When helping victims of toxic relationships, awareness of the different patterns of abusive behaviour that can exist within such relationships is essential.

In this article, family partners Claire O’Flinn and Isobel Mundy discuss the nuances of DARVO, including its relationship to gaslighting and coercive and controlling behaviour. They also explore how a better understanding of these concepts can help support victims of domestic abuse.


What is DARVO?

DARVO is a form of manipulative control that is used to avoid taking responsibility for harmful behaviour towards others. It happens when the perpetrator is confronted by their behaviour – either by the victim or by those supporting the victim.

It is an acronym for a pattern of behaviours used in abusive relationships. It stands for, Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender and is commonly used by those who perpetrate domestic abuse in all guises to escape culpability by manipulating partners into submission. The family court system appears to be becoming increasingly alive to it.

DARVO, which was named by American psychologist Jennifer Freyd PhD, involves a set of specific behaviours:

  • first, the perpetrator vehemently denies that any wrongdoing has occurred
  • next, they go on the offensive, attacking the victim and anyone seeking to call them to account, often making false accusations
  • finally, they reverse the roles, declaring themself the victim and the actual victim to be the aggressor, deftly flipping the narrative so that the abused becomes the villain.


How does DARVO relate to gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse where the perpetrator manipulates the victim into doubting their own memory, perception, or sanity, through lies, distortion, withholding information and trivialisation, thus creating doubt and attacking credibility.

Through gaslighting, the perpetrator is able to control the victim by eroding their sense of trust in themselves, and their own judgement, thus making them easier to manipulate using DARVO tactics.


How is DARVO different from coercive behaviour?

Coercive behaviour is a pattern of abusive conduct using fear, intimidation, or pressure to control another person.

It can include physical violence, emotional abuse, financial control, and other forms of abuse. While DARVO can be used as part of a broader pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour, it is distinct in that it focuses specifically on manipulating the victim’s perception of events. This can make it harder to identify and address, as victims may not understand that they are being manipulated.


How does narcissism relate to DARVO?

Narcissism is a personality disorder, characterised by an excessive sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, and need for validation.

Those displaying narcissistic traits often use DARVO as a way to maintain their sense of superiority and avoid taking responsibility for their actions. By attacking the victim and reversing the blame, they can maintain the façade of being a victim themselves, thereby reinforcing their sense of entitlement and superiority.


Why is it important to understand DARVO?

The abuser will not accept responsibility for their behaviour, nor change it. The relationship fails and the victim believes it is their fault. They find it difficult if not impossible to leave, believing themselves to be unlovable and so remain trapped in a toxic relationship. Victims may also suffer trauma-related symptoms, depression, anxiety and panic attacks. The effect on the victim’s wellbeing and on any children from the relationship is devastating and long-lasting.

Understanding DARVO and its relationship to gaslighting and coercive and controlling behaviour is essential for victims of domestic abuse and for those supporting them. By recognising the patterns of manipulation that perpetrators use, victims can gain a better understanding of what is happening to them and can work to protect themselves against further harm.


Dealing with a DARVO abuser in family proceedings

Family law professionals can play an important role during family proceedings by providing information, support, and advocacy to those who are suffering from abuse. If you are dealing with a DARVO abuser in this process:

  • Establish the existence of manipulative tactics. Look for evidence of denials, deflection, attempts to normalise or trivialise acts of abuse, claims of forgetfulness and attacks on your credibility.
  • Remember that the trauma may affect your memory, so it is very important to keep records, including specifics, what was said, date, time and location, or screenshots of electronic messages. Keep voicemails but do not covertly record anything.
  • Gather evidence at an early stage, such as police, GP and hospital records.
  • You may often forget details or have been led to doubt your recollection or perception of an event so be prepared for your solicitor to probe and gently bring out answers to their questions.
  • Choose your battles. Consider carefully when or when not to engage in lengthy arguments in correspondence. Avoid arguing back which could provide ammunition.
  • If raising an allegation in court proceedings, do discuss with your solicitor how/when to highlight DARVO tactics.
  • Finally, and this cannot be emphasised enough, look after yourself to maintain or regain your sense of self, to follow your goals and to rely on friends and family.

If you or anyone with you is at risk of harm or in danger, please call the police immediately.

If you would like advice on how the family courts handle DARVO and/or coercive and controlling behaviours and your legal situation, please contact Claire O’Flinn and Isobel Mundy.


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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.