While every abuse situation is unique, the strategies abusers use to maintain their status share some similar themes. Many abusers use DARVO ploys to deny their wrongdoing, attack the offended, and reverse roles with the victim to make themselves the victim or harmed person. This form of manipulation is powerful with lasting effects on the victim and society as a whole, but there are techniques that can help manage this type of abuse tactic.
What Is DARVO?
DARVO, meaning “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender,” summarizes a consistent reaction and manipulation tactic used by perpetrators of abuse or other types of wrongdoing.1 It works by shifting the focus away from the original issue and attacking the actual victim. It attempts to switch the roles of victim and perpetrator to allow the actual offender to receive sympathy and compassion, publicly or privately, as well as to avoid consequences for their actions.
The formalized DARVO meaning was first introduced by a psychologist named Jennifer J. Freyd in the 1990s. Freyd worked to build an understanding of how and why those accused of abuse respond to these accusations.2 Individuals can use DARVO as a reaction, but entire institutions may employ the strategy as well. Elements of the process can be formally or informally integrated into corporate policy.1
People or groups that are the most likely to utilize DARVO are:1,2,3
- Narcissistic abusers
- Abusive bosses
- Abusive parents, including in-laws
- Colleges and universities
- Workplaces, including multinational conglomerates and small businesses
- Law enforcement
- Financial institutions as part of financial abuse
Certainly, not all of these groups implement DARVO tools all of the time, but they may have in the past, and they could again in the future. Still, a minority of people and groups would consider using DARVO as a reaction to an accusation.
“DARVO can be used by anyone in response to being held accountable for wrongdoings they have committed. When it was first introduced by Dr. Jennifer Freyd, DARVO was conceptualized as a technique used by sex offenders to deflect blame. You can see examples of this in the media when high-profile sex offenders like R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein use DARVO. But it’s not just a tactic used by perpetrators of sexual abuse – research finds DARVO is also used by people who commit wrongdoings that encompass a broad spectrum of severity, ranging from cases of sexual assault to more minor transgressions.” – Dr. Sarah Harsey, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Institutional Courage and primary collaborator on the DARVO research with expert Jennifer Joy Freyd, PhD
What Does DARVO Look Like In Action?
In DARVO, the abuser will deny, minimize, and justify their actions.4 There is a power in the simplicity of the DARVO scheme. The three-step process can sway personal and public opinion quickly. The accused use of DARVO techniques can happen so subtly that many people will miss the warning signs. Instead, they will fall into the pattern of manipulation where all evidence is criticized.
An abuser may use DARVO in the following ways:
The first step of the process is for the abuser to deny whatever wrongdoing they are accused of. They will completely refuse that any element of the abuse happened in the way they are accused.
Whether the abuse is rape, other sexual or physical misconduct, emotional abuse, or any other type of problematic behavior, the accused will deny the report immediately. They will remain steadfast in their assertion.
Depending on the abuse in question, an abuser might say these things:
- “This situation never happened.”
- “I never did that.”
- “This is a lie.”
- “I’m a good person who couldn’t engage in this kind of behavior.”
- “I’m a friend to women, and people know this isn’t me.”
At this point, the denial is clear and simple. Talking more only opens the person up to more criticism, so they only present the information in vague and general terms.
Once the denial is established, the accused goes on the offensive. Here, the abuser does everything in their power to attack the other person. One way to achieve this is by questioning their motivation, mental health, and stability, attacking their intelligence, honesty, and morality, and attacking their actions (past and present).
The abuser could attack the victim in countless ways by saying:
- “You’re crazy.”
- “You’re a psycho.”
- “You’re an alcoholic or a drug addict.”
- “You’ve made these claims before.”
- “You asked for this/wanted me to do it.”
- “You never said ‘no.’”
The victim will never be treated with respect or value. They will be demeaned and disparaged.
3. Reverse Victim & Offender
Perhaps the most fascinating element of DARVO is the attempt of the perpetrator to switch roles with the victim. Rather than accepting responsibility for their actions, they aim to make the original victim into the perpetrator.
This reversal is done in many ways depending on the situation and accusation. At times, the attempt seems to lack outward validity and rationality, but that part seems unimportant. Many aspects of DARVO rely on feelings more than facts.
In the situation of an abuser raping someone, he would say that was actually the victim who was at fault. He would say that she seduced him into having sex, was trying to “trap” him by getting pregnant, or planned to “cry rape” all along.
In the case of an institutional DARVO involving someone being harmed by the police, the officer or department could say that the victim actually attacked them first, they acted in self-defense, or the person should have complied to avoid these outcomes.
Effects of DARVO
DARVO takes a terrible, uncomfortable, or traumatizing event and continues the cycle of abuse. Now, the person has to deal with the original event and the damaging effects of DARVO on their mental and physical health.4
According to Dr. Harsey, “The intent of DARVO is to silence victims, either through confusion, invalidation, or even intimidation. By denying that any mistreatment occurred (or downplaying the harm it caused), attacking victims’ credibility, and then playing the victim, perpetrators attempt to instill doubt among their victims – did the abuse really happen in the way that I remember it? Am I just overreacting? Is it actually my fault? Data indicate that people exposed to DARVO during confrontations with perpetrators report feeling greater self-blame for the wrongdoings they experience. Ultimately, DARVO tries to distort the way victims think about themselves and the abuse they experience.”
One of the most devastating effects of DARVO is the person doubting their own memory. They may begin to experience confusion surrounding the events and call their recall into question.4 With doubt comes shame, embarrassment, and guilt. They may withdraw from their original claims, or authorities may encourage them to rethink action.
One study found that when people confronted their toxic abusers, they were confronted with:4
- The perpetrator denying the events (44%)
- The perpetrator saying the whole situation is a misunderstanding (22%)
- The perpetrator telling them they’re crazy (44%)
About 22% of victims heard an admission of guilt, but that was only temporary. In many cases, the perpetrator returned to DARVO techniques and denied and minimized the events.
Effects of Public Opinion
Any level of media attention can completely change the effects of DARVO, which is why making a claim against a public figure is more challenging. DARVO breeds a general sense of mistrust of women in society. It makes people question the narratives women present and denies their perspective.5
The effects of DARVO can lead to:
- Victims feeling alone and ashamed
- Silence and hesitation in reporting incidents of abuse
- Violence, threats, and other attacks against the victim
- A general sense that victims are lying
- The belief that victims somehow wanted the abuse to occur
How to Resist DARVO
While difficult, resisting or combatting DARVO is possible. Methods of resisting include recording the story, getting to safe space, seeking support, accepting the denial, countering the attack, avoiding role reversal, and ignoring public opinion.
Dr. Harsey encourages, “The first step in resisting DARVO is education; just learning about DARVO can mitigate its impact. Research shows that DARVO is less effective in influencing the way people think about victims and perpetrators when they receive a brief DARVO education. Specifically, when perpetrators use DARVO, people who are educated about this tactic are more likely to believe victims and less likely to believe perpetrators. It is possible that a DARVO education is also effective for victims themselves – e.g., victims who know about DARVO may be less likely to doubt themselves. Recognizing and naming DARVO can be a powerful antidote.”
Here are seven more ways to resist DARVO:
1. Record the Story
One of the best things you can do is record and document your experience. Though you may be reeling from the intense emotion of the situation, your memory will be fresh and unbiased by feedback from others. Track what happened, where it happened, and when it happened. This information will serve as a guide for the future. Refer back to this document often to reaffirm your perspective.
2. Find Safety
If you’ve been abused, there is a good chance the abuse will repeat. You must get yourself and others in your care to a place of safety and security as soon as possible. Healing becomes nearly impossible when you’re at risk of further abuse.
3. Seek Your Support
Rallying your friends, family, and other supporters as early as possible is essential. Let them know what happened, what your fears are, and how they can assist. Remember, there’s no shame in being abused or harmed.
4. Recognize & Accept the Denial
Once you make the abuse known, expect the denial of the allegations. People using the DARVO playbook will work quickly to deny, so you should accept that it will come. This denial will signal their use of DARVO, and from here, you can predict their next steps.
5. Recognize & Counter the Attacks
The attacks will follow closely behind the denial. They may play on your insecurities or your regrets, but they could be largely untrue and invalid. Remind yourself of this. Remember who you really are and the values you find important. For some, countering the attacks will be an active effort in the media, and for others it will be a plan to commit more energy toward their mental health and self-talk.
6. Avoid the Role Reversal
As they move towards role reversal, do your best to state and restate your experience. Rather than trying to find new ways to explain the same thing, utilize the broken record technique. Restating the events to others and yourself will help solidify what happened and reduce doubt.
7. Ignore the Public Opinion
Of course, this step is easier said than done, but you must minimize the impact of public opinion, whether it is positive or negative. Avoid social media, turn off your notifications, and limit contact with people who are not supporting you fully.
Therapy’s Role in Healing From Abuse
In these situations of DARVO, professional mental health treatment can help resolve the abuse and prevent the shame, doubt, and isolation that may follow. Working to find a therapist is likely easier than you think. Explore an online therapist therapist directory for therapists who could be a good fit for your needs.
DARVO is the worst kind of manipulation and toxic behavior. It is an insidious abuse tactic, but knowing what it looks like can help you resist it and help others who are falling victim to its impact.