DARVO: A Form of Gaslighting in Relationships

Have you ever talked to someone about something hurtful they did and then find yourself comforting them at the end of the conversation? And you’re thinking, “Wait, I was the one upset about what they did!”

If this sounds familiar, you might have experienced a form of gaslighting known as DARVO. We’ll get to the acronym in a moment.

By now, most of us have heard the term gaslighting. Although the term is sometimes used informally in everyday conversation, actual gaslighting is often hard to catch and easy to overlook in a relationship. It is subtle and sometimes hidden in communication like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In definition, gaslighting is when a person manipulates someone into questioning their own reality. This can occur in many forms but often leaves the other person doubting their own perceptions, feeling low in self-worth, and labeling themselves as overly emotional, insensitive, or selfish.

Many times, when a gaslighter is confronted about something they did or said that was hurtful, they utilize a tactic that turns the conversation around, and the victim ends up feeling to blame. This tactic of manipulation was studied by Jennifer Freyd, a psychological researcher who labeled it DARVO, an acronym for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. Gaslighters may use this tactic in romantic relationships, with friends, at work, or even in parenting. They shift the focus away from the issue at hand and begin to attack the victim. Here’s how this can look:

Let’s say you bring up a recent problem or hurtful comment to your partner, friend, or boss. You might have evidence or reasons that you provide for your suspicions. For example, “Why are you in this picture with this other woman at the party?” or “Marty told me he got a raise in his performance review when you told me no one was getting raises this year.” That’s when this tactic begins.

DENY: The accusation or suspicions are met with denial. The abuser will completely deny all evidence or accountability for their actions. This can sound like:

“Are you kidding? That’s not what happened.”
“What are you talking about?”

ATTACK: Here the abuser goes on the offensive, often by attacking the person’s character, intelligence, motivation, mental health, or emotional stability. This can sound like:

“You’re overreacting.”
“You’re imagining things.”
“You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Calm down! You always get so dramatic about everything.”

REVERSE VICTIM & OFFENDER: At this point, the victim’s role is shifted, and they are made to feel like the abuser or offender. The abuser takes on a victim role and the true victim is made to feel like they have done something to the abuser. There is no accountability for the abuser’s actions. The abuser can sometimes end up in tears. This can sound like:

“You know how hard it is for me to trust someone and then you do this to me. I can’t believe this. I trusted you.”
“I can’t believe I have to sit here and listen to this. You know how much I love you and you treat me like this.”
“I can’t do anything right in your eyes. It’s always something. I try so hard and you always find something wrong.”

DARVO can leave a victim feeling confused and horrible about themselves. As DARVO typically happens in relationships with gaslighting already taking place, the victim’s ability to rationalize or see through the abuser’s behavior is difficult. The victim usually ends up either withdrawing their initial complaint or beginning to comfort the abuser.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, getting counseling is a great first step in getting the help you need to begin to understand and see more clearly what is happening in your relationship. In working with a trained counselor, you can begin to feel stronger and see what is happening more clearly. In time, you will likely feel more confident, more assertive, and better able to confront this behavior in a constructive way.

The Increasing Issue of Eco-Anxiety and Finding the Right Therapist
Are You Enabling Your Child’s Anxiety?