In 2018, Oxford dictionaries named "gaslighting" one of the most popular words of the year. Fast forward to 2022, and the term, alongside "love bombing" and "trauma" continue to be buzzwords in our lexicon. West Elm Caleb, the New York City man who was exposed on TikTok for being a serial dater and – more colloquially, a fuck boy – has been accused of compulsively love bombing unassuming NYC women on dating apps; Kanye West (Ye) is buying baby Birkin's for his new (and now ex) girlfriend, Julia Fox, and all her friends, as well as overhauling her wardrobe and taking her to Paris for Haute Couture week a mere month into their courtship, and more increasingly, words to describe abusive behaviours and tactics are being diluted into therapy-speak hyperbole, and moving further away from their original meanings.
The term gaslighting first originated from the 1938 play, Gas Light, by playwright Patrick Hamilton, which was then turned into a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Wherein, after a whirlwind romance, Gregory and Paula marry and move into Paula's family home. Gradually, Gregory undercuts Paula's sanity in a series of conniving actions like purposely misplacing household objects, and turning on the attic gas lamps at night (despite telling her that no one is there) to ultimately convince her that she is mad and send her to an asylum so that he can locate and steal some missing jewels from the family residence with ease.
"Gaslighting is essentially a form of emotional or mental abuse, really," says Mary Spillane, Clinical Psychologist and Headspace App Mental Health Expert for Australia. "It's where a person tries to manipulate another person by denying their reality. So, denying how they feel or the facts of a situation in order to get that person to start to question their judgments, and the way that they see the world. So it's essentially trying to undermine someone's sense of reality in order to have control over them." She continues, "It's quite sinister, because it's designed to wear people down over time"
With love bombing, the term initially came from cultic tactics in the 1970s, specifically the Unification Church, wherein, as Margaret Singer writes in her book Cults in our Midst, long-term members would be "flooding recruits and newer members with flattery, verbal seduction, affectionate but usually nonsexual touching, and lots of attention to their every remark" in order to lure people into a utopia-like environment of love and care.
Romantically speaking, “One partner, typically male but not exclusively, showers the other person with attention, affection, compliments, flattery, and essentially creates this context where she feels like she’s met her soul mate and it’s effortless,” Dr. Raghavan told the New York Times in an interview. “The reality is, the person who is doing the love bombing is creating or manipulating the environment to look like he’s the perfect or she’s the perfect mate.” Often times, love bombing acts as a double edged sword, by both overwhelming someone with positive elements thus not being able to recognise red flags that may arise early on, and acting as a precursor of potential for when/if a relationship curdles – a touchpoint to reference how good it can be when it's good.
The phenomenon, of words moving further away from their intended meaning, is something widely called "semantic change", or more specifically relating to terms linked to harm, "concept creep". Concept creep is when these terms begin to get diluted, and are used to reference things other than their original meaning. To be clear, this isn't always a bad thing. As our vernacular develops to include terms that identify specific examples of harm, so does our collective embrace and understanding of the nuances of injustice and trauma.
As we become more and more online through avenues like TikTok and Instagram, we, at an increasing rate, are adopting a certain breed of pseudo-psychology that is living in our newly embraced dating vernacular. In many instances, this widened perception of harmful behaviour is timely and necessary as we all do our best to identify and mitigate red flags getting past us. Red flags that, if caught, could lead to long term damage if swept under the rug. But what happens when behaviour that is disappointing or even just a bit shitty is repackaged as traumatic? Is the overuse of words like trauma, gaslighting, love bombing, and triggered, making them lose their potency?
It also begs the question: when so many of us have been traumatised in very real and valid ways, who is to draw the line when the rope is so frayed? On the one hand, we have an expanded our consciousness and sense of empathy for those who have experienced trauma in the dating landscape (and trust me, there is plenty of it). On the other, it feels as though we are at risk of having these terms thrown out altogether as they overtake the zeitgeist to categorise experiences that are simply uncomfortable (much like when the world caught onto the term "emotional labour").
The conversation also forces us to look at the ways these terms are gate kept when, in reality, the very existence of them in the mainstream vernacular helps people to realise their trauma. When we begin to understand the very definition of gaslighting and love bombing in the first place, we are able to come to terms with the particular tactics that have been used against us that we may not have had the language for previously. The issue, lies in the idea that these terms can be used as blanket statements to describe experiences that don't align with individual beliefs.
"I think sometimes we can we can gaslight people without actually meaning to or without having ill intent." Spillane notes, when we discuss the link between gaslighting and domestic violence/emotional abuse. "You might see a child say to their parents, 'I'm hungry' and the parent will say, 'no you're not, you've just eaten', and if you look at it in its most simple form, it's not abusive." She points out. "It's just that we're not acknowledging how someone is feeling in that moment. So the intent is important. Is someone intending to get control and manipulate this person? Or is it just an error and a misjudgement that I just need to be careful of in future?"
Against the backdrop of the world feeling uncomfortably close to unravelling, it is easy to understand why such terms have slipped so seamlessly into our vernacular, especially since the 2016 US election where in the four years following, we were in the era of being literally gaslit by Donald Trump. Within the same five years, Australians had to face the devastating effects of the 2019/20 bushfires , and just as we had begun to process such trauma, we were launched into the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which are still unfolding before our eyes.
This was also the moment #MeToo started to pick up speed. Where the wool was ripped from eyes, exposing the underbelly of power dynamics in the workplace, leaving hardly anyone needing convincing that predatory behaviour is rife in our culture. So yes, we are certainly in the age of collective trauma, and as far as bad news goes, it seems to be an unrelenting game of "stacks on" for the global population.
Generally speaking, there are a lot of things out there that pose legitimate risk of harm and trauma, and we are all better off understanding how to sidestep these risks. But when bound to the concept of dating, the distinction between hurt feelings and toxicity must be given more room for precision. It is likely, in our lives, that we have all been hurt by people who feign interest in us for a while, treat us well, perhaps even get a little carried away with their hopes for a potential life together, and then are met with the reality of rejection in whatever form that may come, from brutal ghosting to the no-more appetising easy-let down. We have also very likely been the brutal ghoster's or the easy let downer's. Sometimes we have been neither but have had to call it quits for a number of reasons, like Kat's terrible brain injury lie to break up with Ethan in Euphoria.
The point being, people are indecisive and particular creatures who lose interest, realise you're not their kind of person, get distracted by other people, or have their own set of red flags that they are governed by (this is not a hall pass for "Alpha male" podcasters to be fatphobic, or any of the phobics). We have all been these people in the past, and may end up being these people in the future, but to conflate horrible experiences to that of permanent trauma doesn't feel like a particularly progressive outcome for anyone. Make no mistake, people will behave in rubbish ways until the end of time, and holding people accountable for such behaviour is a necessary part of life, but taking refuge in pathologised dating talk and therapy-speak hyperbole sometimes needs to be reserved for moments that leave heavy-handed, lasting impact on our psyche's, instead of being used to disguise our pain.