Are You In An Abusive Relationship?

How would you know if you were in an abusive relationship? “I would know”, you say, “Isn’t it obvious?”. That’s all well and good from the outside looking in but many people have a much tougher time recognizing it from the inside.

Domestic violence and abuse are some of the more challenging topics we experience as counselors that work with couples and marriages. Many individuals come in without being fully aware of the situation that they’re in, or without the full grasp of its detrimental effects. In working with these individuals, one of the things we look for is represented by the acronym “DARVO”. We want to share it with you all so that you can be aware of the trends, as well.

DARVO is a concept that was identified by Dr. Jennifer Freyd in the mid 90′s. She defined it as “a reaction that perpetrators may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior”. This pattern of communication is detrimental to the victim in that it traps them into feeling like they are the problem.

Let’s look at what DARVO stands for:

  • Denial
  • Attack
  • Reverse the roles of
    • Victim and Offender

To better understand DARVO, let’s look at the definition of “denial” (Hint: It’s not just a river in Egypt).

Denial has three main forms to it: Simple denial, Minimisation, and Projection.

    • Simple Denial can be defined as “deny[ing] the reality of the unpleasant fact all together”
    • Minimisation  is when an individual will “admit the fact but deny its seriousness (a combination of denial and rationalization)”
    • Projection occurs when an individual with “admit both the fact and seriousness but deny responsibility by blaming somebody or something else”.1

Now, not everyone who denies accusations are abusers, right? There are appropriate times to respond with denial, including false accusations. It’s only natural for an individual that is being falsely accused to deny what it is they’re being accused of. Well, then how do we tell the difference? DARVO is really looking at overwhelming patterns in an individual’s communication.

We’ve all probably seen something like this example before: Jim accuses Tom of doing something (that Tom actually did do). Tom, knowing that he did what he is being accused of, denies it vehemently. There’s a certain sense of arrogance to his denial and an “over-denial” if you will.

The denial related to DARVO looks much more like Tom’s denial in this example. DARVO is not the only way to identify an abusive relationship, however. Abuse tends to have a cycle that looks like this:

Abuse > Guilt > Excuses > Normal Behavior >Fantasy > Set Up  and then starting over again.

The abusive partner takes abusive action toward you. He/she then feels guilty that they might get caught for what they’ve done and so they  come up with excuses; a  reason that it was “necessary” or “justifiable”. Shortly thereafter, the abuser begins acting “normal” again to keep his/her victim in the relationship and feeling like there is hope for things to change. After a period of time, the abuser begins to fantasizeabout ways to return to abusing the other partner and sets up a situation so that he/she can act out again; this returns us to the beginning of the cycle.

It is a challenging cycle to recognize and it is even more difficult to be trapped in. If some of this is sounding familiar, read the chart below from and be honest with yourself; do you recognize any of those feelings? Some of them? A lot of them? If you do then it may be an indication that you are in an abusive relationship and it’s time to get out.


Your Inner Thoughts and FeelingsYour Partner’s Belittling Behavior

Do you:feel afraid of your partner much of the time?Does your partner:humiliate or yell at you?

avoid certain topics out of fear of angering your partner?criticize you and put you down?

feel that you can’t do anything right for your partner?treat you so badly that you’re embarrassed for your friends or family to see?

believe that you deserve to be hurt or mistreated?ignore or put down your opinions or accomplishments?

wonder if you’re the one who is crazy?blame you for their own abusive behavior?

feel emotionally numb or helpless?see you as property or a sex object, rather than as a person?

Your Partner’s Violent Behavior or ThreatsYour Partner’s Controlling Behavior

Does your partner:have a bad and unpredictable temper?Does your partner:act excessively jealous and possessive?

hurt you, or threaten to hurt or kill you?control where you go or what you do?

threaten to take your children away or harm them?keep you from seeing your friends or family?

threaten to commit suicide if you leave?limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?

force you to have sex?limit your access to money, the phone, or the car?

destroy your belongings?constantly check up on you?

If you do recognize that you’re in this situation, you don’t have to go through it alone. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) to have immediate access to help and support. If you are trying to sort through the emotions and figure out what else to do, we can help as well.

For more information about emotional, verbal, sexual and other types of abuse, visit

To understand the relationship of Power and Control in abusive situations, visit the Power and Control Wheel.

We hope that none of this applies to any of you but know that unfortunately, it does. Reach out for help. There are people around to take your hand in support.