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What “Bad Vegan” and “Tinder Swindler” teach us about relationships, according to experts

Por: Verónica Suárez21 de abril de 2022

Abusive relationships seem to be everywhere in media right now, impressing us with how they can trap even the smartest and capable people. Experts pitch in to explain why this happens.

Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler shows how a manipulative (and abusive) relationship can damage people’s lives, in this case, taking out thousands, and even millions, of dollars. Another example is Bad Vegan and even Inventing Anna, showing that this type of relationship is not limited to romance, but also friendships and even inside families.

Not every single story will be this wild, and ready to become a show as soon as possible, but therapists and other experts say these stories can teach us a lot about abuse, intimidation, and gaslighting. They show a pattern of emotional and mental manipulation that changes a person’s perception of reality into that that suits that of the abuser.

You might find interesting: 6 Small Toxic Behaviors You Must Stop Romanticizing In Your Relationship

It’s also a very common misconception that people in these types of relationships are weak or foolish, or “did something to bring this to themselves,” explained Gretchen Shaw, deputy director of the nonprofit National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “The women in these documentaries are human and imperfect, sure, but they didn’t deserve to be completely exploited by the men professing to love them.”

How does an abusive relationship start?

Most abusive relationships don’t start out like that. It starts when trust has been established and, over time, a manipulative partner will begin to show their true selves.

“Abusers know exactly what they’re doing,” Shaw said. “They are very conscious about how they manipulate their victims and how they continue to abuse them.”

In Bad Vegan, Sarma Melngailis was a New York City chef and entrepreneur, whose relationship with Anthony Strangis sets her on a path to lose her restaurant, reputation, and freedom with her spending time in jail with her now ex-husband.

The documentary shows how this relationship started with Strangis telling her that he’s doing everything to protect her from a powerful and shadowy syndicate that threatens them both. If Melngailis does what he asks, they will be able to have their “happily ever after” and benefit from unlimited protection for herself and her beloved dog.

In The Tinder Swindler, a man using the fake name Simon Leviev met three women (but probably many more) on Tinder and cheated them out of millions of dollars. This man spun a web of lies, offering made-up details about the source of his supposed wealth and repeatedly asking for large sums of money because mysterious, nameless enemies were trying to kill him.

So, how can smart, successful people get involved in this? But no one willingly will walk into this type of relationship.

The most common misunderstanding is that they “surrender themselves to these horrible people,” Shaw said. “What most people don’t understand is that abusers themselves are multifaceted and manipulative in all conceivable ways.”

How to detect a manipulator

Generally, red flags and concerning behavior can be obvious to people outside of these relationships, but they aren’t always apparent to those in them.

People who are manipulating others tend to be very good at what they do, and they may even be skilled con artist who has used these techniques in multiple relationships. There are some tactics like: abusers taking their time to exert control or love-bombing instantly, which is showering people with intense, often unsettling and inexplicable, affection.

Importantly, people are not born gaslighters, said Robin Stern, a licensed psychoanalyst, and cofounder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to BuzzFeed News. Instead, “they learn it along the way” after finding they can gain power over others’ actions and emotions via controlling, blaming, and deflecting responsibility. People who are abusive or manipulative don’t necessarily have a certain personality type or disorder, though some certainly do.

These types of people can use fear to manipulate their partner into thinking they won’t be able to support themselves financially, professionally, or romantically without them. In many cases, they may control their partner’s bank accounts and credit cards, stalk or harass them, or threaten to harm their loved ones, including children or pets.

For people outside the relationship, it can be particularly difficult to understand why someone can be so attached to an abuser, Stern said. “It’s really hard to understand how someone intelligent can buy into [an abusive relationship], but it doesn’t have to do with how smart you are; it has to do with how bought in you are to that dynamic, how attached you are to this person, and how idealized that person is in your mind,” she said.

Other people who have experienced manipulative relationships may identify more with Stockholm syndrome, in which victims develop positive feelings toward their abusers over time as survival or coping mechanisms. Sometimes sunk-cost fallacy (a psychological trap where people keep investing in something either emotionally or financially because they’ve already given significant and unrecoverable resources to it, generally known as “I’ve spent so much time in this, I can’t back out now”) plays a role.

There’s also a fantasy perpetuated by countless movies, and even music, that has convinced people to fall in love with love, Stern said. This can make people ignore the full scope of a relationship or situation, particularly if they believe a person is their “soulmate.”

How to know if you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship

Not every abusive relationship starts with obvious and big red flags, so it can be helpful to know what they could look or feel like before they appear. Nevertheless, it’s not always easy to address these signs before they become more serious.

Here are some signs someone may be in an unhealthy relationship:

Here are some signs that a partner may be manipulating or gaslighting others:

There are also specific ways people can abuse their partners if they are members of certain marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community.

For example, some people may threaten to “out” their partner, pressure them to dress a certain way, or purposefully use the wrong pronouns, said Lisa Alexander, a supervising attorney with Day One, a New York City–based organization that educates young people about dating abuse and domestic violence, in an interview with BuzzFeed News.

How to help people in abusive relationships

It’s hard to see someone you love experiencing an abusive relationship, and it may be even harder to figure out how to approach them to share your concerns and offer help if they want or need it.

Depending on the relationship you have with the person, you’ll want to start by talking to them, Alexander said, but not in a confrontational way. You’ll want to first identify the behavior that you’ve witnessed and say something like, “This concerns me, so I just wanted to touch base with you and see if you’re OK and if you want to talk about it. If not, just know that I’m here for you.”

“It’s very possible that the person might not be ready to have that conversation or be in a position where they feel that they can,” she said, “but it’s super important that the person knows they have friends, family, or other trusted people in their life that they can go to when they’re ready for help.”

If they are open to learning more about available resources, you can guide them to the National Domestic Violence Hotline and have them study the Power and Control Wheel, which identifies behaviors abusive partners use to keep others in an unhealthy relationship; Alexander said she recommends this because seeing the behaviors written in front of you “can be really eye-opening for some people.”

Here are some other ways you can help someone experiencing an abusive relationship:

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger as a result of domestic violence, call 911. For anonymous, confidential help, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or chat with an advocate via the website.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline is 1-888-950-6264 (NAMI) and provides information and referral services; is an association of mental health professionals from more than 25 countries who support efforts to reduce harm in therapy.

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