In Netflix’s Bad Vegan and The Tinder Swindler, manipulative and otherwise abusive people exploit their successful, capable friends and romantic partners out of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars.
The shows aren’t exactly the same, though they play on similar themes. In Bad Vegan, New York City chef and entrepreneur Sarma Melngailis’s relationship sets her on a path to lose her restaurant, reputation, and freedom, with her ultimately spending time in jail along with Anthony Strangis, now her ex-husband. Melngailis said she gave Strangis a total of $1.7 million, most of which should have gone to her staffers and investors.
In The Tinder Swindler, a man using the fake name Simon Leviev met three women (and likely many more) on Tinder and cheated them out of millions of dollars. Similar to Melngailis’s story, the man spun a web of lies, offering up manufactured 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.
Not all relationships or dating experiences are this wild, but therapists and other experts say these stories can teach us a lot about abuse, intimidation, and gaslighting — a pattern of emotional and mental manipulation that warps a person’s reality into one that suits that of the abuser.
What’s more, anyone, no matter where they come from or how they look or act, can encounter such tactics, the experts we spoke to said. Why? “Because power and control works,” Gretchen Shaw, deputy director of the nonprofit National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told BuzzFeed News. “Abuse, whether subtle or covert, works and more often than not, ends in crazy (and, even more often, deadly) consequences.”
It’s common to assume that people in such relationships are weak or foolish “or did something to bring this on themselves,” Shaw said. “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.”
Abuse like this happens all the time, she said. “These documentaries are just sensational examples.”
Melngailis, speaking from personal experience, shared her thoughts with BuzzFeed News via email. “The stereotype that one has to be weak minded or stupid to be targeted is a false and dangerous one,” she wrote.
How abusive relationships start
Most abusive relationships don’t start out that way. Over time, once trust has been established, a manipulative partner will begin to show their true selves, according to Shaw.
“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, Strangis tells Melngailis he’s doing everything to protect her from a powerful and shadowy syndicate that threatens them both. If Melngailis doesn’t comply, he says, both of their lives would be in danger and she would be to blame. If she does what he asks, she can live out her “happily ever after” and benefit from unlimited protection for herself and her beloved dog, who Anthony promised would be given immortality.
The con artist from The Tinder Swindler also often lies to convince women, all of whom trust and love him, to send him money to escape from danger.
You may be thinking: How could such smart, successful people get involved in this to begin with? But the truth is, no one willingly walks into these kinds of relationships, Shaw said.
The most common misunderstanding is that they “surrender themselves to these horrible people,” she said. “What most people don't understand is that abusers themselves are multifaceted and manipulative in all conceivable ways.”
It’s hard to collect data on who experiences it because many people don’t tell law enforcement or professionals, said Robin Stern, a licensed psychoanalyst and cofounder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
But statistics do skew toward women more often being the target in manipulative relationships; women are also more likely to talk about it with therapists, said Stern, who added that she’s seen many men who have been gaslighted in family or romantic relationships (and women being gaslighted by other women).
What abusers have in common
While red flags and concerning behavior may be obvious to people outside of these relationships, they aren't always apparent to those in them.
Often the people who are manipulating others are very good at what they do, and they may even be a skilled con artist who has used these techniques in multiple relationships. Tactics can vary; some abusers may take their time to exert control, while others may love-bomb almost instantly, showering people with intense, often unsettling and inexplicable, affection.
Melngailis told BuzzFeed News that some people may assume abusers act rationally, but “it’s about power for the sake of power, even if they hurt themselves or put themselves at risk in the process,” she said. “A straight-up con artist usually wants money or some tangible gain, but the sadistic abusers want power and to destroy their targets.”
Importantly, people are not born gaslighters, Stern said. 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.
Those who exploit or abuse their partner can use fear to manipulate the person 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 the attachment aspect, 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.
Melngailis told us her experience “closely mirrors that of people who are sucked into cults.”
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 a survival or coping mechanism. 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 — plays a role.
There’s also a fantasy perpetuated by countless movies that have convinced people to fall in love with love, Stern said. This can make people ignorant of the full scope of a relationship or situation, particularly if they believe a person is their “soulmate.”
Unfortunately, as the abuse gets worse and the affected person realizes what’s going on, it’s that much harder to escape.
“There is some kind of survival pressure when you want to agree with your gaslighter or when you get so exhausted from fighting for your integrity, for the rightness of your point of view, that you just begin to get depressed and kind of give up,” Stern said. “It’s very painful to know that you’ve given up a piece of yourself to hold on to this relationship; it’s a process deserving of great compassion.”
It’s not about leaving, it’s about escaping — and it’s not easy to do.
Often, Shaw said, people in abusive relationships do manage to leave, but that doesn’t mean they’re free. Even in healthy relationships, it’s difficult to cut ties unless both people support the idea, which usually isn’t the case in situations involving manipulative partnerships. Too often, abusers won’t let their partner go — and when the other person tries to leave, that’s when the violence, manipulation, and control escalates.
“The key is not just leaving. It’s escaping the abuser and being able to, once they set foot outside of that door, support themselves and whoever may be accompanying them in a life away from that abusive person, and that’s not easy,” Shaw said. “It’s an uphill climb, at best. It’s never as easy as just leaving. And if they manage to, they’re very lucky.”
Part of the reason why leaving is easier said than done is because “it takes a while for someone to fully understand what’s happening to them, especially at the hands of someone who has professed their love or committed to them or may be really wonderful in many other ways,” she added.
Stern agrees it’s not a simple feat to leave an abusive relationship. “You have to be willing to leave and make a sacrifice because often you're giving up someone you have loved,” she said. “Getting out means trying to reclaim your integrity and your reality, but it doesn’t take much for that fantasy world, that other reality, to be activated” and to be drawn back in.
Melngailis told BuzzFeed News she herself has been caught up in abusive relationships three times, and it's just that the one with Strangis “was the most destructive.”
“One needs to be even more vigilant going forward, which is hard to do when you’re still reeling and confused,” she said.
Warning signs of an abusive relationship
Because not all abusive relationships start out with obvious red flags, it may be helpful to know what they could look or feel like before they appear. With that said, it’s not always easy to address these signs before they become more serious.
Stern said it might take a couple of times to confront a partner who may be gaslighting you before you feel ready to take appropriate action.
Here are some signs you may be in an unhealthy relationship:
- You’re second-guessing yourself many times a day or week
- You refrain from talking about your relationship with others to avoid judgment
- You feel like you’re not good enough
- You often question whether you’re being too sensitive or illogical
- You’re always apologizing for yourself
- You feel isolated from friends and family
- You take the blame for someone else's behavior
- You start lying to avoid being criticized by others
- You don’t recognize yourself
Here are some signs your partner may be manipulating or gaslighting you:
- They are deflecting responsibility onto you or others
- They shift the topic of conversation when you address their behavior
- They blame you or others for their actions
- They lie and hide things often, including asking for money or other favors to save them from potentially fictional danger
- They rewrite history and pretend some events never happened
- They create a false sense of urgency to get you to do something for them
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.
Another important distinction is that these TV shows (and media attention in general) tend to focus on straight white women, but abusive relationships can happen to anyone, she told BuzzFeed News.
“While there is nothing wrong with sharing those stories, it would be ideal for the media to present a variety of experiences through an accurate and intersectional perspective,” she said.
How to help people in abusive relationships
It’s hard to see someone you love experience 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:
- Encourage them to speak to a therapist
- Guide them to resources where they can read about gaslighting
- Help them name what’s going on and write down their dialogue to see where the interaction veers into manipulation
- Remind them they can take a break from the relationship
- Listen to them share their story and offer your perspective
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; GoodTherapy.org is an association of mental health professionals from more than 25 countries who support efforts to reduce harm in therapy.
When talking with someone in an abusive relationship, it's best to do so in a nonconfrontational way. A previous version of this post recommended doing so in a way that wasn't conversational.