The story every woman needs to read before labelling her partner as 'toxic'.

Love bombing. Narcissism. Gaslighting.

They’re words we’re hearing more and more often, because of an increase in both awareness and perpetration of domestic violence.  

But while this has helped people recognise non-violent forms of abusive behaviour, there is risk in overuse, say experts, especially if we don't quite understand what the terms mean. 

"I think people use these words as a way of trying to understand what is going on for them," says relationship counsellor Susan De Campo. 

Watch: You Can't Ask That: Domestic Violence. Post continues after the video. 

Video via ABC

"The danger, of course, is that people can make assumptions about certain behaviour that are incorrect. What if someone wasn’t love-bombing, they were just comfortable being very expressive of their love and affection for their partner? What if someone actually learnt that publicly teasing their partner about their breastmilk supply felt abusive to their partner and they stopped? You don’t know what you don’t know."

Here are some of the most commonly used terms, and what they really mean.


This label has entered the colloquial lexicon to describe self-centred, selfish, callous, self-absorbed individuals. Technically though, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a mental health disorder that can only be officially diagnosed by a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. 


Clinical Psychologist Phoebe Rogers says NPD is present when a pattern that centres around low self-reflection, entitlement, and grandiosity is stable and consistent across the lifespan.

But the word is often misused to describe someone who is simply into themselves, vain, or has strong boundaries. 

"We all have traits of narcissism to varying degrees, but often not at the level of the disorder. Some entitlement is healthy," says Rogers. 

De Campo says many people apply the label to people who have ‘narcissist traits’. 

"Such as a grandiose sense of self-importance, a strong sense of entitlement, a belief that they are superior, an exceptional need for admiration, underpinned by poor/fragile self-esteem), feeling okay about exploiting others to bolster their own perceived worth, lack of empathy, envious, arrogant and patronising."


Originating from a 1938 stage play where the husband was trying to send his wife crazy, by secretly adjusting the brightness of the gaslight, allowing her to think she was imagining things, the term ‘gaslighting’ has become part of the common vernacular to describe a form of emotional abuse. 

"I had a client who was legally blind, her husband used to shift furniture and ‘landmarks’ around the house so she would bump into them, and when she would be alarmed, tell her that the chair/table etc had always been in that spot,” shares De Campo. 


"Officially, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation, over a period of time, that causes the receiver/victim to question the accuracy or validity of their own thoughts, memories, and experiences. The process is designed to make people feel like they might be going crazy."

According to Rogers, gaslighting in relationships often occurs when an abusive person convinces their partner, using emotional language and conviction, that no abuse has taken place, or that their partner is the perpetrator.

“Gaslighting is not simply blaming you — it involves denying your reality so that you doubt it.”


“Quite simply, boundaries are the imaginary lines people draw in their own psyche that articulate the rules and limits that we set for ourselves in relation to our engagement with others,” explains De Campo. 

“They are our internalised rules, that articulate how we will not be treated and what behaviour we will not tolerate.”

But the term, boundary, is sometimes misused as a way to control another person, by telling them certain - reasonable - behaviours are crossing their boundaries. 

“Boundaries are not designed to abuse or control, but designed for the wellbeing of the boundary holder.”

Verbal abuse

Verbal abuse involves using language or words that are intended to insult, ridicule, manipulate, degrade or shame the other person. 

"It does not have to be loud or overtly aggressive, it can be whispered in a tone such that it's clear that the perpetrator is taking control and power," says De Campo. 

That doesn’t mean any sort of anger is abuse though. 


"It is not verbally abusive to express anger, but it is abusive to intentionally hurt, put down, or shame the other," says Rogers.  

Emotional abuse

Similar to verbal abuse, emotional abuse uses threats, manipulation, put-downs and demeaning language to control or hold power over another person. 

"I had a client who would ‘moo’ like a cow every time he saw his wife breast-feeding … she felt so awful," says De Campo. 

But Rogers says it’s not emotional abuse to express your feelings, or to ask for change. You’re also allowed to express emotion. 

"I think we should be wary with this language; I look out for guilt and wanting to improve oneself as good indicators of hope for change."

Coercive control

This is a type of domestic abuse, characterised by a pattern of behaviours where the primary objective is to instil fear and helplessness in order to control another person.

“Coercive control limits your autonomy, free will and sense of self,” says Rogers. “An indicator is a lack of shame, guilt, and self-centredness, and victim blaming.”

Understanding coercive control has been instrumental in paving the way for increased protection of women and children experiencing abuse. But it can be misused. 

“Asking your partner to check in on you isn't coercive control or controlling. Part of being a good partner is being accountable to our partner's needs.”

Love bombing

Love bombing usually occurs in the initial stages of a relationship where one person smothers the other with attention, admiration and affection. 


“While it’s lovely to feel like the new person is ‘smitten’, the goal of love-bombing behaviour is to make the recipient feel dependent and obliged,” says De Campo. 

“It can lead to the recipient feeling overwhelmed and trapped.”

Rogers says love bombing lacks an understanding of the importance of getting to know someone. In other words, the love given is not earned. 

Of course, some people might just be over excited about a new relationship and simply trying to be kind. Deliberate love bombing usually occurs within a cycle of abuse, where the victim is attacked verbally, emotionally or physically, once their guard is down, and they feel dependent on the perpetrator. 


"I think it’s probably a good idea to actually zoom in on the true/original meaning of this word—being poisonous, capable of causing death or serious debilitation," says De Campo. 

"Reflecting on this true meaning will hopefully result in a realisation around whether a relationship is toxic or healthy."

According to Rogers, the word ‘toxic’ is one that is frequently overused. 

"So many of my couples fight and they do so in a way that is relationally pretty normal,” she says. “We need to understand the function of the behaviour and emotions underneath before we call it toxic."

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Feature image: Getty.