Divorcing an Abuser: Is he gaslighting me?

Posted on May 27, 2024 by Katie Carter

If you’re asking whether he’s gaslighting you, the answer is almost certainly yes.  Right?  I mean, when it comes to abusers, nothing is up to chance.  It’s intentional and he’s doing it on purpose.  It’s designed to impact you in the most cruel way possible.

The thing about gaslighting is that it often happens in a way that feels insignificant to everyone else.  After all, that’s the best way, isn’t it?  That way, they can do it in plain sight – in the presence of witnesses! – and, when you come unglued, it’s because you’re crazy.  Everyone else saw that, right?  He did nothing!

It’s the ultimate tool.  Unfortunately, it’s super powerful.  It’s also hard to predict because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think like an abuser.  In retrospect, I understand it and I can see it, but I don’t necessarily know when it’s going to happen.  When it does happen, especially when I’m around, it’s often something that I don’t even know is an issue until later.

An example?  Happy to provide one.

I represented a woman a number of years back in her divorce.  It was a fairly typical case, but she did tell me that he was an emotional abuser.  He was never physically abusive, but would do things to hurt her – and it left her feeling crazy and volatile.

I was a brand new baby lawyer at this point so it’s not like I was unfamiliar with the ways of the world in general, but I was new – and I hadn’t seen this exact scenario before.

So, we rolled up to court.  No big deal.  After all, we do it all the time.  My client is there and she’s with me, so she’s safe, right?  Well, not entirely.  Because her husband – her soon-to-be ex husband – shows up wearing the cologne that he wore to their wedding.

Now, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the psychology of scent, but it’s a big deal.  Our brain stores scents and they can conjure up specific times and places completely unconsciously.  It can make us happy and it can make us sad.  It can make you feel, basically, anything that you might have been feeling at the time.

In this case, she came completely unglued.  To her, it felt like an assault.  He deliberately wore that cologne to remind her of their wedding.  For what purpose?  To make her feel guilty?  To make her feel unsafe?  As a threat?  I’m not entirely sure.  I’m not sure he was sure.  All he knew was that SHE would know that it was the wedding cologne and that it would hurt her.

And hurt her it did.  Oh, boy, did it hurt her.  And meanwhile I – her lawyer! – standing there, had no idea.  Right under my nose, in the presence of bailiffs and a judge and the entire legal system, basically, he abused her again.  And there was nothing I could do about it.  I didn’t even know it was happening until she told me later.  (Because, after all, in open court, it’s not like she and I could have a private word.  And I definitely wasn’t a guest at her wedding.)  All I knew was that she was retreating into herself.

Obviously, it was deliberate.  Even though he would – and did – totally deny it.  He just got dressed!  He put on cologne!  He didn’t even notice it was the wedding day cologne!

If you’re wondering if he’s gaslighting you, he probably is.  And, probably, there’s nothing that can really be done to stop him.  After all, no amount of litigation ever made an abuser decide to just stop being abusive.  That would be giving way too much faith and credit to the legal system and, in any case, that’s just not how it works.  That’s not even what family court is supposed to do.

The only question is in how you deal with it.  In general, I think it’s a good idea to work with a mental health professional through your divorce and/or custody case, and potentially even beyond, especially if you’ve suffered extreme abuse (whether physical or emotional – the scars are the same).  It doesn’t mean you’re crazy.

In fact, you’re NOT crazy.  Even if it might look that way to an outsider.  But that’s his end game, right?  That’s how he’ll continue to try to control you even when you’re just past his reach.  He might even try harder, in the short term, to do things that will make you feel unstable and unbalanced.

You can’t control anyone else.  You know that.  I know you know that.  I know that.  And it’s probably wasted effort and blood pressure points to even try.  He’s going to be who he is.  But, if you’re going to withstand the divorce and/or custody case, you’re going to need to level up your ability to handle it.  Find a therapist.  Enlist an attorney who will listen to (and not discredit!) you when you explain what’s happening – because

You’re not alone, even if you feel like you are.  For more information about Virginia divorce, give our office a call at 757-425-5200 or visit our website at hoflaw.com.