It is common to have a disagreement with a partner in a relationship. In many cases, the source of the conflict or the disagreement is a difference in perception or a different memory or recollection of an event or conversation.
This is understandable as we see all experiences through the lens of past experiences. This means that two people can see, hear, or have the same event occur but walk away with a very different memory. Both people are absolutely convinced their experience is authentic, and for them, it really is authentic and accurate.
Gaslighting is a different situation. It involves the intentional manipulation of the other person to gain or maintain control of the situation. It is the creation of a false narrative to attempt to make one person look good, and the other person look bad. It is a technique used by narcissists to keep the other person uncertain, confused, and questioning their own perception and experiences. This is a form of emotional abuse, and it is both effective as well as highly destructive.
Understanding the difference between a healthy disagreement and gaslighting is not always easy, but it is possible. Often, working with a therapist or counselor is the first step in detecting an emotionally abusive or toxic relationship.
Signs of Gaslighting
Recognizing the signs of gaslighting is easier at the beginning of the relationship and before there is a strong emotional attachment. However, watching for these issues at any point in the relationship is essential.
- Constantly apologizing – while it is normal to apologize if you make a mistake, cause emotional pain to another person, or if you are wrong, constantly feeling like you have to apologize is often manipulation and gaslighting.
- Feeling disconnected from reality – constantly questioning the memories of an experience or if the experience even happened at all are key signs of a problem. Your partner is trying to rewrite the experience to make you the source of the problem and make them the victim.
- Constant complaints you are too sensitive – making you out to be too sensitive to any “constructive criticism” is a tactic for gaslighting. The more emotional you become in defending yourself and your memories, the more they blame you for being out of control and hypersensitive to learning or hearing the “truth.”
- Your version is always wrong – in any situation, your memories or perception of the event or conversation are always wrong. Your partner may point this out in public places, adding to the embarrassment and humiliation.
- You feel emotionally drained – people experiencing gaslighting are emotionally exhausted. You become confused, unsure, and begin to doubt your memories and perceptions, creating more dependence on the narcissist.
- You are not heard – in a disagreement you are not allowed to share your perception in any meaningful way. Instead, the partner pushes his narrative, berating any attempts to insert your experience.
Signs of a Healthy Disagreement
The signs of a healthy disagreement in a relationship are different from that of gaslighting. However, some can overlap, and it is how the partner responds once those lines are crossed that helps to determine if the issue was a poor decision or an intent to manipulate.
- Attempt to understand – both people in the conflict make an attempt to understand and to acknowledge the other’s perspective or experience. They may not accept it or agree with it, but they do not try to replace the memory with something very different.
- Points of agreement – a healthy disagreement includes points of agreement. In other words, there is some common ground found throughout the conversation. This happens through mutual sharing of information with an attempt to work towards an understanding that works for both people.
- Attempts to convince – there is a difference between trying to get another person to accept your perspective through logic and discussion and trying to tell someone their experience did not occur at all and only yours is correct. A healthy disagreement includes persuasion but not manipulation.
- Recognition of emotional pain – rather than telling you how to feel, a healthy disagreement acknowledges or recognizes emotional pain or discomfort. It may also include an apology if the conversation becomes too emotional or if comments are made in anger.
In general, a healthy discussion helps couples to understand each other better and to learn more about their relationship. Gaslighting destroys this understanding and leads to the intentional manipulation and control of one partner by the other.
Be sure to share your thoughts and questions using the comment section below so we can all learn from and help each other.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW and Transformation Coach