Understanding Challenging Relationship Terms

When conflict happens in interpersonal relationships–particularly in long-term intimate relationships–emotions such as shame, anger, and sadness rise in intensity, making it more difficult to think clearly. With less cognitive bandwidth to analyze the complexity of a situation and greater activation of subcortical limbic regions of the brain, individuals tend to use cognitive heuristics in conflict, which are mental shortcuts that the brain employs to make decisions more efficiently. One action that could be classified as a cognitive heuristic is labeling. Particularly within the context of intense conflict in intimate relationships, individuals will rapidly label the other person with a range of terms that imply that the other individual is morally irredeemable. Indiscreetly using these labels leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the other individual is more likely to act following the label, increasing the intensity of the conflict. In this blog post, I review three labels that are presently overused in conflict dynamics–narcissism, gaslighting, and abuse–and encourage accurately using these descriptive labels in the appropriate context.


Narcissism is a personality dimension that describes the degree to which an individual has an inflated view of the self, with grandiose behavior and a lack of empathy toward surrounding individuals. Although intimate relationships allow partners to closely evaluate each other’s personality, the accuracy of partners diagnosing each other in long-term committed relationships is questionable if the diagnosis is made under the context of intense conflict. When individuals are angry with each other in the context of a close relationship, both partners may be more likely to enact narcissistic behavior (e.g., lack of empathy toward other individuals, defending the validity of one’s own opinions), regardless of their baseline personality characteristics. Subsequently, if a partner googles, “my partner does not listen to my feelings,” finding a video about narcissism may feel like the perfect match for what the partner is experiencing when in reality the partner being labeled narcissistic might only experience attention-deficit symptoms. The term narcissist is then subsequently used within a heated conflict to tell the partner that they are a terrible person. To the contrary, if a person does genuinely have narcissistic behavior, it is important to diagnose the personality across contexts and seek assistance from mental health professionals who understand how to treat narcissistic and antisocial behavior. Wendy Behary, who wrote “Disarming the Narcissist,” is a helpful place to start.


A second term that is often inaccurately used in conflicted relationships is “gaslighting.” This term, which originated from the 1938 play “Gas Light,” and was later studied in a psychological context, refers to a form of intentional psychological manipulation that makes the other individual doubt their perceptions, and ultimately their sanity. Gaslighting is often overused when individuals fail to recognize that their intimate partner is not engaging in intentional manipulation. For example, if a partner canceled an important date to go hang out with his buddies instead, this would be frustrating and insensitive, but not gaslighting. To the contrary, when someone who meets criteria for narcissistic personality disorder connects with a person with a low self-esteem, the individual with narcissistic personality disorder may say that the low self-esteem partner does not know anything about parenting or what is best for their child. After convincing the partner that this is true, the narcissistic individual may continue to bolster their own viewpoint by disparaging the other parent’s thoughts to the point where the low self-esteem person may question whether there is any validity to their own thoughts. Therefore, it is important to make sure the manipulation is intentional and the individual affected is losing their sanity as a result of the intentional manipulation.


One additional term that is overused in relationships involves general accusations of “abuse.” Although there is no clear universal definition about what constitutes abuse and the term historically can also merely denote harsh language and verbal attacks, what constitutes abuse in modern society is primarily determined by legal authorities (e.g., assault, coercion, or harassment). Given that legal definitions of abuse, which are also variable, nevertheless trump psychological definitions within society, then individuals need to be mindful of the severity of the behaviors discussed when alleging abusive behavior. Breaking the law has serious consequences, and it is important that individuals face consequences when their behaviors warrant such action. It is also pivotal to use behaviorally-specific terminology for less severe offenses (e.g., “cussed me out”, or “slapped me on the back”) because many aversive behaviors should not be treated in a legal context at all. For example, although physical aggression such as hitting within intimate relationships is rarely-to-never effective behavior, experienced family therapists understand that a large percentage of couples report some form of hitting over the course of their relationship if the partners are completely honest with each other. This could range from benign circumstances like a friendly slap on the back or rough-and-tumble play, to a slap during an argument, with no further evidence of abusive behavior. With psychological abuse, in addition to behavior, there should be a pattern of fear and intimidation as well. When behaviors are severe enough to be considered abuse, then it is appropriate to use the term abuse or other more technical and specific terms (e.g., physical assault), but impulsively stating that one’s partner is abusive during an argument after years of positive, non-abusive exchanges may have consequences if the accusation is unfounded.

When using emotionally-laden relationship terms, it is important to access one’s wisdom and think carefully about terminology. False accusations or hyperbole could help a person to seek assistance, but in the long-term, inaccurate, impulsive labeling will not generate relationship clarity and satisfaction. When a greater percentage of people have a more nuanced and in-depth understanding of narcissism, gaslighting, abuse, and other terms, we can continue to help each other to work toward a more safe and equitable society.

About the Author

Samuel Eshleman Latimer (he/his), Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist that specializes in effective conflict management and dialectical behavior therapy. Samuel also works to help individuals, couples, and families decrease interpersonal difficulties and manage challenges associated with borderline personality disorder. Samuel believes that people do not need to choose between learning effective techniques that are based on science and developing warm, genuine relationships, as both of these styles complement each other. Click Here to learn more about Samuel’s experience and therapeutic style.

Behary, W. T. (2013). Disarming the narcissist: Surviving and thriving with the self-absorbed. New Harbinger Publications.