(person A) “I am so mad that you went on that business trip during Valentine’s Day.”

(person B) “I didn’t even realize that you didn’t want me to go.”

(person A) “I was hoping you would just KNOW how important it was to me and decide on your own not to go.”

(person B) “If you would have told me how important it was to you that I be here for Valentine’s Day, I wouldn’t have gone on the business trip.”

(lots of outraged people) PERSON B IS GASLIGHTING PERSON A!

Are they, though? Sounds more like a pretty typical argument between couples rather than gaslighting. 

These days, if you check Twitter while any reality show is airing, you’re sure to see ‘gaslighting’ tossed around freely. The same memes on social media circulate repeatedly, and only the face rotates to feature the gaslighting villain of the week. Couples behind closed doors are armed with enough of an understanding of the term to have ammo against their partner whenever they feel they’re being invalidated.

‘Gaslighting’ has become so ubiquitous that it’s losing its meaning, not dissimilar to how even specific diagnoses such as OCD or Bipolar Disorder have become catch-all terms pop culture has adopted to describe a vast set of characteristics.

Just because someone expresses their feelings back to someone who is disappointed with their actions, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are gaslighting jerks who want to manipulate the feelings of everyone around them. Often, they’re just a human being trying to communicate their own needs.

We get it. As our culture has gained better awareness of what it looks like when someone plays mind games and toys with the emotions of others, it’s natural to become more sensitive to any hint of it. What becomes problematic is the overcorrecting and blaming of anyone who has a feeling that is contrary to the person who is legitimately upset with them.

The fear of one’s actions getting labeled ‘gaslighting’ can work against couples by perpetuating the cycle of miscommunication. What would happen if, in response to having disappointed someone else, people failed to communicate their own feelings and needs because they’re afraid it will be perceived as manipulation or invalidation? It could create a missed opportunity to avoid the same issue in the future. It might create a deep well of resentment in one partner as their feelings get suppressed. It runs the risk of creating an off-balance power dynamic where one person has all the right to communicate their anger, while the other person isn’t allowed to voice anything contrary.

You don’t have to tolerate someone deliberately playing mind games with you in order to make you feel guilty or crazy for your feelings. You don’t have to tolerate a partner who constantly flips disagreements back on you in an attempt to control the situation. At the same time, it isn’t helpful to play the ‘gotcha!’ game in relationships and label someone’s behavior as ‘gaslighting’ when what they’re really doing is just invalidating your feelings…or expressing their own feelings…or disagreeing with your approach. Sometimes, an argument is just an argument.

Many times, there are ways both parties could improve their approach. Take the example above. Partner A may learn to more clearly articulate their needs, rather than assuming their perspective is implied. Partner B may learn to more intentionally validate the feelings their partner laid on the table, before expressing their own perspective on the situation. 

It’s perfectly valid to expect your significant other to be present to celebrate a holiday that’s important to you. It’s also perfectly valid to view a business trip as a worthy reason to be away during a holiday. Each partner has an equal right to voice their feelings, and arguments like this are opportunities for both people to learn how to get on the same page.