I got divorced not too long ago. My ex-wife was what professionals call a “gaslighter.” The goal of a gaslighter is to make the other person believe he or she is going crazy. Typically, it is coupled with an illness called a Cluster B personality disorder, and is narcissistic, borderline, or histrionic.
In my story, the gaslighting was histrionic. Histrionic gaslighters can make you feel more loved than you ever felt before. They prey on people who feel very vulnerable, whether they were sick, went through some form of intense trauma, or have a weak or non-existent family unit.
She made me feel so loved, but at times little warning signs trickled through. I remember one Sunday morning a family member had experienced an injury and I had to take her for an X-ray. It was shortly after I got up and I did not look at my phone. When we spoke later that day, she told me that I always do that — I am hot and cold. I felt kind of surprised because I didn’t remember ever doing that. I said I was helping a loved one, and she said that if this had been the first time it would’ve been OK, but I am making her emotions shift all over.
Shortly before we got engaged, I felt she mistreated one of my family members in a way that was very uncharacteristic of her. We were in her car and I confronted her about the incident. She screamed at me in a way I had never been screamed at before. It was really scary. When she came down from her rage, she said this was the first time she had ever reacted that way, and because she loved me so much, I had caused her to react that way. The way she handled my family member was never resolved. I know it’s hard to believe but I apologized because, based on the person I knew, I trusted her.
There were other red flags, but I was in the most vulnerable spot in my life, and no matter what my intuition told me, she was always able to convince me otherwise. Shortly after we married, the small cracks I had seen in our happiness became my new normal. I stayed because, as good gaslighters do, she always convinced me that I was crazy; she also knew how to show me love as I slipped away so I would second-guess my decision.
If she made me dinner and I did not thank her exactly right, she would blast me. If I brought her flowers erev Shabbos and the card wasn’t exactly what she wanted, she would tell me I did not appreciate a single thing she did the whole week, though I thanked her profusely.
I would try to state my case but she would tell me that I was no longer the person she knew and that I need help with my mental health. She would ask me if I kept secrets from her and I had always been this way. I would feel so guilty but also so frustrated and angry because I could not figure out what was going on. Gaslighters also know how to convince you that they are your oxygen and without them your life would fall apart.
As time went on, she got frustrated because I was not reciting the exact script she had in mind for me, and she started making calls. She called an old friend of mine to tell her how horrible I was. She called her parents, my parents, a friend of mine who is a social worker, two rabbis, and one of her family friends.
Right after she called her parents, she insisted that we go there for Shabbos. I said that wasn’t fair; she said, “Fine, I’ll go without you.” I went along and it was one of the most uncomfortable Shabboses of my life. When I told her I was uncomfortable, she said I don’t appreciate her parents and that I was trying to tear her away from them.
When she called my parents, the advice my parents gave me was to get out of the marriage ASAP. However, she convinced me that my parents did not want me to be happy and that I should minimize contact with them, and I did. I know all of this sounds crazy, but gaslighters are so powerful, which is why I am writing this letter. I felt evil and like an abuser even though I have always been mild-mannered and people often tell me I need more of a backbone in my romantic relationships.
One of the symptoms of histrionic personality disorder is believing that relationships are closer than they are. As a result, she did not really have any friends and began latching onto my relationships. She also spread horrible rumors, and people I’ve known for years don’t talk to me anymore.
I have always been someone who values objective opinions. She convinced me though that our love was so unique and special and that we were close enough with each other that no one else should need to be involved. She insisted that getting objective insight is for amateur couples.
She is the most adept liar I have ever known. She believes her own lies and therefore those around her do, too. The damage she did to my reputation hurt for a while but I am now at peace with it. I am working with a really skilled professional who is helping me ensure that I don’t repeat these kinds of decisions again.
We were married for less than a year. What I lived through is very unique, but I kick myself for letting it happen. I was beaten by a con artist. How can those who have never experienced this avoid reliving my horror?
I shed tears while reading your letter, and I thank you for bringing your tragic situation to this forum so that others in similar circumstances can understand that what is happening to them is not their fault. Gaslighting is a psychological term to describe a perpetrator who undermines his or her victims and makes them feel that whatever is going wrong is imagined or their own wrongdoing. The gaslighter will replace the victim’s reality with his or her own version. Sadly, it can come to the point where the victim believes the perpetrator.
You are correct that gaslighters will do whatever needs to be done in order to make it appear as though their handpicked and targeted victim is to blame. That said, I want to make it clear to you that although you ended your letter saying you were beaten by a con artist, the fact is that she did not succeed in beating you down. On the contrary, you survived and came out strong enough to tell your story and help others.
It sounds like this woman was a gaslighter to the extreme. She was not just content to make you do her bidding and prove that you were doing something wrong; she needed to make sure that she got others to join in her efforts. Not only that, but she took it to the next destructive level by successfully ruining her victim’s reputation. And that is how, socially, gaslighters put the last nail in the coffin. Turning people against you was a method used to permanently isolate you from others. In fact, when gaslighters see that the relationship with their victim is coming to an end, that is exactly what they do. They will contact every friend and associate and use their persuasive talents to further abuse their victim by telling others fake tales about them. They will even go so far as to create and doctor correspondence from their victim to further paint and prove a negative picture so that others will lose respect for the victim and want nothing more to do with that (victimized) person.
Your ex-wife succeeded at that. She is clearly a powerhouse when it comes to telling tales, and I get that she is a good liar and probably an award-winning actress. But the people you have known for a long time should have reacted differently. Why did some of these people buy into her stories to such an extent that they turned on you? I blame them and view them as accomplices to her crimes against you. Shame on them, and I hope they take time to do a cheshbon ha’nefesh for their cruel behavior towards you. You need to tell them the truth about what this woman did to you, and if they do not accept it, then, going forward, consider them nonexistent in your world.
The answer to your question about how one can avoid falling into the trap of a gaslighter is by recognizing the (subtle) signs beforehand and having the pride, self-esteem, and courage to disengage from such an individual.
The gaslighter is typically someone who wants to be in control of the relationship. He or she is the assertive partner in the union. Gaslighters will usually feel most comfortable with a subservient type of person. They are not at ease being friends with those who possess leadership personalities. Specifically, when it comes to romantic alliances, they choose people who have endured trauma of some kind and are vulnerable. They entice them with whatever they sense the victim lacks — love, attention, gifts, etc. Not only that, but they present as kind and empathetic. The victim feels fortunate to have been chosen to be in their life.
Once they have their victim hooked, that is when their true colors come out. They turn especially vicious when they discover that their victim is not as vulnerable as they assumed. They begin to feel threatened when the victim shows some sense of self-esteem and especially if the victim is well-liked by others. And that is when they spring into action and mercilessly attack.
One of the things that I always stress to anyone who asks me how to avoid falling into a bad relationship and marriage is to investigate the person’s history. More than anything, people need to check and double-check any person they allow into their life. What were their previous relationships all about, and how did they end? How have they lived their life? If the person was previously married, find out what happened. When people have nothing to hide, they will not care how much you check them out. I further stress that you have the right to be as nosy as you need to be in order to protect yourself.
Another important aspect for those who seek romantic relationships is to develop a belief system in their intuition and gut feelings by never dismissing a negative vibe. If it doesn’t feel right, then it isn’t!
If a person is already in a relationship with somebody who does not make them feel good about themselves, they should do some self-introspection if they are feeling demeaned in any way and if they find themselves consistently apologizing for something they do not feel they did wrong. There is no point in trying to change the gaslighter or trying to figure out what can be done to make things better. A gaslighter is a master manipulator. Of great importance in any relationship is that each person feels loved, valued, and respected. If the person cannot find that with the person they are with, it is time to swiftly exit.
I am glad to hear that you are working with your therapist. Take time to heal from what you have endured. When you are ready to embark on any new relationship, please use your knowledge and experience to avoid the same pitfalls. Believe in yourself and your abilities. And above all, remember that you are a worthy person and you deserve to be happy.
Baila Sebrow is president of Neshoma Advocates, communications and recruitment liaison for Sovri-Beth Israel, executive director of Teach Our Children, and a shadchanis and shidduch consultant. She can be reached at Bsebrow@aol.com. Questions and comments for the Dating Forum can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.