Why It’s So Easy to be Gaslit in Relationships

Why It’s So Easy to be Gaslit in Relationships

While getting ready for work one morning, one of my partners said, “I have 10 hours banked up. I’m not *really* needed in the office today. Maybe I should just take the whole day off.”

“You could do that,” I responded, “but you probably shouldn’t. They’d like you to give input in that meeting at 10am, and you don’t want it to look like you’re checking out for the summer. “

“You’re right,” my partner responded, and went to work.

Another evening, I was hangry and frustrated, and I asked my partner to make me easy mac for dinner, which I’d been craving. “That doesn’t have any vegetables or protein,” he reminded me. “How about I make you something healthy instead? You’ll feel better later, if I do.”

“Fine,” I grumbled. “You’re right.”

A friend did something that felt unkind to me, and I needed to vent. “Am I bananas to be hurt by this?” I asked another partner. “I feel like I’m not being unreasonable here!”

“I wouldn’t say unreasonable,” she responded carefully. “But I don’t think your friend could have known that would affect you the way that it did. There’s no way he could have anticipated what happened.”

“I guess you’re right,” I responded sheepishly.

These are all examples of the ways in which we act as gauges for reasonable behavior with our partners. And it’s not unhealthy! We constantly turn to other people, seeking input and validation, and sometimes we’re told that we’re wrong, or that we need to rethink a judgment call. This is called “repressive social feedback”. It’s social feedback that’s designed to get you to stop an action, change an action, tone down an action, etc.

It begins in childhood – toddlers put things in their mouth, and get a “no, spit that out!” Okay, seems like that was a wrong decision. Older children get social guidance: “honey, that was mean – apologize to your brother.” In middle and high school, we begin seeking out that kind of feedback. “What should I say to him? I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but I don’t want to go with him.” And “oh crap, my mom’s going to kill me. What should I do when she sees it?” None of us can always make the right decision or take the right actions on our own – social guidance is a big part of behavior, and group norms are part of social guidance! If a social group is a strict no-teasing zone, then newcomers will pick up on that norm and adopt it. We like to please our social mates!

We especially like to please romantic partners. Thanks to the way the media depicts relationships, and by looking at modeled relationships around us, we usually give our partners even more influence over our actions and behaviors than we do our friends.

In addition, we usually get into long term relationships with people that we trust. And we trust them to help us, to give honest critiques and feedback, to help us find happiness and security.

We offer a lot of feedback to our partners with the intention of being helpful. But it’s our intentions that shape that feedback into something kind, as opposed to cruel or manipulative.

  • “I don’t know if that dress is appropriate for the party tonight – your boss will be there.”
  • “It might be a waste of the application fee to apply to that school, with your grades. Why don’t you follow up at [other school]?”
  • “Stay home tonight, don’t go to the party. You’ve been tired all week – why not just take a night in?”
  • “You’ve been complaining about your weight lately – why don’t I make us a salad for dinner, instead of pasta?”
  • “I think that skirt might be too small on you right now.”
  • “If you apply for that promotion, you’re going to be exhausted all of the time. I think you should stick with your current position – I make enough money for both of us.”
  • “It sounds to me like your friends don’t really appreciate you. Why do you spend so much time with them?”

All of these are feedback that could totally be coming from a loving partner who wants to be helpful, and could be coming from a manipulative, abusive partner who wants to tear your self-esteem or change your behaviors.

It’s a little bit tough to know what to do with feedback like the above, because it might cause discomfort and it might not, it might be accurate and it might not, and it might be helpful and it might not.

  • “I don’t know if that dress is appropriate for the party tonight – your boss will be there.”

It might feel uncomfortable to have my clothing choice (and therefore my judgment questioned) or it might be reassuring to have a partner who watches out for me. The dress might actually be inappropriate for a work function, or it might be fine and my partner doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It might be helpful to have a second opinion about my outfit and changing it might make a big difference in how the night goes, or it might hurt me and cause me to feel self-conscious for the whole night. And discomfort isn’t a sign that my partner is wrong; I could feel uncomfortable at the feedback, but still would be better off changing.

There’s no general way to say “repressive feedback is abusive”, because humans seek out social guidance, even when it’s tough to take. And sometimes, it’s really appropriate and helpful. If I got into an argument with a friend, I’d likely turn to a partner to find out if I needed to muster up some more righteous indignation, or to apologize.

Repressive social feedback isn’t singular to abusive relationships that involve gaslighting. Putting someone down and damaging their self-esteem is a part of most abusive relationships. Gaslighting is specifically the act of making someone feel like they’re going crazy, like their own mind is unreliable, and like they can’t trust themself. Feedback designed to pull down someone’s self-esteem is usually a part of gaslighting, in that it makes an abused person feel like their judgment is poor or questionable, but it’s also a sign of an abusive relationship that doesn’t involve gaslighting.

Part of trusting, long-term relationships involves being vulnerable with your partners. Allowing them to see you when you’re scared or unsure or confused or upset. A healthy partner will try to build you up during those moments, and an abusive partner will try to tear you down. It’s tough sometimes to tell the difference; if the way they want to build you up is painful, it can feel like they’re hurting you. If they way they tear you down is offering you an easier option, it can feel like the help you need.

The result is that it’s tough to tell if the repressive social feedback you’re getting from a partner is helpful or hurtful, and if it’s intended to be helpful or hurtful.

One way to mitigate feedback like this is to ask for a second opinion. If I was worried about my dress not being appropriate for a work function, I might thank my partner for their opinion, and then go ask a roommate what they think. Though if my relationship is abusive, I likely don’t have any friends that I’m still close with (as abusers move quickly to cut off social ties).

Another way to mitigate this is to make requests about exactly what kind of feedback you’re comfortable with a partner giving you. You might say “only give me feedback when I ask for it” or “no comments about my weight, please” or “can you be a little more encouraging while I search for a new job?” A good and healthy partner will take *that* feedback from you, and modify how they speak to you. An unhealthy or abusive partner will express how upset or disappointed they are that you asked them to do that, or insinuate that you’re being unreasonable to ask for that.

You don’t owe your partner to change for them. It might be a good change – they may try to get you to quit an unhealthy habit, or to leave friends who treat you poorly, or take care of your body – but you’re not obligated to do those things. You get to decide what kind of person you want to be, and to ask your partner to help you be that kind of person – they don’t get to dictate who you are and how you get there.

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