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Gaslighting and Divorce

What is Gaslighting?

Once a trendy colloquial buzzword, “gaslighting,” which is Merriam-Webster’s 2022 word of the year, has become a cornerstone for describing common forms of emotional abuse and manipulation tactics. Gaslighting is defined as the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.” While gaslighting can occur in any form of relationship, it is omnipresent in abusive relationships.

It is common in divorce cases for a person to describe their ex-partner, or soon-to-be ex, as a narcissist without an official medical diagnosis. While someone may be exhibiting narcissistic behaviors, it does not mean that they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The rise in popularity of the word gaslighting is rooted in describing these one-off behaviors that build over time. The term has created a dialogue and widespread awareness around manipulative behaviors.

It may be difficult to recognize if your spouse is gaslighting you. Given that the manipulation can occur sporadically, or as a slow, progressive burn, it may not be immediately apparent. The behaviors can often be normalized or justified until they resurface in the form of a full-blown abusive relationship. Divorce is a notoriously difficult and emotional process, and your spouse’s attempts to control or manipulate the process can compound the emotional duress. Being aware of the following common examples of gaslighting can help minimize the emotional toll and prepare you for a proper response and path forward.

Common Examples of Gaslighting

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of the emotionally abusive or manipulative behaviors encompassed by the word gaslighting, below are common examples:

  • Creating Doubt. A common way in which someone gaslights their partner is by causing them to doubt themselves. Phrases such as “that never happened” or “I never said that,” when they undoubtedly did, are ways to shape dependency around the abuser and distort the victim’s reality. By causing their victim to question if events ever really occurred, the gaslighter shifts the narrative to make their victim doubt the accuracy of their own memory.    
  • Controlling Behavior. Controlling behavior, and its many guises, is often rooted in the manipulator’s need for power or personal gain. Coercive tactics, such as controlling money, monopolizing time, and giving ultimatums are red flags to be aware of.
  • False Apologies. Phrases along the lines of “I’m sorry you think that I hurt you” or “I’m sorry you feel that way” are used to divert responsibility for actions and cast blame upon the victims. Ultimately, this sort of false apology makes a victim question whether they are being overly sensitive or reacting emotionally, rather than the offender taking accountability. The gaslighter is attempting to (1) invalidate their victim’s feelings by shifting blame, (2) normalize the gaslighter’s behavior, and (3) silence their victim from raising future concerns.
  • Alienation. This usually takes the form of hot/cold behavior, where the victim may be idolized one moment, and ignored the next. This rollercoaster of emotions is often used as a mechanism for control, where compliance results in love and affection and the alternative is alienation. In not-so-subtle forms, this sort of behavior can result in the alienation of children, family members, or friends in attempts to turn those closest to the victim against them.

Tips for Divorcing a Gaslighter

Manipulation and coercion can prevent someone from pursuing a family law remedy, as fear and uncertainty may outweigh self-interest. Below are a few tips to consider when considering seeking a divorce against someone who may be gaslighting you:

  • Hide Your Plans. If you are thinking of separating from an emotionally abusive partner, keep your plans secret. If they were to hear of your plans, they may try to beat you to the punch by (1) filing for divorce and providing an alternative set of facts in an attempt to discredit you or (2) undermining the process entirely by engaging in further manipulative behaviors. If you reach out to an attorney for a consultation, consider going to the attorney’s office in person or initiating a call at a location where your partner cannot hear you.
  • Keep Records. Create a document that contains dates and specific facts surrounding any occurrence of abuse or manipulation by your partner. This could later prove to be incredibly beneficial in persuading the court that your partner has been behaving this way. Keeping detailed records is often the first step in building a case against your spouse, and can provide a timeline of abusive behavior and bolster your credibility.
  • Communicate in Writing. If your spouse often tries to obfuscate the truth or claim that things never happened, written communications can provide express evidence to the contrary. This can be as simple as text messages or emails. Not only is written correspondence valuable, but so are written agreements. When actions no longer match words and promises are consistently broken, converting verbal agreements into writing is imperative.
  • Separate Finances. If you are in the process of separating from your spouse, separating finances, or creating a separate bank account, can create more freedom. Money is often used as a coercive tool, and creating financial freedom can help distance you from monetary leverage that your spouse may be using.
  • Find Support. Speaking with friends, family, or mental health professionals can be beneficial to not only your mental health, but also your divorce proceedings. In finding your support channels, you may be able to gain witnesses to any abuse.

Ultimately, gaslighting can happen to anyone, and it is not something to feel ashamed about. What begins as subtle manipulative behavior can rapidly spiral into a full-blown abusive relationship, leaving one confused and unsure what to do with their future. If you are thinking of divorce or separation from someone who is gaslighting you, or you simply want to explore your options, be sure to consult with an experienced family law attorney.

Livesay & Myers, P.C. has a team of experienced family lawyers across offices in Fairfax, Arlington, Manassas, Ashburn-Leesburg, and Fredericksburg-Stafford, representing clients throughout Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.