Long Island Divorce & Family Law Attorneys

"Gaslighting" in Divorce and Custody Cases

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The definition of “gaslighting” is to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. In the context of a divorce or custody case, it often refers to a parent who manipulates others (family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, police, judges, lawyers, child protective services, and the court system itself) into questioning the sanity of the targeted parent, by making numerous false and malicious statements, to create a damaging impression of the targeted parent, and gain an unfair advantage in a divorce or custody matter.

Commonly, this form of gaslighting starts with the manipulative parent contacting family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers by telephone, text and email, and denigrating the targeted parent with false information, in order to turn others against them in a divorce or custody case. In many instances, the manipulative parent will exploit the criminal and family courts to further their agenda. This may involve filing false police reports against the targeted parent, trying to (falsely) portray the targeted parent as mentally unstable, and even baiting the targeted parent to react violently by pushing their “hot buttons” that have developed over the course of their marriage. The manipulative parent may then go to the family court and file for an order of protection and have the targeted parent removed from the children’s home, or call the police to have the targeted parent arrested for “domestic violence”.

What makes this gaslighting scenario different from a true domestic violence case is that the manipulative parent is not utilizing the court system in good faith, or out of a concern for their safety and that of their children. Rather, they are deliberately antagonizing the targeted parent to get them to overreact, as part of a malicious strategy in their divorce or custody case. Unfortunately, the court system may focus attention on the overreactions of the targeted parent, rather than the gaslighting behavior of the manipulative parent, and could lead to custody decisions favoring the manipulative parent. They may further engage in a campaign denigrating the targeted parent to the children as a form of parental alienation, telling them inappropriate details about the targeted parent, the divorce or custody case.

These actions may be difficult for a court to identify as manipulative, particularly when the court is limited in exposure to the subtleties of the manipulative parent, who may be charming and able to deceive the court about their true nature, versus when the Court can visibly observe the overreactions of the targeted parent. The end result can be an unfair result in a divorce or custody case, and the possible alienation of the children from the targeted parent.

When faced with this type of gaslighting, it is important for the targeted parent not to allow themselves to be baited by the manipulative parent. If a targeted parent feels they are being gaslighted and alienated from the children, and becomes angry or frustrated, they should not act upon those feelings. Otherwise, these overreactions can be viewed and used as “evidence” of the targeted parent’s alleged mental instability in court. Instead, they should make continual efforts to maintain a meaningful relationship with the children. They should retain the services of an attorney early on in their case who is familiar with gaslighting and tactics of parental alienation in a divorce or custody case, to effectively guide them through the legal process.

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