This is not (primarily) a Netflix review, this is a psychologist spiralling into a series of “why’s” and “what if’s” about the world of manipulation through online dating.
Ever since I joined Facebook in 2007 (yes, I’m that old), the term Catfishing has been doing the rounds with various research studies conducted to understand this phenomenon. In fact, this widespread discussion on catfishing has made us conscious of online users. Now, we don’t just Google search but extensively deepdive to ensure the details of the person are legit before we set up our first meeting (or fall hopelessly in love with someone online).
But the Tinder Swindler is beyond a fake picture or a fake profile, it’s about psychopathy manipulation. I stumbled across the show on a boring Friday evening (my plan was to find something bingeable as I continued to procrastinate) but instead my psychologist brain sparked as I watched three women Cecile Fjellhoy, Pernilla Sjoholm, and Ayleen Charlotte re-tell their stories of how they got baited in Simon Levie’s multi-layered scheme. Apart from posing to be someone he is not (he was originally called Shimon Hayut before he legally changed his name and claimed to be LLD’s son), Simon created a fake online presence that would make any average google surfer believe his billionaire lifestyle was real. While he did jetset across the world, ate at the fanciest restaurants and only drank the most expensive champagne, he did this with the money of women he met through dating apps. It portrays a side of online psychological manipulation that only heightens the importance of being aware of yourself and remaining grounded (no matter what!), cause let’s be honest, dating apps do not come with a personality filter for psychopaths or sociopaths.
To re-emphasise it is not easy, it requires resilience - the willingness to pull up your socks, put yourself out there and try (sometimes, over and over again). To elucidate Cecilie from The Tinder Swindler has had over a 1000 matches and is still looking for love. Clients, in therapy, have often spoken about terrible first dates where they have felt body shamed, disrespected for their beliefs, or made to feel not enough. It is important to recognise that a first date for most people has a lot riding on it, very often people try to portray the best version of themselves and when that is shut down it can be a deeply rejecting experience. For the brave ones who keep at it, they are allowing themselves to feel vulnerable and that is courageous. Needless to say, a good first date is a big deal, people approach it with a lot of hope and if things seem alright, a second date is inevitable.
We keep putting ourselves out there because of our innate desire to feel loved, cared for, supported and above all accepted as we are. If a person, who we met for the first time, can make us feel like they see us for who we are, and still “love” us (or want to get to know us better) it often feels like we’ve won the lottery. While I don’t want to play spoiler, Simon Leviev did just that with the people he met on their first date. He made them feel special, seen, and important. Please note, every first meeting does not have to be about finding a romantic partner, sometimes you can walk away feeling you’ve found a great friend - someone who can make you feel all that minus the sexual chemistry.
Simon Leviev’s first dates were grand, he paid for flight tickets for the women to come meet him, asked them to fly with him on his private jet to different locations across Europe and dined with them at some of the best restaurants in the city. He went all out, he created an aura of a fairytale (something unreal) and it’s hard for most of us to walk away from it. When we are in situations like these, our body reacts physiologically. The intensity of the experiences often makes one feel cared for, special and makes them believe they are in love. However, the emotional centre of the brain, the amygdala (responsible for fight-flight response) shuts down when we are in love. This takes away any form of rational thinking and dampens our response to fear (ever heard the saying ‘love makes people do crazy/risky things?’, this is what it means.)
When this happens, our biology kicks in, resulting in the highjacking of the amygdala, the emotion centre of the brain, causing a dent in our ability to think rationally. Cecilie spoke about how she looked forward to every message, every phone call and every bouquet of flowers sent by Simon. She enjoyed feeling special (honestly, who wouldn’t). This euphoria being constantly refuelled takes away any form of rational thinking, and if continuously unrealitiscally refuelled it can often be “love bombing” a term popularised with gaslighting and something Simon definitely did with all the women in The Tinder Swindler.
To understand the term better, Love bombing is a term often used in connection with gaslighting, it means “the action or practice of lavishing someone with attention or affection, especially in order to influence or manipulate them”. Feeling the intensity of love can make anyone’s head swirl with excitement. I for one would always love to receive a huge bouquet of flowers from my partner with romantic handwritten notes (Hint: a chocolate cake would be a great addition). Simon flew across Europe to meet these women for just a cup of coffee, wanted to move in with them and had them searching for apartments to rent at a whopping $15,000 per month. When we are as intensely pursued and have these desires fulfilled, just as Simon did, we often ignore the red flags.This often clouds our judgement, we lose our sense of awareness and sense of self. Then the inevitable happens; we are prime suspects of being influenced or manipulated by a perpetrator. He managed to convince Cecile to take out multiple loans, extend her credit card allowance and take out new credit cards in her name but just for him to use.
Physical abuse presents itself in the form of scars and wounds and emotional abuse in the form of tears and disappointment, but manipulation is tricky. The experience presents itself with us feeling like we are the one in control, “we are the saviours”, just as Pernilla thought she was being a good friend when she sent across $30,000 to Simon Leviev to help him out. However, we seldom realise the influence the other person has on our decision-making. An important learning, for me, is to not rush into any relationship, even if you think it feels good; allow yourself moments to pause, detach and question whether it is you who really wants to make that decision or are you really doing this to make your partner happy.
Simon Leviev used this skill of manipulation to his advantage. While there is no formal psychiatry diagnosis of his personality available (going by how he is portrayed in the show), his traits suggest he is a psychopath. All the women perceived him as someone composed and they felt an immense amount of love from him. However, given the acts committed by him, he held no emotional attachments with anyone (I’m going to be a tad bit dramatically stereotypical and say he even felt no emotional attachment to his mother. She also does not consider him her son anymore). Although the women felt a genuine connection with him, he did not form any genuine emotional attachments with them. He was quick to portray shrewdness and astuteness for his benefit. He displayed little to no regard for law, ethics or other people’s emotions and his goal was only personal gratification.
While western schools advocate for the importance of “doing what you want”, living by this guiding light can often look like gratifying only oneself. It is important for people to recognise whether their partner/friend has the ability to empathise with them. The ability to empathise is what makes relationships genuine, stronger and rooted. It may not always begin with a whirlwind romance but if two people are able to share an empathetic relationship with each other, it lays a deep foundation of understanding and trust. “It is doing what you want with sensitivity to others” - gratifying your personal needs but being cognisant of the needs of others especially the ones in your immediate environment.
While I’m not going to tell you what happens to Simon Leviev (I do think you should watch the documentary), the turn of events brings to focus the extent psychopaths can get away with things, and for me, this only emphasises the importance of always being aware of our feelings and remaining grounded. While I have no filter to protect you from hurt, I do hope there is a take away that you can use from this article - pause, ground yourself, and allow yourself to feel all those emotions and be rational.
Side note: The story of Simon Leviev’s fraud seems unreal but what helped the journalist believe these women was their exhaustive WhatsApp chats with Simon Leviev. Cecilie was able to share 400 pages of their chat history in order for them to believe her and understand the workings of Simon. This was before WhatsApp created an option to delete individual messages in chats. It makes me shudder to think of the turmoil these women would have had to go through if they did not have documented evidence to pin this ‘Simon Leviev’ (aka Shimon Hayut) aka the Tinder Swindler.