You have undoubtedly heard the term “gaslighting,” a communication technique in which someone causes you to question your own version of past events. Whether this happens in a romantic relationship or in a work setting, gaslighting can give you the very uncomfortable feeling that you’re losing your grip on reality.
Perhaps your partner went out to complete an errand that you believed should only take 20 minutes. However to your annoyance (and not a little bit of concern), two hours go by with no word from your partner. Your partner’s phone is sitting in the kitchen, so calling isn’t even an option. When your partner finally walks through the door, you’re beside yourself with worry and rage. “Why so mad?” asks your partner. “I told you yesterday I had a dentist appointment today. Remember?” It’s true, the dentist is a good half an hour away, so that would explain the length of time.
Try as you might, you honestly cannot conjure up in your memory of the last 24 hours when your partner ever proclaimed such a statement. You begin to suspect that your partner never actually told you and the challenge to your own mental repository was a tactic to avoid blame. If you’ve ever been through such a situation, then you know what it’s like to experience gaslighting.
The example of the missed communication seems innocent enough. People think they say something that they actually didn’t say. Your partner’s behavior, assuming you were actually correct in your own recall, may have been a cover-up, or it could be a genuine case of having thought something was said that wasn’t. However, gaslighting is usually thought of in terms of relationships as a deliberate manipulation that one partner performs on the others for reasons that are anything but innocent. In this case, your partner would be, as you might say, “messing with your head.”
In a new study, University of West Georgia’s Neill Korobov (2020) put gaslighting under the microscope by studying its use by romantic partners in their everyday conversations. The definition of gaslighting that Korobov uses views it as a form of deflection when a partner in a close relationship wishes to “flip a criticism back on the other during an argumentative exchange” (p. 1).
In an exchange marked by gaslighting, this kind of flipping “is an interactional move where the recipient of a complaint or criticism (or any perceived attribution of blame for something), flips it back and positions the other as somehow having done something to cause or deserve the very thing that they are upset about” (pp. 1-2). In that dentist example, in other words, it was your fault that you didn’t remember what your partner told you, not your partner’s fault for failing to inform you ahead of time.
In a true narcissistic flip, or gaslighting, the person who does the flipping is believed to seek to create a reaction in the other person as a manipulation tactic. Korobov’s analysis was less focused on the personality of the gaslighter, however, than in the window it provides “into the argumentative fabric of the couple’s interactions” (p. 2). Through studying narcissistic flips as they evolved over the natural course of a conversation between close relationship partners, the author analyzed it “as a structured rhetorical move designed to accomplish some bit of important relational business.”
When a partner engages in gaslighting, the question becomes one of understanding how this impacts the way the interaction unrolls in real time. The structured rhetoric, in this case, is a partner’s attempt to create a version of reality that operates both offensively and defensively. On the offensive side, the gaslighting partner undermines the validity of the other partner’s position and on the defensive side, the gaslighter deflects criticism back toward the receiving partner.
The data for the Georgia study were obtained from a 2-week set of recordings that young adult couples made in their homes of conversations they had whenever they were spending time together, whether at home watching TV, driving, or eating a meal. The participants were 20 heterosexual romantic couples from the university and surrounding community. Over the course of the 2 weeks, they each produced 7 hours of recorded conversation, leading to a massive 140 hours of conversations.
You might think that if you were in this study, the last thing you would do is turn the recorder on during an argument. However, Korobov believed that the young adults in this study wouldn’t mind “keeping it real,” especially because “it may be trendy to be… edgy, real, and provocative” (p. 4). Self-editing, therefore, didn’t seem to present a real threat to the validity of the study according to the author’s analysis.
As it happened, there were plenty of argumentative moments that the participants caught in their two weeks of recorded conversations. In sorting through the transcripts of these conversations, Korobov distinguished between two types of assessments that people make when speaking to each other.
In subject-side (S-side) assessments, you express a personal view about your feelings (e.g. “the way I felt you were treating me”). In an object-side (O-side) assessment, you present an observation as a statement of fact (e.g. “the way you treated me”). The S-side assessment makes it clear that you’re stating your own feelings, which may or may not be “true,” but the O-side assessment turns what might be ambiguous in reality into a fact (“you did treat me that way”).
Using this framework, Korobov traced the conversational pattern of his participants to attempt to isolate the moments of narcissistic flips. Consider the following dialogue between the members of this couple:
Rue: The way I felt you were treating me… felt dumb at your parents… Like a fool.
Wes: You try too hard. You did that to yourself.
Rue: I felt that way. Don’t tell me how to feel.
Wes: That’s on you. You can feel however… that doesn’t make it true.
Rue began with an S-side assessment, expressing her feelings. Wes flips things back on to her using the O-side assessment of claiming to be true, the fact that she tries too hard. Rue comes back by asserting the validity of her feelings. Wes once again flips things back at the end “noting essentially that while they are her feelings, they are not entitlements to truthful knowing.”
As a manipulative tactic, whether narcissistic or not, such deflections in conversation serve to (a) establish the controller’s version of the truth while (b) devaluing the partner’s feelings. An even more destructive scenario unfolds when the controlling partner first gives an S-side statement that lures the other person into thinking this is a conversation about feelings. However, the O-side statement soon follows, creating a new “truth” that the partner must now accept.
In this detailed analysis of the actual conversations partners had, it seems clear that partners who manipulate behave much like expert tennis players. They serve up the ball, you go for it, thinking it’s heading your way, only to have the ball land just out of reach. The dominant player may even volley for a while, setting you up for thinking that this is going to be an easy game, when all of a sudden your friendly return of the ball precedes the winning stroke. You’ve been set up.
Restating the situation in gaslighting, Korobov notes that “O-Sides were thus useful for positing an objective view of the problem that deflected or flipped the cause back on the one making the complaint.” You now question your own feelings because they don’t fit the objective “facts” as stated by your partner.
There are ways out of this type of conversational game-playing, fortunately. If you can keep the conversation O-sided throughout, then you and your partner will both be debating your versions of the truth. In these situations, Korobov found that deflections were virtually absent.
Furthermore, if partners can combine their objective and subjective statements, they may actually be able to collaborate their way to a resolution without anyone feeling gaslighted. As the author states, “Ways of taking up conflict that can toggle between one’s own subjective position, an externally objective interpretation, and an awareness (a kind of second-order subjective stance) of how the other views oneself seem relationally promising as resources for smoothing out conflict” (p. 13).
To sum up, looking at the structure of your own discussions with your partner, even those that take place in the heat of an argument, can help you both avoid the kind of deflections and flipping that can undermine your intimacy. It may take a little work, but by applying this kind of analysis, you can continue to build relationship fulfillment.