There’s a very clear line between disagreeing with your partner and emotionally abusing her.
You might think you’re just being reasonable. You’re a rational, cool-headed guy who doesn’t take well to expressions of anxiety or upset. When you think your girlfriend’s being hysterical, you tell her so.
Maybe you say “Calm down” or “Stop being so sensitive” when she gets mad at you. Maybe you expect her to apologize for annoying you with what you feel are unreasonable worries. Or maybe you grumble that she’s nagging when she reminds you of things you promised to do.
Or perhaps you go even further. Be honest: Do you ever tell her that her way of doing things is “crazy”? Do you put down her likes, her hobbies, or her friends? Do you, in short, make her feel like she’s being irrational—that she’s not normal, no matter what she does?
This way of treating someone is called gaslighting, and many more men than would care to admit it engage in it from time to time. You might be one of them, without even realizing it.
What Is Gaslighting?
As defined in Psychoanalysis & Psychotherapy, gaslighting is the act of trying “to cause another individual to doubt his/her own judgments and perceptions.” The name is inspired by a famous Ingrid Bergman movie in which she is slowly driven insane by her husband.
A common method of gaslighting is known as the “double-whammy,” in which the gaslighter puts down the victim, waits for the victim’s response, and then attacks the victim’s judgment, perspective, or questioning of the original attack.
It’s a powerful way for manipulators to maintain control over others, especially if the person subjected to this treatment has less-than-robust self-esteem. In many cases, the gaslighter does this to help himself feel better by making someone else feel worse.
Gaslighting is hard to admit to. At the extremes, these behaviors qualify as emotional abuse. But even less egregious versions of gaslighting are insensitive, boorish, or just plain sexist.
The irony is that many people engaging in these behaviors—especially milder forms—may not even realize it.
Are You a Gaslighter?
How can you recognize if you’re engaging in this behavior, which can quickly escalate into full-scale emotional abuse? The nature of the beast means that your partner is unlikely to call you out on it; gaslighting sows self-doubt in the other person. But here are some warning signs to look for in your girlfriend:
- She always second-guesses herself or can’t seem to make simple decisions when you’re around.
- She seems less confident, fun-loving, or relaxed than she used to be when you first met.
- She is constantly apologizing and expressing frustration that she “can’t do anything right.”
- She starts avoiding her friends and family, or lying to them about your interactions.
- She often asks whether she’s good enough, or whether you still love her.
Here are some warning signs to look for in yourself:
- You find yourself putting your girlfriend and anything she likes down.
- You tend to minimize, disregard, dismiss, or denigrate your girlfriend’s feelings.
- You frequently find fault with your girlfriend and how she does things.
- You expect your girlfriend to apologize when you find fault, and get annoyed when she doesn’t.
- You feel good when you are able to control how your girlfriend feels.
What Can You Do?
If you recognize yourself in the above, take a look inward, perhaps with the help of a therapist. Even mild gaslighting hints at a serious issue you are not addressing: a need to make others feel inferior in order to feel good yourself. A trained therapist can help you unpack this.
Your goal should be to get to a place where you can unreservedly feel, and express, caring and concern for your partner. Conversation should revolve around validating and empathizing with her feelings instead of manipulating or judging them. Your relationship will become much stronger, and so will you.