IN FAMILY COURT
Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D.
© Jonathan D. Gordon, Esq. 2018
In the famous old 1944 movie, “Gaslight”, starring Ingrid Bergman, her husband tries to make her think she is going insane, or better yet: make her mental health actually deteriorate, by manipulating the environment in subtle ways, making the wife question her sanity. He manipulates her sense of reality, denying her perceptions and falsely points out to her that she must be imagining things, or that her memory is going or that she is delusional. This movie title became a verb over the years, as “gaslighting” became a description of manipulative behavior on the part of a spouse or partner against the other. It is not unusual to see this manifested in a relationship where one spouse is an abusive sociopath or narcissist, or both.
In Family Court, we see attempted gaslighting in a spouse who creates ambiguity or drama about things such as parenting time scheduling that were already communicated by email (“I never saw that email, you probably forgot…”) or text message (“I never received a text from you.”). It could come in the form of blatant lies about what the other party supposedly said but didn’t, e.g. “You told me I could drop him off an hour late…”. A sociopath or narcissist (or someone with both personality disorders) is good at manipulating other people to achieve their goals. Those goals could be to hurt the other parent, to harm the other parent’s relationship with the child, to simply sabotage and weaken them and make them doubt themselves, etc.
We see gaslighting frequently used by manipulative pedophiles such as we saw in the recently unveiled facts surrounding the molestation of Olympic gymnasts by the team doctor. Children are especially vulnerable to manipulation, and their sense of reality can be bent by a sociopathic sex offender who attempts to use their position of power (e.g. doctor, clergy, teacher, family member, etc.) to gratify their own needs. Domestic violence abusers gaslight their victim by denying they were really violent, or that they really intended to harm the other, and then by buying the abused spouse flowers or jewelry, etc. Making the victim doubt their own perceptions, or making them feel sorry for the abuser (or guilty) can ultimately cause the victim to endure more abuse and ultimately become depressed with a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, low self esteem, helplessness and hopelessness. Gaslighting victims of childhood sexual abuse instills in the child much guilt, anxiety, and self-doubt, especially when the abuser is an important and otherwise respected person in that child’s life. This later manifests itself in the child having low self esteem and feeling unworthy of healthy relationships. Those who have extramarital affairs or are otherwise disloyal, are notorious for their gaslighting denials, instillation of guilt in the person being cheated on, and ongoing lying and manipulation of facts and reality to avoid being caught, telling the spouse “you are imagining things,…”.
In Court, the gaslighter lies to the Judge, insisting they did not receive the court notice, did not get served the papers, did not know of the deadline, had a family emergency, etc. Sometimes the feigned sincerity of the gaslighter even makes the Judge temporarily unsure of what really is real or not real. Judges attempt to be fair to all parties. When the Judge is not 100% certain, he or she will tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the manipulator, which to that person is another victory, another time they “got over” on the Court. At some point, the Court will not have any more of it and will act accordingly, but the gaslighter has been doing this for a lifetime and is adept at lying, bending reality and manipulating others.
A person, weakened by a gaslighting partner, is most likely depressed and immersed in self-doubt. A therapist potentially could help that person to regain a sense of confidence, better reality testing and self-esteem. That person would do well to keep a diary (electronic with a good password) of the interactions between them. Keeping a log of all text messages and emails, provides proof of what was said or not said. There are apps that one can get to be able to print out text messages. It is also better to do things in writing with a gaslighter, rather than to rely on verbal conversations which will later be denied or distorted. That is not to say that verbal communication should be avoided, but after such a conversation, it is good to send a confirming email (“this is to confirm today’s conversation where you agreed to ….”). That way, there is some documentation that can be used later in court if necessary.
It is interesting, although bizarre to others, that many people who have borderline personality disorder, who are also narcissists and/or sociopaths, actually believe the lies they feed to others. That helps them to appear more genuine and truthful—even to a Judge. If the person distorts their own reality to achieve their own needs, and they can rationalize their actions and minimize the negative qualities of those actions in their own mind, then they will be able to better convince others of that distortion. That person being convinced of the distorted reality will pay for it with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-doubt and repeated voluntary exposure to the psychological and physical abuse they have been enduring for years. When this compromised spouse is a parent, they often become incapable of protecting their child from the abusive parent/spouse, because of the same dynamics. The victimized spouse/parent sometimes makes excuses for the abuser, rationalizes the abusive behavior (that they know or suspect is going on), and sometimes will actually side with the abuser against their child to avoid confrontation.
When a child protective services agency gets a referral to this family, it is possible that the victimized parent could also be accused of child neglect or abuse, for allowing the other parent to do so to the child. Again, it is essential that a person who is being manipulated in a relationship have someone such as a therapist or trusted clergy or friend to speak to, so that they may obtain better reality and recommendation for taking necessary action. Avoiding the confrontation is only avoiding the inevitable, because somehow this will end up in court or in a police station. When there are children involved, taking action becomes all the more compelling since it is a parent’s basic duty to protect their children. Protecting one’s self must take place concurrently so that the child has someone to lean on, to obtain a basic sense of security and safety. Without that, the child will be at grave risk for all kinds of problems in later life. Being gaslighted by the abusing spouse/parent can be avoided by keeping track of reality, facts, interactions and agreements, as well as seeking help from a professional or trusted others. Going to Court with documentation that proves your position and shows the other party to have been untruthful will strengthen your position. The more documentation, the better it is for you.
Good luck, and please post a comment about your experiences.
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Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., Esq., 2018. All rights reserved.
Please note: Jonathan D. Gordon, Ph.D., J.D., is a Family Law Attorney in NJ and in NY, representing Family Law clients in Superior Court of NJ. He is also a Licensed Psychologist (NJ #1358, NY #5614, OH #7540) who has, in addition to providing general psychological services, performed forensic child custody evaluations and who has been appointed Guardian ad litem and Parent Coordinator by the NJ Superior Court, Family Division. No special skills or, expertise in either profession is implied by any reference to my being licensed as a Psychologist as well as being a licensed attorney. The two professions are distinct and separate, with differing training and education, and they each have their respective licensing, rules of ethics and codes of professional responsibility. Contracting with Jonathan Gordon in one profession precludes ever engaging his services in the other profession due to conflict of interest. This web site and blog are solely for general informational and educational purposes and should not be construed otherwise and should also not be taken as tax advice (for which you must consult a C.P.A.). A professional relationship is not established with Jonathan D. Gordon until a retainer agreement is signed for legal services or if a consent for treatment agreement is signed for psychological services.
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