Am I gaslighting my partner?

A confused reader asks Kai about the distinction between having a different memory and deliberately distorting someone’s reality

Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world. Have a question? Email askkai@xtramagazine.com.

Dear Kai,

What do you do when you honestly remember a conversation differently than someone else does—but when you say that, they accuse you of gaslighting them? This happens with my partner a lot. 

Today we were talking, and they misunderstood something I said and got upset with me. I tried to clarify what I meant, but they got more upset and insisted that this wasn’t true and that I was gaslighting them.

I don’t know what to do with this. I’ve survived gaslighting and I know how awful it is and I want to listen and take my partner’s concerns seriously if I am gaslighting them. But I am in my own head, and I know what I was responding to. It feels like the only response that would satisfy my partner is if I just give in and agree that their version of what happened is right, but that feels super wrong to me. I also process conversations a bit more slowly when I’m tired. My partner knows this, but doesn’t seem to be willing or able to take it into account.

From my perspective, people can mishear each other or have different memories of an event very easily, and that is not always the same as gaslighting. What say you?

Cheers,

Very Tired

Dear Tired, 

How challenging this situation sounds! I am sorry to hear that you and your partner have landed in this difficult place. If I’m understanding correctly, a key part of the problem here is that you and your partner haven’t been able to find a place of trust: They can’t hear you and believe you when you tell them the intention behind your words—even when you are speaking from a place of care and authenticity. 

The more you try to clarify, the more they experience you as trying to gaslight them. (For those readers who aren’t familiar with the term, gaslighting refers to a specific type of psychological manipulation where someone tries to make another person doubt their own perceptions of reality.) And, I would imagine, the more they accuse you of gaslighting, the more important it is for you to make your true intention understood, so you’re caught in a vicious cycle. 

 

In the language of conflict resolution, we might call this an entrenched position: Both of you are deeply invested in your own perspectives, and there’s something very serious at stake for each of you, which makes it feel like it’s impossible to back down. In your letter, Tired, you mention that it seems like the only way your partner will be satisfied is if you give in and agree that their version of events is the correct one, which feels super wrong to you. 

“The definition of gaslighting feels like it is becoming so expansive that it’s hard for us to have a clear, shared understanding of what it means and when it applies.”

This makes sense, because gaslighting is a serious form of manipulation. To falsely admit to it would not only put you in the position of “perpetrator,” it also has the potential to seriously damage the relationship because it confirms your partner’s fear that you were deliberately trying to deceive them. While just giving in might momentarily de-escalate the conflict, it’s very unlikely to help in the long run. Admitting to acts of deliberate harm that we truly haven’t committed can be psychologically damaging, and it’s not something I recommend if it’s at all avoidable. 

Yet for your partner, Tired, I imagine there is something very important under the surface of their reaction that they are trying to communicate to you. Often, when people say that they are being gaslit (whether or not this is true), they are expressing an experience of feeling unsafe and out of control. And so, if we can listen and attend to their feelings of unsafety, the need for someone to “win” the debate about conversational details may dissipate. 

In an actual conversation, that might go something like this:

Person A: When you said _____, that was terrible and hurtful!

Person B: I think you’re misunderstanding. I actually said _____ , not the thing you think I said. 

Person A: Now you’re lying and trying to gaslight me.

Person B: Hey, wow, I can see that you’re really hurt here. I need to be honest and tell you that I think you misunderstood me, but what’s more important is that I care about you, and I want you to feel safe. What can we do to change that? What do you need me to understand? 

Focusing on the underlying needs of a conflict situation (what’s really important here?), rather than on specific positions (what did each different word in a conversation mean?), can sometimes help us defuse conflict and ease out of the cycle of entrenchment. Needs are relatively universal—we all need to be safe, to be respected, to have access to basic resources—which means they are usually much easier to agree on than specific positions. And in general, finding something to agree on is another good strategy for de-escalating conflict. 

Unfortunately, sometimes no amount of de-escalation strategy will get the other person out of the cycle of entrenchment. For whatever reason, they may not be able to let it go—particularly where the notion of gaslighting is involved. Like you, Tired, I’ve also noticed a certain pattern in some queer and social justice communities where the idea of gaslighting has become somewhat popularized. And while this has some clear benefits, like people being able to put words to subtle forms of abuse, it also has some drawbacks. The definition of gaslighting feels like it is becoming so expansive that it’s hard for us to have a clear, shared understanding of what it means and when it applies. 

“Human memory is a fragile and unreliable thing to begin with, which is partially what makes gaslighting so terrible in the first place.”

Tired, I agree that gaslighting is a deliberate attempt to alter someone’s experience of reality,  and that this is indeed different from two people having different memories of events, which is quite common. Human memory is a fragile and unreliable thing to begin with, which is partially what makes gaslighting so terrible in the first place. 

One challenging aspect of counter-cultural norms that has evolved around the idea of gaslighting is that any difference in memory between two people can be classified as such, and is therefore abuse. Once such a charged position has been taken in a conflict, it can become impossible to tell the difference between simple misunderstandings and gaslighting. This is because only trust can distinguish between gaslighting and differences in perspective—and trust is hard to establish if the spectre of abuse has been raised in a conflict. 

So what can you do if you’ve tried all of the de-escalation strategies available to you and you still can’t move out of entrenchment? Well, I have to say that, in the context of a romantic partnership, a couple’s therapist can often be of enormous assistance—sometimes simply having a skilled third party present can reduce tension and make things feel safer. In other contexts, such as conflict between friends, roommates or co-workers, a community mediator might serve a similar role.

With or without professional support, an essential skill to have in complex conflicts is the ability to hold onto both your boundaries and your vulnerability. In situations like this, a key aspect of boundaries is staying grounded in our own experience of reality—not letting go of our truth in order to prematurely end the conflict or get out of “trouble.” Yet we also want to be vulnerable enough to deeply consider the other person’s experience and show them how much we care. 

It’s a tricky balance, and it requires that we trust in the other person’s capacity to hear our truth and meet us halfway by seeing our humanity and being aware of their own vulnerability. For example, Tired, in your case, it seems important that your partner recognize that you process conversations more slowly when you are tired and that they take this into account.

I would encourage you to continue to express that access need as a boundary while also leaning into care and vulnerability. Two-way vulnerability is key to adult relationships of trust, and when we model simultaneous boundaries and vulnerabilities, we encourage others to act in the same way. We can’t force others to trust us, but we can demonstrate what healthy trust looks like. Often, it’s helpful to have a discussion outside of active conflict to establish what trust and boundaries actually mean; waiting for a moment when both of you are relatively calm is likely to help that conversation go a lot further. 

Trust is a bridge, Tired, and one that you can only walk halfway across. Those we love need to choose to meet us there—and if they don’t, then we can only hope that, given time, they might develop the will to try. Either way, I encourage you to trust in yourself and your intentions. You don’t need to give up your needs in order to meet someone else’s. Your needs also matter. You don’t need to give up your truth in order to help someone believe in theirs. Your truth also matters. 

UPDATE: This story has been edited to better protect the letter writer’s privacy.

Want more Kai? Check out her latest Quick Tips video, where Kai advises a reader beginning their transition on how to talk to their boss about it.  

Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and social worker who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the Lambda Award-nominated novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press), as well as the poetry collection a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her latest book, Falling Back in Love with Being Human, a collection of letters and poetry, is out now from Penguin Random House Canada.

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