’t make it any less harmful.
“In terms of categorising the difference, it’s important to remember that emotional abuse in a relationship is a long, but most importantly (though not always) an intentional and considered process, designed to make you specifically doubt yourself."
For Sophia, 24, the difference between abusive and non-abusive behaviour boils down to predictability. “Of course,” she says, “wastemen always innovate new forms of being wastemen but these are largely predictable -- they don't text you back, they flirt with your best mate, or your mum, or whatever. Generally, they are entitled.” So when is someone an abuser, rather than merely a wasteman? “Abuse seems to have more to do with the ways in which they blame their behaviour on you. ‘I've done this thing because you're this kind of person, or you've done this because you're this kind of person and therefore I've been forced to do this thing.’ Obviously, in this situation you feel like everything is your fault and that, if you do things exactly right, you can manage the behaviour of your abuser. You can't -- they always escalate. It's not just that their love for you is conditional on you doing certain things, it’s that the most basic respect is. If your partner makes you feel like you're never enough for them, like there's something inherently wrong with you, and that their behaviour is your fault, and they do this regularly, along with other signs of abuse, e.g. attempting to control your social life, finances, clothing (this is a non-exhaustive list and none of these things might be present) then the situation is one of abuse.”
As for how abuse might be defined from a professional perspective, Sandra Horley, CBE, chief executive of national domestic violence charity Refuge, says: “anyone forced to alter their behaviour because they are frightened of their partner’s reaction is being abused.” This might be the crux of the matter: no matter how frequently you argue with your partner, if you’re not afraid of them or don’t feel that they have control over you, then the relationship probably isn’t abusive. Gemma agrees, “There's an automatic power imbalance in an emotionally abusive relationship and gaslighting causes that as well. By convincing the other person that their perception of reality is wrong, it immediately makes them feel childlike and helpless. Which is what it's designed for.”
“In terms of categorising the difference,” Sarah says, “it’s important to remember that emotional abuse in a relationship is a long, but most importantly (though not always) an intentional and considered process, designed to make you specifically doubt yourself, to force you to rely on them for emotional support and isolate you entirely. Confusingly, this can sometimes take the form of them just acting like a bog-standard dickhead -- but the abusive part is that which intentionally fucks with you as a person, threatens your subjectivity, makes you feel guilty for feeling bad.”
Emotional abuse can be difficult to understand as you’re experiencing it. It often takes time and distance to come to these realisations, to fully understand how fucked-up a dynamic was. But if your instinct is that something isn’t right, you should probably trust that. If you’re worried about your relationship, Refuge have a list of questions to help you recognise abuse. You can find resources and information from charities like Refuge, Women’s Aid, Relate, Men’s Advice Line (specifically for men) and (specifically for LGBT+ people) Galop.