This article is also available in Portuguese.
Have you ever marveled at how your abusive wife, girlfriend or ex is able to do and say the most hurtful, underhanded and contemptible things and then portray herself as the innocent victim? Have you ever wondered how she is able to convincingly accuse others, usually her victims, of the abusive behaviors and attitudes of which she is actually guilty? Wonder no more, the answer may be DARVO.
Dr Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD of the University of Oregon identified DARVO in the 1990s at the tail end of the repressed sexual abuse memories hysteria. In spite of its dubious origins, DARVO is a helpful concept with broader applications than Dr Freyd seems to have originally intended. Freyd writes about DARVO in conjunction with her work on betrayal trauma, which I discuss on the original Shrink4Men blog. According to Dr Freyd’s webpage:
“DARVO refers to a reaction that perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior. The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” and attacks the accuser’s credibility or even blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation.”
DARVO seems to be a combination of projection, denial, lying, blame shifting and gaslighting. Dr Freyd notes that other observers have identified the same phenomena using different terms. My male clients experience this behavior when they try to hold the abusive women in their lives accountable. It also seems to be common behavior in most predators, bullies, high-conflict individuals and/or abusive personality-disordered individuals. DARVO especially seems to occur in high-conflict divorce and/or custody cases.
Of course, not everyone who denies wrong doing is engaging in DARVO. Many partners and exes of abusive women are accused of things they didn’t do or of things that never happened. Naturally, when this happens, you deny the accusation and perhaps feel a little (or a lot) bewildered. How do you know if an individual’s denial is the truth or an instance of DARVO? Freyd (1997, pp. 23-24) proposes:
“It is important to distinguish types of denial, for an innocent person will probably deny a false accusation. Thus denial is not evidence of guilt. However, I propose that a certain kind of indignant self-righteousness, and overly stated denial, may in fact relate to guilt.
I hypothesize that if an accusation is true, and the accused person is abusive, the denial is more indignant, self-righteous and manipulative, as compared with denial in other cases. Similarly, I have observed that actual abusers threaten, bully and make a nightmare for anyone who holds them accountable or asks them to change their abusive behavior. This attack, intended to chill and terrify, typically includes threats of lawsuits, overt and covert attacks, on the whistle-blower’s credibility and so on.
The attack will often take the form of focusing on ridiculing the person who attempts to hold the offender accountable. The attack will also likely focus on ad hominem instead of intellectual/evidential issues. Finally, I propose that the offender rapidly creates the impression that the abuser is the wronged one, while the victim or concerned observer is the offender. Figure and ground are completely reversed. The more the offender is held accountable, the more wronged the offender claims to be.”
This is similar to how William Eddy, LCSW, Esq describes the persuasive blaming tactics of high-conflict individuals.“Persuasive Blamers persuade others that their internal problems are external, caused by something else or someone else. Once others are persuaded to get the problem backward, the dispute escalates into a long-term, high-conflict situation. One that few people other than persuasive blamers can tolerate” (Eddy, 2006, p. 29). Getting the problem backward is precisely what happens when DARVO occurs. Figure and ground are completely reversed.
“It’s only the Persuasive Blamers of Cluster B who keep high-conflict disputes going. They are persuasive, and to keep the focus off their own behavior (the major source of the problem), they get others to join in the blaming” (Eddy, 2006, p. 30). This is why many Narcissists, Borderlines, Histrionics and Antisocials effectively employ smear campaign and mobbing tactics when they target someone—be it a spouse, attorney, court evaluator or therapist. By blaming others for everything that’s wrong in their lives they keep the focus off the real problem; themselves. This seems to be the exact denial-attack-reverse victim and offender behavior Freyd describes.
Freyd (1997, pp. 23-24) states:
“The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is on the defense. ‘Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender’ work best together. How can someone be on the attack so viciously and be in the victim role? Future research may investigate the hypothesis that the offender rapidly goes back and forth between attack and reverse victim and offender.”
This behavior is crazy-making if you are the target of it. You know you’re being attacked while your partner/ex plays the victim role for all she’s worth, insisting on her distorted version of un-reality. Worse yet, many people believe her; their reasoning being, “She’s so upset it must be true.” Even some of my male clients who know their wives’accusations and lies aren’t true, sometimes doubt themselves and what they know to be reality. I believe that many women and men who engage in DARVO come to believe their own lies after they repeat them enough times. I call it the “O.J. Simpson Effect.”
Abusers typically employ different types of denial. Perhaps you’re familiar with some of the following ones:
- Outright denial or gaslighting. “That never happened.”
- Minimization. “It wasn’t that bad.”
- Amnesia. “I don’t remember doing that.”
- Redefinition. “I have a bad temper, so you shouldn’t upset me.”
- Projection. “You’re abusive and controlling. You hurt me.”
- Conversion. “I did wrong, but I’m a changed person and won’t do it again.”
Freyd (1997, pp. 23-24) concludes:
“The offender takes advantage of the confusion we have in our culture over the relationship between public provability and reality (and a legal system that has a certain history in this regard) in redefining reality. Future research may test the hypothesis that the offender may well come to believe in [her] innocence via this logic: if no one can be sure [she] is guilty then logically [she] is not guilty no matter what really occurred. The reality is thus defined by public proof, not by personal lived experience.”
It may be difficult to sort out who is telling the truth in these cases. However, I’ve found that high-conflict individuals who engage in this behavior often can’t substantiate their claims or, if they just make up more lies to try to substantiate their claims, they’re inconsistent over time, so pay close attention and document their lies. This may help you hang her with a rope of her own making, if and when you need to prove your version of events as opposed to her ever evolving versions of the truth.
If she is threatening to call the police and make false allegations against you and/or you’re considering divorce, it’s extremely important that you document the abuse you’re experiencing in a journal, a digital recorder or some other medium. Abusive, persuasive blamers rely on the force of their emotions to sell their lies, half-truths and distortions. Since most people are suckers for drama, especially in the form of a tearful, self-righteous woman, you’ll need proof if you want to be believed. Think of it as making yourself DARVO-proof.
Freyd, J.J. (1997) Violations of power, adaptive blindness, and betrayal trauma theory. Feminism & Psychology, 7, 22-32.
Shrink4Men Coaching and Consulting Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.