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5 Legal Tips to Prepare to Divorce a Gaslighter

This particularly manipulative spouse can provide a unique challenge in divorce.

Listening to the new The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks) song, Gaslighter, I was reminded again of the extreme emotional pain a manipulator of this magnitude can introduce into a spouse’s life.

In the lyrics of this song, it appears the partner was able to break away from this toxic situation, but that is not always the case. And as the song indicates, the gaslighter denies and lies about his/her actions, which then causes the victim to question his/her own sanity. With all the “deniability” and lies, it is hard for others to sort out who is being truthful and who is not.

I wrote about this topic last year, in the context of gaslighting and smart technology. And I have had this issue come up in my practice as a family law and matrimonial attorney on many occasions over the last several years, as those who finally find the strength leave that relationship and the gaslighter.

The act of gaslighting, which could simply be explained as extremely convincing lying in the service of manipulation and control, is an ongoing issue in some marriages or divorces in which one spouse might be diagnosed as a narcissist or other mental health disorders.

Gaslighting is among the most subtle yet damaging forms of emotional abuse, and it is a strategy deployed by those who seek to control the behavior of others or obfuscate their own behavior—or both.

When you start to lose faith in your intuition or sense you are losing a grip on reality, it may be the result of an emotionally abusive partner using gaslighting as his/her tool of choice.

The concept of gaslighting isn’t new. It is widely believed the term originated from the play and film Gaslight, in which the gas-fueled lights in a character's home are dimmed when he turns the attic lights brighter while searching the attic at night. The “gaslighter” convinces his wife that she is imagining the change. The term has been used in clinical and research literature, as well as in political commentary.

There is no doubt that this issue is pervasive and that it is occurring in many relationships. If the person is able and can find the strength, that relationship may ultimately end up in divorce. In my practice, I have seen victims grow more anxious, confused, and fearful that his/her credibility is lost. Of course, those who use any form of gaslighting as a tool to manipulate (narcissists are known to employ these techniques) are also going to do all that they can to manipulate the divorce process to their advantage.

The gaslighter’s goal is to destabilize the other person to the point where the victim questions his/her mental stability and diminishes his/her self-confidence and self-esteem. Then the gaslighter can convince others that the person is unable to make sound decisions and can then also make the case that the other person is unreliable, can’t be trusted, and in some cases is incapable of co-parenting or making sound financial decisions. As the gaslighter heats up, the victim may be unable to put forward his/her case for custody or even financial issues regarding their divorce. After all, who wants to listen to someone who is “crazy” when they are claiming there are hidden finances.

So, what do you do if you are involved with a controlling partner who you believe has been gaslighting you, and you want to leave the marriage?

1. Do not alert the gaslighter of your plans until you have to. You will need to deal with numerous issues before you formally file for divorce, and alerting the gaslighter to the fact you want to leave the marriage before you properly plan may put you in harm’s way.

Important note: If you believe you or your children are in immediate danger, do not wait to act.

2. Enlist a strong advocate as your attorney and, if possible, a therapeutic professional before you tell your partner of any plans to separate or divorce. Attempt to find an attorney who has experience working with adversarial spouses who suffer from or are affected with personality disorders. Speak with mental health professionals, friends, and family for referrals. Narcissists, for example, do not compromise easily, and you need to choose an attorney who will go the distance with you, and ideally, has experience working with someone who is controlling and in many cases, simply irrational.

3. If you are being abused emotionally and/or physically, ask your attorney about filing temporary restraining orders including Orders of Protection that keep this abusive person away from you.

4. Keep a record of all attempts to confuse or belittle you. Go back as far as you can to document when this behavior started to occur, and how it has evolved. Setting forth facts and recalling specific incidents is very important, and this information will be helpful later if you need to convince the Court that your partner has been behaving in this way.

5. If there are people in your life who can validate your experiences, ask them to be a witness. Share this record of information with your attorney and therapist. Evidence and witnesses can be very helpful to prove a case.

Most of all, it is critical to remember to protect your emotional well-being and the emotional health of your children. The gaslighter’s goal is to confuse you so that you are more easily controlled.

Breaking free of this is going to take a lot of strength and organization. And you need to form a team of people that you can depend upon, including your friends, family, therapist, and attorney.

As I often say: The very best way to protect yourself from experiencing any of the above is to recognize the signs of mental illness before you enter a relationship. Love does not need to be blind, and the signs should not be overlooked or ignored. Be careful with whom you have a relationship, a marriage, and most importantly a child.

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