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DARVO Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a hostile phenomenon that has recently made its way into our mainstream consciousness. For those unfamiliar with its meaning and origin, it refers to a form of psychological control that relies on distorting a victim’s perception of reality. The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight in which a sinister husband dims the brightness of the home's gaslights and asserts that his bewildered wife is losing her sanity.

DARVO is an acronym that has not yet made its way into mainstream consciousness, though hopefully someday it will. It stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender, and was coined in 1997 by Jennifer Freyd, Ph.D. It's a defense mechanism that offenders use in response to an accusation against them, in which the offender turns the tables of guilt back onto their victim. The tactic is frequently employed by those with character pathologies (narcissists, borderlines, sociopaths), machiavellian politicians, and media propagandists.

DARVO is a hostile form of gaslighting that is destructive in many ways. Unless someone is able to recognize what’s being done to them, it can wrongly convince victims to feel responsible for the offender’s actions (“I only hit you because you were getting on my nerves again!”). Even if the victim can spot the manipulation, the offender will rarely accept responsibility for their offense, which then further maddens their victim. Worse still is when an offender fools 3rd parties into believing their victim was the actual offender. When DARVO becomes a pattern in a relationship, that relationship is doomed to perpetual dysfunction and/or failure. It can cause just as much psychological damage as a pattern of physical abuse does.

The DARVO defense strategy is also commonly observed in courtrooms, where skilled attorneys representing guilty clients aggressively employ it to escape consequences, in the process destroying their accusers in ways that have nothing to do with the truth or justice. This is why so many victims of sexual assault never report or press charges against their assailants, knowing that their own sexual histories and reputations will become the focus of a trial.

DARVO gaslighting is difficult to recognize because the type of people who use it frequently exhibit degrees of certainty that are quite convincing. Lacking conscience, empathy, guilt, or shame, they may pass lie detector tests and dupe juries without a flicker of anxiety. Neighbors, coworkers, family members, and friends are often seduced by their phony sincerity. They exercise their powers of persuasion to destroy their victims and pervert justice without hesitation. They are pathologically selfish.

Protecting oneself from DARVO gaslighting is extremely difficult. The first thing to realize is that it is impossible to win an argument with DARVO offenders, which is why they must often be taken to court. They always deny or minimize their culpability, even in the face of hard evidence. Because offenders won’t admit their offenses, the victim’s priority must simply be to prevent themselves and others from succumbing to their lies.

Needless to say, DARVO gaslighters are not safe people to be in relationships with, which is especially troubling when they are one’s spouse or parent. Divorces typically escalate into highly contentious battles over money, custody, visitation and custody rights that can last for years, cost a fortune, and destroy the mental health of the victim and their children. Offenders will even use children as pawns, making false allegations of child abuse or finding other ways to alienate children from the victim parent. There is no “winning” under these circumstances, only costly efforts to escape and recover.

When threatened by DARVO manipulators, there are at least several strategies that can minimize the damage.

  • Exposing the lies is key, which means collecting documentation of communications in texts, emails, financial records, and recorded interactions (when permissible). Offenders gain power through secrecy and lose it through exposure.

  • Avoid badmouthing and labeling offenders because they will seize on your angry missteps to make you look like a hostile offender yourself. Stick with objectively describing the behavior patterns and the impacts they have on you and others.

  • Maintain (or rebuild) healthy relationships with family and friends. Offenders gain power when they can isolate you and lose power when you have strong allies. Practice emotional detachment in order to neutralize an offender’s opportunities to manipulate you through emotional provocation.

  • Find professionals (therapist and/or attorney) who have understanding and experience with DARVO dynamics to help guide and protect you.

  • Prioritize escape and recovery over justice.

One’s best hope for avoiding, escaping, and/or recovering from DARVO gaslighting is to understand what it is, identify it as soon as possible, and head for safer shores as quickly and calmly as you can.

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