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L.A. Affairs: I help people learn to love well. How could I fall for a con man?

A man holds a bouquet of flowers. Behind him are fire, lightning, dark clouds and a tornado.
(Kate Dehler / For The Times)
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Nine years ago, I fell for the son of my first boss in Hollywood. I had moved to Los Angeles after college, searching for home. An adoptee, I never felt that I belonged anywhere, especially in the Northeast where I grew up.

His family and mine were friends. While I worked for his father, he attended college near my parents’ house in New Jersey. He would stay in their guest room when he wanted to get off campus. I changed jobs, he finished college, and our families drifted apart. One by one, our parents died.

I hadn’t thought about him in 25 years until his email arrived. During that interval, I had married, divorced and become a psychotherapist. I knew how to help clients create healthy attachments but was unable to help myself. A middle-aged single mother living 3,000 miles away from relatives, I yearned to find the person with whom I belonged.

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I missed companionship and the experience of sharing my life with a man who also wanted the same things that I wanted. So I created profiles on dating sites.

Sept. 29, 2023

So when he told me, on our second date, that he’d adored me since we were teenagers, I believed him. It was the perfect arc to my L.A. story, which began with his father and now promised to end with him.

But there were several things that were wrong. I ignored the halo of red flags crowning his head. His apartment was filthy. He had a dog the size of a small pony that he couldn’t control. A trail of failed jobs and relationships lay in his wake. There was a story for everything, and nothing was ever his fault.

I was sick of dating and determined to love well. He was handsome, smart and talked pretty. He doted on my teenage daughter and me. We were family, he said.

He got a new job and found us a swanky canyon house to move into. The rent was exorbitant, and I suggested we look for something cheaper. But he was convinced he would make bank once his deals closed. To close them, he needed to schmooze clients, and that required something he didn’t have.

An American Express card.

His proposal: If I got one and made him a cardholder, he’d pay all the bills.

“Why can’t you get your own?” I asked, my stomach lurching.

He explained that he’d been a loyal customer until he suffered some business reversals, and American Express canceled his membership.

My boyfriend ached for pleasure, anything that could mute the howling that haunted him. I recognized it in him because I had it too.

Sept. 22, 2023

So I got him the card.

How could I, a therapist, and at the time a love addiction expert blogger for a mental health website, fall for such a blatant con? Most of us are easy marks when we’re vulnerable enough. Grifters know this and they’re experts at creating narratives we want to believe.

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Almost immediately after we moved in together, he began shape-shifting into someone I couldn’t recognize. He criticized my friends, my parenting, my wardrobe. He admonished me for not appreciating him.

I tried harder. I cleaned up the disasters that he and his dog created in every room. I did all the shopping and cooked all the meals. I even got rid of furniture and artwork I loved because they offended him.

When he lost his job and we had to find a cheaper place, I liquidated my retirement account. It took several months for him to get a new job. I paid all the expenses during that time, and he, of course, promised to repay me.

Just as I was graduating from UCLA, my dad dropped a bombshell on me. He had been having a long-term affair with a woman and he insisted that I meet her.

Sept. 15, 2023

Still he refused to rein in his spending and ran amok with my credit card. When I confronted him, he accused me of being yet another “Nazi feminist” trying to control him.

Just days after we signed a two-year lease on a more affordable house in the Hollywood Hills, I heard a ping on his phone. I knew what I would find even before I read the explicit text thread between him and a woman in the Valley.

We went to therapy about it, but his dodginess continued. When I asked him if the affair was really over or when he was going to repay me, he did enough gaslighting to set the house on fire.

I did more recon work on his phone, which was a Pandora’s box of indiscretions. Not only was he still cavorting with the woman in the Valley, but he was also sexting dozens of women he’d trolled on dating apps. We went back to therapy. He made more promises — and broke all of them.

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I stayed because I couldn’t believe the sweet teenager I’d known years ago would betray me. I stayed because if I left I’d have to face reality. My “love story” had been a con all along.

I started going to a 12-step program to unhook myself from him. It made me confront my lifelong pattern of trying to get unavailable people to love me. Most important, it made me shift my focus from trying to manage his behavior to what I could control: my own choices.

We were together for eight years. Then I push to open our marriage. Would we reap the benefits of a new arrangement marked by consensual agreements and frequent check-ins?

Sept. 8, 2023

I moved my daughter and myself into an apartment in a quiet pocket of West Hollywood. While she was on winter break with her dad, I spent days sprawled on the peacock-blue sofa I bought to replace the couch that his dog had ruined. When I realized there were no more fires to put out, just a life to restore, I got up.

In the six years since leaving him, I’ve worked my 12-step program, cultivated a mindfulness practice and written a book. I took the energy I poured into that toxic fixer-upper and put it into my therapy practice, which flourished.

Now, at the first glimmer of a red flag from a potential partner, I extricate myself. I no longer pursue fantasy relationships. Instead of listening to people’s stories, I watch their behavior.

I tell my clients that the secret to life is to learn who to attach to and who to detach from.

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If I continue following my own advice — and I plan to — I may find the right person to love well one day.

The author is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the book “Transcending High-Conflict Divorce: How to Disengage From Your Ex and Find Your Power.” She recently moved from Los Angeles to Asheville, N.C. Her website is virginiagilbertmft.com.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $400 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.

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