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What is DARVO?

I rarely speak about abusers, their behaviors, or my specific abuse experiences. I worry often that my remarks, which are limited to my own experience, give too much voice to the perpetrator and also cause a trauma survivor or even someone actively in an abusive relationship to ‘evaluate’ their own experience against mine to decide validity.

I’d never want that – there are so many types of intimate partner abuses and therefore endless combinations – so it’s nearly impossible to ‘weigh’ them against each other and yet so often, that’s exactly what happens.

Most importantly though, abuse is abuse, and the only acceptable amount of that in any relationship is zero.

Still, sometimes there’s an abuse-centered topic I think we need to talk about: like, DARVO.

And, for the purposes of this writing I’m going to use a commonly understood term you won’t frequently see me engage with: victim.

DARVO is an acronym standing for D(eny), A(ttack), (R)everse (V)ictim and (O)ffender. It’s a purposefully confusing tactic used by abusers to cast doubt on the victim and make it appear that they are the root cause of the abusive behavior, are lying and cannot be trusted, and that the abuser themselves is actually the individual who has been abused.

First, the abuser denies (D) the accusation. They didn’t cancel that credit card, call the workplace, make that threat, push the victim, etc. It didn’t happen at all or if it did, it was only in response to something worse instigated by the victim. They avoid accountability at all costs and frequently engage in gaslighting.

Then they attack (A) the accuser. The victim is a ‘liar’ or they are ‘crazy’, ‘unstable’, ‘emotional’. They are, according to the abuser, unable to have their account trusted. Often, because of a trauma response, the victim is upset or sometimes they are in a catatonic state which may cause the abuser to claim they are ‘too calm’ to be believed. In either mindset, the victim may not be able to be articulate or provide details of what happened or when. An abuser will then pick at details and look for examples of how the victim was ‘wrong’. No matter the response of the victim, the abuser will call their credibility into question.

The final step is to reverse the roles of victim and offender (RVO). The abuser will lay out the way (or sometimes many ways) in which they have been wronged and make the case for why they are, in fact, the true victim. This often will include statements about how they’ve lost material goods or money, had to move out, or been embarrassed at work when served with an order of protection. It can also include how they’ve experienced ‘stress’ or bullying as a result of their victim speaking out, and even refrains about how they’ve endured physical violence if a victim has defended themselves. In this state they frequently maintain that what is happening is ‘unfair’ or ‘untrue’.

While it has a clear pattern, what makes things difficult is that to some degree DARVO forces a situation that becomes one person’s word against the other’s. It’s a disorientating moment for a victim who has finally dug deep enough, found the strength of voice to speak up, and is now suddenly cast as the perpetrator. What is worse is when others come to the aid of the abuser in this process. An adept DARVO abuser can even twist things a victim may produce as proof, expertly claiming photos are doctored, or text messages or emails are incomplete or fabricated. They may even produce other documentation themselves to contradict the accuser. There is no end to the reasons an abuser will give for being wronged, and all roads will lead back to the victim.

DARVO is a clever and powerful technique. It silences those who question the abuser by allowing them to claim the inquiries are ‘unfair’ or that they’re now being forced to endure too much stress, bullying, and ‘baseless’ accusation. As advocates grow quiet and the victim becomes scrutinized (how can you not remember what day that assault happened on??), the tactic serves as a warning to other victims too: keep silent, or you’ll be treated the same way.

So, how do we tell the difference? By now, there are unfortunate multitudes of high-profile cases where DARVO has been used quite successfully, including some very recently. But someone is telling the truth – and someone isn’t. While it is complicated, and things aren’t always black and white, according to sociologists and psychologists there are some ways to identify a DARVO attempt:

DARVO’s are almost always retaliatory in nature. They are often a response to a victim that has come forward. The victim, for their part, has almost always spoken up about their abuse for their own protection or for the benefit and/or protection of others.

DARVO behavior is usually a bid for power, preservation, or prestige. While a victim tends to look for ‘freedom’ or for ‘safety’ as their priority, the DARVO seeks to maintain their status and often to ruin the victim's.

Victims actually tend to take more responsibility for actions than abusers. Using DARVO, an abuser will remain not accountable for their actions while a victim may point to their own shortcomings and even begin to believe that they deserved their abuse as a result of their own behavior. DARVO’s frequently deny incidences, behaviors, or facts even when presented with evidence.

So, why am I talking about DARVO right now?

Because it happened to me. It happened to me when my abuse was taking place now years and year ago, and it happened to me again – just last week.

While I don’t (and I will not) reveal the name of my abuser, my location or state of abuse, employers, or other personal identifiers, I do talk about specific moments in my story to help others understand both my experiences and my expertise in post-traumatic growth, resilience, and being trauma-informed. I give speeches, host workshops, and facilitate gatherings where I openly talk about what I learned from what I went through in hopes of helping others see a way forward.

Sometimes that content is recorded and posted later. And this time, my abuser found one. Using a pseudonym username, he ranted in the comments posting a variety of ‘corrections’, denials, baseless statements and threats until the hosts of the video finally had to shut down the comments and report them to the hosting platform. Then, they had the difficult job of informing me- something I am very grateful for but which definitely was not easy. It’s scary to reach out to someone and tell them they think you might be in danger.

DARVO is dangerous. It’s a game of power and control far too many victims are silenced by.

Let me clear in my choice: I won’t be silenced. I will keep exposing, keep talking, and keep advocating for abuse survivors to become thrivors and I won’t stop sharing a message of trauma-informed practices, resilience, and post-traumatic growth to anyone who wants to, or needs to, hear it.

In fact, I’m getting ready to leave from my next trip soon, speaking about what survivors really need to become Thrivors at NCADV – the National Coalition against Domestic Violence – knowing that I hold truth in my trauma and have a message others need.

Read more research and see examples of DARVO here:

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