What is DARVO? (Therapy in Philadelphia, Ocean City, Mechanicsville & Santa Fe)
A specific type of communication pattern that creates challenges in relationships is a pattern known as DARVO. While DARVO is an odd name you may or may not have seen before, it illustrates a breakdown in communication that can interfere with relationships, undermine the health of those relationships, and even create unsafe environments for us.
DARVO is actually an acronym standing for: Deny, Accuse, and Reverse Victim and Offender.
You may have heard DARVO mentioned in the media related to current events, usually in relation to public denials of wrongdoing by public figures. It is a common tactic employed by politicians and others in the public eye to avoid accountability for their actions, but this is only one manifestation of DARVO. It can happen in any relationship.
The idea of DARVO was developed by psychologist Dr. Jennifer Freyd, a leading researcher in relationship dynamics, betrayal trauma, and violence prevention, and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.
What does DARVO have to do with healthy communication?
Healthy communication is at the heart of all healthy relationships, and knowing about DARVO provides a useful tool for analyzing communication patterns in your relationships.. Often when people think about communication in relationships, they think of communication between romantic partners, but healthy communication is an essential part of the interpersonal relationships you have with everyone in your life. This includes your romantic partner or partners, but could also include your family members, your friends, or your roommate – any of your relationships where clear, effective, productive, and healthy communication is essential.
Maybe you have had the experience of trying to tell your roommate that they need to do more of their fair share of chores around the house, and they don’t seem to listen? Or maybe you have tried to have a conversation with your sibling about something important and you just never seem to be able to get your point across?
Can DARVO happen at work?
Absolutely! We spend a large amount of our time, if we are working, interacting with coworkers and many people cite communication as a major area of stress for them in their workplace.
Good communication is difficult, especially in our modern world where so many of our interactions with others happen digitally and not face to face. The medium of text or interoffice chat or email does not always lend itself to effective communication. We all feel at times that what we are trying to communicate to someone else is falling on deaf ears, and that can cause frustration and resentment within your relationship.
Maybe you have tried to tell your coworker that something they said hurt your feelings, or that you felt overlooked in a meeting? Or maybe you find yourself constantly frustrated at work, feeling ignored or invalidated by those with whom you work.
There are myriad reasons why communication can be a challenge, so it is important to look closely at the ways we communicate with others, and the ways they communicate with us, so that we can more effectively navigate the relationships we have with others. One way to examine the communication challenges we have with others is by looking for patterns in our communication.
Why is DARVO a big deal?
(Therapy in Philadelphia, Ocean City, Mechanicsville & Santa Fe)
Why DARVO is concerning is because it will often lead to you feeling unheard, disbelieved, and frustrated, and can often lead you to question your own experience and feel pressure to apologize to someone who has wronged you. When this pattern is repeated in relationships, it can often impact our mental health by leading to feelings of disconnection, avoidance, and anxiety. It can also make you feel disempowered and unable to speak up for yourself, to advocate for your needs, or to set effective boundaries. DARVO can be found in all kinds of relationships, but we often see this pattern in unhealthy, toxic, or abusive relationships.
You might be surprised at how often you have experienced this pattern, either on the giving or receiving ends, so we will take a look more closely at what each part of this pattern looks like and how you can interrupt this pattern and move toward healthier communication in your relationships.
The case of Maria and Patrice
Let’s consider Maria, and what happened to her in a meeting at her office yesterday:
During the weekly staff meeting, Maria sat around a table with a dozen or so of her coworkers, including Patrice, with whom she has never really seen eye to eye. Several times during the meeting, as in previous meetings, Maria has spoken up but been interrupted by Patrice, who talks over her, belittles Maria’s contributions, and doesn’t allow Maria to finish what she is trying to say in the meeting. This has happened several times before and Maria has started to feel a lot of anger and resentment toward Patrice and feels that this behavior is uncalled for and unprofessional. After yesterday’s meeting, Maria stopped by Patrice’s office to speak to her about how she feels when Patrice interrupts her in meetings. Instead of apologizing, or even acknowledging how she has made Maria feel, Patrice denies that she has done the thing that Maria has pointed out, then accuses Maria of doing the same thing, and then portrays herself as the real victim and asks for an apology from Maria.
Maria is stunned by the conversation, and rightfully so. What she has experienced is an example of DARVO, and maybe you have experienced something similar in your home or workplace.
Let’s take a closer look at each part of the DARVO pattern:
D is for “Deny”
In the above example, Patrice denies her wrongdoing and may even attempt to convince Maria that her experience is not valid or real.
“Maria, I don’t know what you are talking about – you talked a lot in the meeting.”
“Are you serious? No one talks over anyone in meetings.”
“What meeting are you talking about? I don’t even remember what happened yesterday.”
Patrice is not only denying that she has hurt Maria, but she is calling into question Maria’s own ability to remember the experience, using gaslighting techniques to avoid accountability in the situation.
A is for “Accuse”
It is possible that Patrice doesn’t remember the meeting, or that she is so unconcerned with the perspectives of others she doesn’t consider Maria’s feelings, but what happens next is more evidence that what Maria is experiencing is DARVO.
After denying the experience of the person initiating the communication, someone using DARVO tactics will then accuse that person of something, usually the same thing they have just been called out for.
“You talk over people all the time in meetings. We all do it.”
“You are just mad because my ideas are better and you’re trying to get back at me.”
“Maybe you wouldn’t feel so silenced in meetings if you showed up prepared for them.”
“This is what you are focusing on but not all the times you have ignored me in the breakroom?”
RVO is for “Reverse Victim and Offender”
It is the final part of the interaction which is the hallmark of DARVO: the recipient of the communication turns the tables on you and casts themselves as the true victim and may even demand an apology.
“I can’t believe you are bringing this up, Maria. You know how difficult it has been for me lately and you bring this crap to my office?”
“Of all the things that you are concerned about today, this is what you are worrying about? What about some consideration for how I feel in meetings when Ted and Larry talk over me? Why aren’t you standing up for me when that happens? I think you are the real problem here, Maria.”
“(sarcastically) Way to support your office mate, Maria. It makes me feel like part of the team.”
At the end of this exchange, Maria may be feeling a mixture of emotions, but these
likely include frustration that her original complaint has been minimized, challenged, or ignored, surprise at being accused of something she has not done, and then confusion at being placed in a position where she feels she needs to apologize to the person who was the source of the original issue.
Instead of listening to Maria and responding in a healthy way, what Patrice did was avoid accountability for her actions, avoid taking responsibility for the impact of her actions on others, and manipulate Maria into doubting her experiences and feeling shame and guilt for advocating for herself. In this scenario, it is very unlikely that Patrice will act differently in future meetings, further compounding the negative feelings that Maria is feeling, leading to increased feelings of sadness, disconnection, and discontent with her workplace.
So if DARVO is unhealthy, what would a healthy response have looked like?
Ideally, Patrice should have done the opposite of what she did.
First, she could have acknowledged Maria’s experience, validated it, and provided space for Maria to share what was bothering you.
“I am so glad you came to talk to me Maria. I am very sorry that you felt slighted in the meeting, and I am happy that you are giving us an opportunity to talk about this.”
Second, she could have taken accountability for her actions and responsibility for the impact it had on others, while also acknowledging her own opportunities for growth.
“I am very sorry that I have been speaking over you in meetings, Maria. I don’t intend to but I get so anxious about impressing the boss that I elbow in because I am worried I will get ignored. But I need to be more conscious of my teammates and remember that we all have contributions to share and that I will have an opportunity to share my perspective.”
And last, she could have made a commitment to Maria to change her behavior and invite further conversation on the matter if needed.
“I am glad you came to talk to me today. I will be more mindful in meetings from now on, and I hope you will come to me again if you feel I have stepped on your toes in anyway.”
Imagine how different Maria feels if this is how the exchange had gone. Validated instead of ignored, seen instead of overlooked, and satisfied instead of resentful, and a more pleasant working environment is fostered.
So are you a Maria or a Patrice?
In the scenario you just read, you may have found yourself relating to Maria, but it is very possible you may have related more to Patrice.
If you are a Patrice, you can take steps to hold yourself accountable for good communication and make different decisions when communicating with your coworkers. As a Patrice, you might feel some shame or guilt about how you have communicated with others. What is wonderful about communication, about examining it more closely, is that our behaviors are changeable. When we know better, we can do better. Looking more closely at how we communicate is how we learn to communicate better. We must engage with these difficult feelings in order to change, but we often see our efforts bear fruit of healthier relationships.
If you are a Maria, it is important to remember that the only person’s behavior you can control is your own, and while Patrice might benefit from information about DARVO, it is on Patrice to take responsibility for change and hold herself accountable for following through. Unfortunately, Patrices often continue to be Patrices, but you can build skills within yourself that will help you navigate a world where sometimes encountering a Patrice is unavoidable.
What could Maria have done differently?
In this scenario, Patrice holds the responsibility for how she reacted to Maria, but what if you yourself found yourself resonating more with Maria? How could Maria have responded to this type of communication challenge?
To begin, Maria might have responded to Patrice by setting a boundary around the conversation to keep it focused on Patrice’s behavior and not Patrice’s emotional reaction to Maria approaching her.
When Patrice denies that she has done something wrong:
“I understand that you may not have realized that you spoke over me, but you did, and it has happened before.”
“You may not have intended it, but your behavior left me feeling excluded and hurt, and I want to communicate that to you.”
“I am aware that you may not have noticed that this happens, which is why I wanted to talk to you about it today.”
When Patrice accuses Maria:
“I certainly take accountability for times that I may have ignored or excluded you, and I would be open to talking about that, but this conversation is about what happens in the staff meetings when you talk over me.”
“It is important that we have open dialogue between you and I as I know we both want to work well together and have a pleasant experience at work. This is why I am bringing your behavior in the meeting to your attention, so we can begin that dialogue.”
When Patrice tries to reverse roles and swap herself as victim and not offender:
“I am sure there are many times when you feel slighted or ignored, and I know how that feels because your behavior leads me to feel that way. Perhaps we could talk about ways we can communicate better in meetings and around the office?”
“I came to you in good faith hoping that we could have a conversation about this, but it seems you aren’t open to that right now. Maybe we could try again another time.”
How can counseling help?
A professional counselor is a great resource for anyone looking to improve their communication skills and to examine and explore what may or may not be working in the relationships in their life. Counseling can be a place to safely examine relationships, build new skills, and practice those new skills with a caring, trained professional. A counselor can also help you build confidence in advocating for yourself, in setting effective boundaries, and in making the changes you want to make in your relationships and beyond.
Darvo Therapy in Philadelphia, Ocean City, Mechanicsville, Santa Fe
You can call therapists directly by finding their phone numbers on their profile, or you can bypass the wait time and schedule directly online. If you prefer talking to a therapist first, you may call (215) 922-LOVE (5683) ext 100 to be connected with our intake department. Lastly, you can call our Director, “Alex” Caroline Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW at (267) 324–9564 to discuss your particular situation. For your convenience, we have five physical therapy offices and can also provide counseling and therapy virtually.
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360 West Ave, Floor 1, Ocean City, NJ 08226
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Therapy Services Offered in Philadelphia, Ocean City, Mechanicsville, Santa Fe:
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