This post was first published on the Banyan Therapy website by Beyond Betrayal Community friend, Dan Drake (LPC, CSAT, CCPS). "DARVO" is a specific form of gaslighting, or relational abuse, that is often associated with betrayal. The acronym stands for "Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim - Offender."
Most of us don’t enter relationships thinking about gaslighting or about emotional abuse strategies. Instead, we often enter relationships with hope for what a new relationship can bring. Partners of sex addicts are no exception: they frequently find a partner who is charming, loving, and maybe even doting… at first. Yet, all too often what starts with life and love devolves, in a relationship where sex addiction is present, into a relationship wracked with hopelessness and despair. How does a relationship get there? How does a partner end up feeling like the source of all the problems in a relationship to the point where they are walking on eggshells perpetually around their partner or are too afraid to speak up for their own wants and needs? How does the addict start out as the perpetrator and end up so quickly playing the role of victim?
One pattern we often see in these types of relationship is DARVO. Jennifer Freyd (1997) first began using this term to address power dynamics in relationships where betrayal trauma is present. DARVO is an acronym used to describe a pattern of emotional abuse sometimes present in relationships. In situations where one member of the relationship wants to obfuscate the reality of the other to preserve an active addiction, we see DARVO showing up in relationships.
As you can imagine, when sex addiction is present, the addict wants to keep their secret at all costs. They may not even know they’re using this strategy, but it’s a way to keep their partner in the dark about the REAL reality of the behavior the addict is truly engaged in. DARVO is a way that an addict gaslights his or her partner, shifting blame from self to the other. Before we look further into this concept, let’s briefly explain what gaslighting is. Gaslighting is a strategy where a person attacks the intuition or truth of another, making that person feel crazy. It’s a strategy, sometimes conscious sometimes unconscious, where the offending party takes the focus from themselves and places the focus on the other. DARVO is one way that the offending party gaslights their partner.
Typically, this relationship dynamic starts with the partner finding something, intuiting something, or suspecting something. The partner shares their suspicions with the addict. Again, these suspicions could be direct evidence (e.g., pictures, text messages, online profiles etc.) or intuitions (e.g., feeling like something is “off,” confused by the addict’s irritability or erratic behavior, stories not lining up, etc.). Either way, the partner brings this up with the addict, only to be met with a denial, such as “You’re imagining things,” “What are you talking about?” or the addict could then move into the next phase of this dynamic by stating something like, “I can’t believe you’d even think that!” or “What were you doing snooping around in my phone for?”
After the denial, the addict will make an attack. This could be subtle, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about – I love you so much I couldn’t even imagine doing __________,” or not so subtle, “What’s wrong with you? You’ve got some serious trust issues. Take a look at yourself for once.” Either way, the blame gets shifted back to the partner.
We can see that the addict is now starting to shift attention from him/herself to the partner. What may have come as a simple question from the partner may get turned into an onslaught form the addict. The original question or suspicion becomes clouded now, as the addict moves into the victim role.
As the addict shifts focus from themselves to the partner they now becomes the...
They may express this victim posture in a number of ways. They may come across as hurt, enlisting the partner as a supportive rescuer; withdraw/retreat from the partner out of offense from the question/suspicion/accusation; or become angry/hostile/aggressive in their attack against their partner. Regardless of how the addict expresses the victim role, the partner shifts from being the confused, hurt, angry party to the supporter or perpetrator in the dynamic.
By this point, the partner is the “bad guy” and has to justify themselves and their behaviors, apologize for what they said, thought, or did, console the addict because of the insult, or brace for an attack.
As you can see, this dynamic is devastating in relationships. It’s a gaslighting strategy that shifts focus from the addict’s behaviors to those of the partner. It may start off very subtle in relationships, but it can ultimately escalate into a destructive power dynamic in relationships struggling with the impact of sex addiction.
We’ve found that gaslighting is often not a conscious strategy on the addict’s part. They are concerned with preserving their relationship with their addiction(s) at all costs, and therefore are threatened by their partners coming near the truth. That said, whether this dynamic is intentional or reactive, the impact on the partner and on the relationship is extremely deleterious.
If you’re a partner who is recognizing this pattern in your own relationship, just know that truth is the first step towards healing. Make sure you find safe, supportive professionals around you who can help you understand betrayal trauma and the impact of emotional/psychological abuse on you and on your relationship. A specialist trained through APSASTS can be a helpful place to start, as can someone who is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist who uses the Multidimensional Partner Trauma Model in their professional work.
Dan Drake is a licensed professional counselor, certified sex addiction therapist, certified clinical partner specialist and board member of APSATS. He works out of Banyan Therapy in Los Angeles and is the co-author of Letters from a Sex Addict.
Men who using gaslighting patterns will likely need confrontation around this, and also professional support. If you and (possibly) your SA husband want help to end this pattern, please contact Dan or Naked Truth Recovery. Men can and have found freedom from these patterns with help.