How to Combat Gaslighting in Divorce
December 5th, 2022
In the age of misinformation, the term gaslighting has become an integral part of American politics, pop culture and even the medical community. Defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage,” the word has grown in popularity in large part due to its ability to be inclusive of multiple types of emotional abuse (e.g., controlling, manipulative, dismissive, boundaryless, and hypocritical behaviors). The term has become so common, in fact, that just this week, Merriam Webster announced it as the word of the year.
Gaslighting originates back to the 1938 play Gaslight, in which a man tricks his wife into thinking she has lost her mind by telling her the gaslights in their home are not fading, when (shocker) they are — all while he’s stealing from her. Gaslighting has since become a verb to signify the act of making someone question their definition of reality by breaking down a victim’s self esteem and questioning their own sanity. Gaslighting tactics can also include painting a negative picture of the victim to friends and family in order to isolate them.
To no surprise, gaslighting is a term often used in family law and, in particular, divorce cases. It’s an extremely effective form of emotional abuse, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and a classic tactic of a narcissist, who twists reality to match their own beliefs, motivated by the desire to control the world around them.
Doubting your feelings? Questioning your judgment? Think you’re being too sensitive? Spending a lot of time apologizing? You may be a victim of gaslighting.
What does Gaslighting look like in a Divorce?
If you’ve experienced gaslighting, you know how distorted your own reality and memories can become at the will of the perpetrator. The National Domestic Violence Hotline lists five common techniques gaslighters use to accomplish this:
- Withholding information or refusing to listen to your side of the story
- Countering your beliefs, making you question your memory of events
- Blocking or diverting attention away from subject
- Trivializing your feelings, making your needs seem unimportant
- Pretending to forget or denying what occurred so you question the reality of event
- In divorce, gaslighters use these emotional abuse tactics on spouses but also within the court system. This can look like false claims against you to damage your reputation, frivolous motions filed to emotionally trigger you, or efforts to turn your friends and family against you, even as potential witnesses, to isolate you. The goal? Make you feel out of control, alone, crazy, and dependent on the gaslighter to define reality for you. Just what they want.
Advice for Divorcing a Gaslighter
So what can you do? First and foremost, hire an attorney. Family law attorneys are skilled at dealing with gaslighters and navigating the family law system. Next, take these steps (with the help of your attorney) to successfully divorce.
If you’ve read my blog post on preparing for divorce, you already know you need to start preparing one-to-three months prior to filing, with these five steps:
- Hire an attorney
- Organize your finances
- Make a list of personal property
- Prepare a budget for post-divorce life
- Change your beneficiary designation and power of attorney
But what’s critical when divorcing a gaslighter is making them none the wiser to your plan. A gaslighter will use manipulative tactics to attempt to convince you that your intentions are misdirected or that a divorce will only be a losing battle for you in many ways. Remember, their goal will likely be to stop the proceedings from ever happening.
If your attorney needs to assist you in tracking down assets via litigation, you’ll want to pull together as much prep as possible prior to doing this. Another essential piece of this plan is recommending key witnesses who you trust and who can back up your truth.
I’ve talked about the benefits of filing first, and these benefits are particularly true when it comes to divorcing a gaslighter. What a gaslighter wants is to maintain control and put you on the defensive. However, being able to present your case first will allow you to confidently tell your version of the truth first — instead, putting the perpetrator on defense.
Keep a record of all Events
Dear diary, yes, journals are admissible in court. However, a pro tip is to instead keep a digital trail of all gaslighting and other abusive incidents. You can do this by emailing yourself about accounts directly after they happen. This way you won’t be tricked into believing a different version of the truth. Bonus: include photographs or any other supporting documentation to your digital library.
Not only will a digital trail like this hold up in court, but it will also help you to remember the events exactly how and when they happened. This will save you (and your lawyer) a lot of time and money, as well as help you maintain your confidence.
Use your attorney to set Boundaries
Once the proceedings begin, I recommend that all communications with your spouse go through your attorney to avoid any manipulative tactics the gaslighter may employ when alone with you. If you must communicate, it’s essential to get everything in writing (e.g., texting is better than a phone call).
It’s likely that the gaslighter will then attempt to use the court system to get at you, if they are unable to themselves. You need to set boundaries to protect your emotional well being (a little louder for the people in the back). This is another way your attorney can help.
To minimize emotional triggers, I have, in the past, recommended clients not even see motions being filed until I have responded to said motion. This way, the victim can see both the attack and the response, opposed to just the attack, which will only stress them out — just as the gaslighter intends. Plus, a lot of these motions can be frivolous and just get denied.
Since attorneys often behave the way their clients want them to, it may feel like your spouse’s attorney is gaslighting you. It’s important to hire representation who can confidently deal with aggressive attorneys but also one who can make you feel safe.
Maintain a support system
As I’ve mentioned above, a gaslighter will try to isolate you, so it’s important to maintain your relationships, despite the emotional unrest you may be going through. And, of course, keep your friends and family informed about the emotional abuse. They’ll not only help justify your feelings but also be able to back up your stories in court.
If you are preparing for divorce and ready to speak to an attorney, reach out for a consultation, and we’ll work on a plan to combat gaslighting together. Call me at (301) 637-6070 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.