Terms You NEED to Know: DARVO
An acronym meaning Deny, Attack/Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. One of a narcissist's favorite tools. (All names have been changed for increased anonymity)
ANECDOTE 1: Why Him Getting Caught Was Her Fault
Kyle was a recovering pornography addict. He had just celebrated his 18 month sober mark and was coming up quickly on his 24 month. Susan noticed that his behavior was beginning to spiral but he denied any use of pornography or masturbation. Susan wanted to give him the benefit of a doubt so she came up with excuses for why he was acting the way he was acting. One day Susan needed to quickly look up some information. She couldn't find her phone so she asked Kyle to use his. Kyle jumped to defensiveness, “Why can’t you just keep track of your own phone? I’m so sick of you using mine!” and then he stormed outside. A few minutes later he came back in the house, apologized for storming out, said he realized he was overreacting and handed his phone to Susan. To an untrained eye, this would have looked like a positive interaction, but Susan knew that his sudden defensiveness was a red flag for his addiction. One phase of their recovery included putting in safety measures and boundaries to help protect their marriage from pornography use. One of those safety measures was unlimited access to each other's phones and browser histories. So, after looking up the information she needed, she checked Kyle's history. It had been cleared moments before. Everything clicked into place - Kyle had stormed outside to give himself a chance to clear the history. Just in case, Susan checked his bookmarks. Right there, clear as day, was a site whose title was clearly pornographic. She immediately brought it to Kyle in a quiet, calm and confident tone. She had learned that the best way to approach these conversations was to do so with meekness and calm restraint: “So…. why did you clear your browser history?” “What?” “Your browser history was cleared just a few minutes ago.” “I don’t know what that is. My phone must have just done it.” “Phones don’t clear their own history.” “Well, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe when it had to restart just now for the update it cleared everything.” Moving on, Susan asked about the site in his bookmarks “I don’t know what that is! I didn’t do it!” “To be clear, you’re telling me that your phone bookmarked itself on an inappropriate site and cleared its own history on the same day?” “Well, it isn’t from me. I don’t do that anymore. ... What are you doing looking at my phone anyway?! Don’t you trust me?! ... At some point you have to forgive what happened in the past and trust that I am a new person now! Stop judging me for things that happened a long time ago! Why do you keep treating me this way?”
Again, DARVO stands for Deny, Attack/Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender so let's take a closer look at some of the tactics used here - first, Kyle flat out denied what was on his phone. When that didn't end the conversation he began picking Susan apart. He scanned through a few options 'shouldn't be looking at my phone', 'you have to forgive,' 'trust that I am a new person,' and finally, 'stop judging me.' Finally, he plays a victim role. Notice how expertly he took the attention away from his own actions and reversed it to Susan's actions. Instead of answering her questions about his addiction, he carefully accused her of a number of things and reversed roles to put her into the position of offender. If the real victim is easily pulled into the role of a rescuer (see The Drama Triangle), they will easily end up apologizing for things that they didn't do wrong, and the real offender will have managed to manipulate their way out of the spotlight.
ANECDOTE 2: Being a Good Spouse
A less obvious example. Betty and Luis were in the car on their way home. Betty was exhausted, overrun and stretched to her limit. Luis could tell something was off so as they pulled into the driveway he asked her what was going on. “I’m struggling.” "What's wrong?" "Don't worry about it. I know you're also having a hard time right now." “I’m your husband, let me help you.” Betty hesitated. Their marriage was not one that usually included help going two ways. Typically she was the one that gave and Luis did a lot of taking. Especially if he was already struggling with something. Ultimately, she decided it would be wonderful if she had support - so she ought to give her husband another chance to be that for her. “...okay. I'm exhausted and overwhelmed. I feel like if I don’t do something it doesn’t get done. If I don’t make dinner, we won’t eat. If I don’t take out the trash, it sits there. If I don’t do laundry we don’t have clean clothes. At the same time I know you’re doing your best. You have been having a hard time so you're doing all you can. I know that. I am just exhausted and I have nothing left to give.” She word vomited everything out through tired sobs. Luis held her as she cried. Betty was surprised with how nice he was being and so grateful that he was able to hear her. After a moment of silence, Luis spoke up in a tone harsher than Betty expected after such a comforting hug, “You know - I’m doing everything I can. I don't know why you can't see that. I don’t know what you want from me.” “I know you’re doing your best. I get that. You asked me to let you help me so that’s all I’m doing right now. I'm letting you know what I'm struggling and how I could use help.” “Well, I took the trash out this week. I wish you could see just how much I do for you and for the house. I’m not perfect! Stop expecting me to be. You never see anything good that I do. You only see the bad.” Betty, sobbing now, tries to explain that she wasn't attacking him or complaining about him, that she was simply trying to share what she's going through because he requested that she let him help. Luis continued to accuse her of being judgmental and blind to his actions. Betty, a rescuer by nature, hated that he was feeling badly. She took a few deep breaths, choked up her tears, reminded herself that she would rather be married than be right, and asked him to explain how he was feeling. She listened to Luis rattle off all of the ways she makes him feel inadequate and all the ways she could be doing better. She soaked up all the reasons why it was her fault that he was struggling and tried to understand from his perspective. The conversation ended with her apologizing for the all the ways she hadn't been holding up her end of the marriage and a mental list she created for ways to better serve her husband. She also made a mental note that crying in front of Luis and asking for his help resulted in her being stretched thinner and her having to comfort him, yet again.
DARVO - Luis Denying Betty's emotions. He brushed off what she was experiencing with his, "I don't know why you can't" comments. Then, instead of attempting to understand her perspective, Luis launched into Accusing Betty poor behavior. He Reversed the roles to make himself the Victim, placing Betty in the role of Offender.
The effects of DARVO are many. Someone in a relationship where this happens often may begin to believe they are incapable of doing the right thing. They may feel hesitant to ask for help because of how the person they ask will respond. They may begin to exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety. Gaslighting, crazy-making, and DARVO all contribute to a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence that often comes with being in a relationship with those displaying narcissist-like tendencies and addict behaviors.