The word “gaslighting” has been thrown around a lot lately to describe bad behaviour by politicians, businesspeople, and even reality TV stars. But gaslighting is a real, if under-studied, psychological phenomenon — and it’s often a feature of abusive relationships. As a therapist, I help people recognise when they’re being gaslit and offer strategies to break free. In the last few years, I’ve seen more and more clients who’ve entered into relationships with gaslighters they met online.
It makes sense: Online dating sites and apps can be efficient, low-risk places to meet new people — but the anonymity and unlikelihood of running into an ex make online dating sites a great place for gaslighters to find victims. They can be whoever they want in their profile. They can tell you exactly what you want to hear. They have access to many people (potential victims) they otherwise wouldn’t have met, and they can easily spot clues of vulnerability in people’s profiles. Understanding these clues, which we often give out unwittingly, is a good first line of defence.
What Makes the Gaslighter Pick You?
Out of all the online dating profiles, what makes a gaslighter contact you? First, lest you think you’ve been singularly clueless or otherwise to blame, understand that you are rarely the only one. Especially because of the efficiencies of dating apps, gaslighters will usually have many potential targets.
Scarcity is a tactic favoured by gaslighters, and online dating makes the scarcity game very easy to play. You are chatting back and forth with someone and then — poof! — he disappears. You question what happened. You look up articles to try to figure out whether he is interested. You convince yourself that men are emotional rubber bands — the closer they get, the more they pull back. Just when you are about to give up, the gaslighter shows up again. He has invoked scarcity.
If you respond by playing it cool and acting as if nothing happened, you’ll usually pass the “test” and the gaslighter will continue to contact you. If you ask too many questions, such as “Why were you ignoring my messages?” the gaslighter will probably drop you like a hot potato, blame you, and even accuse you of being desperate.
This is because the gaslighter sensed from your response that you would be someone likely to hold him accountable for his behaviour in the future, and he doesn’t want that! The way things start with someone is usually how they go from that point forward. If you meet someone who doesn’t even give an explanation for not contacting you before a first date, how do you think the rest of that relationship is going to work?
The best course of action when encountering someone who “ghosts” and reappears is to not respond and move on. If your online profile indicates that you: Have been single for a while, have been married multiple times, appear to have money, say you see the best in everyone, haven’t been treated well in the past, think your ex was a terrible person, like taking risks...you may as well have painted a bull’s-eye on your forehead. These are the very vulnerabilities gaslighters look for. Gaslighters will often rightly assume that if you allude to the things in this list, you are more likely both to get hooked on them and to be more tolerant of their bad behaviour.
So, what should you put in your profile to make yourself more gaslighter-proof? It’s a tricky, fine line, but ultimately you want to show that you are active and happy. Gaslighters don’t like partners who are positive, upbeat, and independent. They prefer them to be needy, vulnerable, and wounded.
Red Flags On Your First Date
One of the trickiest things about gaslighters is that they are great at hiding their true personality, until you are hooked in. According to Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, in her article entitled “The Dangerous First Date” in the December 2017 issue of Psychology Today, malignant behaviours can masquerade as charming positives in the early stages of dating. For example, protective behaviour morphs into possessiveness; comforting turns into controlling; assertive behaviour turns into aggressive behaviour; passionate behaviour turns violent later on; a direct personality turns into rudeness; and confidence turns into condescension.
Keep an eye out for these behaviours whenever you are on a date. For example, while it may feel comforting, as if you are being taken care of when your date orders your food for you (when you haven’t even told him what you want), this is actually a sign of a controlling personality. It feels good at first, but once things start getting real, your partner will be trying to control all your choices in the relationship.
Red flags on a first date with gaslighters include: They talk about long-term commitment with you, they talk about having children — not just in general, but with you, they talk about themselves…it’s almost as if you weren’t there, they tell you they cheated in a previous relationship, they tell you about their dysfunctional family history, they don’t ask you any questions about your life, they don’t want to talk about their family, they order your food for you, they don’t use basic manners, they start holding hands or having other physical contact with you right away, they mention how they had a lot of options to choose from but picked you, they will not leave when asked, they prevent you from leaving.
Again, no one of these items on its own necessarily means you’re on a date with a gaslighter, but buyer beware. The signs are usually there.
Trust Your Intuition
Most of us get hunches or a “Spidey sense” that something is wrong, and very often these are right on target. If you feel that a situation or person is unsafe to be around, excuse yourself and leave. You don’t even have to excuse yourself. Gaslighters sense when people are on to them, and they will switch modes quickly into “love-bombing” (showering you with compliments, saying they haven’t felt this way about someone “in a long time,” etc.) Gaslighters are masters of pouring it on in the nick of time, getting you to switch from thinking, “This person gives me bad vibes” to “Wow, I really like him.”
If you find that you’ve fallen for a gaslighter, don’t blame yourself — just get out as soon as possible. As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”