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This article was updated in July 2021 to reflect new programming information about Oxygen series Charmed To Death, airing Sunday, July 18 at 7/6c.
Debra Newell thought she had perhaps found her soulmate when she met John Meehan on an over-50s dating website. Meehan explained away the inconsistencies in his story for a while, but then Newell slowly found herself diving deeper into a dark web of lies and deception. Newell's harrowing journey has since been documented in the critically acclaimed podcast "Dirty John," hosted by journalist Christopher Goffard, and that beloved true crime investigation has even been turned into a Bravo scripted anthology series based on the true story.
Newell's story serves as a warning for anyone looking for love online -- much like Oxygen's new series "Charmed To Death," which focuses on manipulative and deceptively dangerous criminals who use their charm to cheat, steal and lure unsuspecting victims into romantic relationships, ultimately leaving a wake of devastation and death. The series premieres on Oxygen on Sunday, July 18 at 7/6c.
Oxygen.com previously spoke with Janice Miller, Director of Programs and Clinical Services at the House of Ruth Maryland, an organization that provides aid to victims of intimate partner violence, for her expertise on warning signs and advice for people looking for romance in the digital age.
Here's are some tips on how to stay safe while searching for love in cyberspace:
1. Don't always trust media narratives about romance
"Online dating is a tricky business because it's very easy for people to misrepresent who they are through an online presence. While people are aware of that, we have a tendency to want to trust that someone we're connecting with is telling us the truth about who they are and what their motives are. When you couple that with the widespread media and entertainment presentation of romantic love — as being swept off your feet, as being pursued and falling for someone almost against your will — those two things together really set up a dating person for the possibility that they’re going to ignore their gut feeling.
What ends up happening is people feel something is too good to be true, but something's nagging them: they're romantic, they're saying exactly what I want them to say. So they ignore that gut feeling, and everyone else around them is also fueling the idealized version of that relationship. 'Isn't it romantic! Who would have guessed you met online? You guys were made for each other.' Television ads about dating websites always make it sound like you're going to find your soulmate.
I think when you're out there, one of the things you need to do is remind yourself that real life is not a fairy tale. The goal is not the idealized version of romance. (Even though It makes me sound terribly unromantic when I say that.)"
2. Don't give all your information away
"Don't give all the details of your life away to someone you just barely met. People who have a mind to control someone else are looking for avenues by which they can make that control happen. So if I know all the details about your family I can figure out where I can drive a wedge between your relationship with that family or I can position myself so that you want to be with me and not with them, and therefore isolate you.
Is someone talking down about your current set of friends and family? Because, remember, that's your support system. Be aware of people you don't know very well trying to distance the supportive people in your life."
3. Watch out for negging
"[Negging is] negative comments designed to make you change who you are and what you're doing. That's a real telltale sign — they're testing the waters to see how much you'll bend to meet someone else's expectations. Early in the relationship it may be something like, 'I like it when you wear your hair that way,' or 'I saw this person who had their hair this way, maybe you could try that.'
But what happens later in the relationship when it's something more serious? Like, 'I don't want you talking to anyone else unless I'm around.' Those kinds of requests that some people find bizarre: they don't start off that way. They start off with someone trying to get you to change yourself. They're trying to see how far they can get you to adjust to please them."
4. Be careful of someone moving too fast
"Things like: 'I'm so in love with you, I see us together for a long time.' Those kinds of absolute statements when you haven't even had your first fight yet, like a conflict over whether or not the toilet paper goes front to back. That's a warning sign that someone's trying to rush you into a commitment before you've had a chance to know the other person. Things like, 'Let's not talk to other people, let's be exclusive and see where this is going,' if it's online. Pressuring to meet up or incessant contacting. I think it's not unusual in this day and age to send tons of text messages back and forth. But the point at which that messaging is interfering with your daily activities and the person seems upset if you're not responding — that's such a warning sign."
5. Set a limit
"One thing a person can do if they're feeling unsure is set a limit and see whether or not the person will respect that limit. If you say, 'Look, I have a lot going on in my life right now, could we just agree to only communicate in the evenings,' and then see if the person tries to contact you during the day time. It tells you about the person and whether or not they are willing to respect a relatively innocuous boundary, which later on might be, 'I don't want to have sex.' [An abuser] could carry those boundary violations out to the extreme."
6. Double check the person is who they say they are
"Do they have another online presence? What else can you find out about the person? We all have multiple social media accounts. There are ways that you can go about checking on if the person is really who they say they are. Is that a picture of that person or is that a photoshop? And how important is that to you?"
7. All these tips apply to LGBTQ relationships, too
"You can look at [these tips] through the lens of the relationship. So if you're giving away all the details of your life, for example, and one of those is, 'My job doesn't know that I'm gay,' — that's a piece of information that you've handed to someone that they can use to coerce or control you. Or using your tenuous relationship with your family to try to keep you from them.
Especially in smaller communities, there's pressures to stay in a relationship that's toxic because of the misperception that you'll never find another person who will accept you. So if you're community is extraordinarily small, or if the community of people who accept you as a trans person [for example] is extraordinarily small then you're more likely to stay in relationship that is physically or emotionally abusive because you feel like if you leave or sever the relationship or try to set limits you may end up alone for the rest of your life."
8. Reach out to your friends who are at risk
"Friends and family members: if they see somebody engaging in an unhealthy relationship whether it's online or in person, the tendency is to say, 'I think that person's no good for you, I don't think you should be with them,' or, 'You should leave.' I don't find that to be a particularly useful strategy. A better strategy is to approach a friend or family member and say, 'I want to see you happy. I want to see you with someone who loves and respects you.' Or when they are describing some of the interactions they're having, you can ask, 'Are you happy with how that occurred?' Leaving the door open to disclose that something as happening as opposed to try and tell somebody to stop. Because relationships are hard and it's not always that easy to stop.
The House of Ruth Maryland is Maryland's largest provider for intimate partner violence victims and abuse intervention. The organization has created a 24 hour hotline, a shelter program, and a rapid rehousing program with service coordination advocacy, along with adult and child counseling that works on reducing trauma symptoms in conjunction with an on-site health clinic. You can donate to their organization here.
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