The Psychology of Victim Reversal
Catching the tricks that abusers use to convince their victims and the public that they’re the hurt ones.
Most people have seen it happen, if it hasn’t happened outright to them. When abusers are about to be exposed, they switch the script and rewrite the narrative to make themselves the hurt ones.
And the worst thing is, a lot of times, the public and even the victim begin to believe it.
The traditional example might be when the offender convinces the victim that they deserve the abuse somehow, and that it’s the victim’s fault that the abuser has to commit the offence.
This tendency is documented widely and known academically as DARVO, introduced by Dr. Jennifer Freyd in 1997: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s classical, typical abuser behavior and patterns, but abusers consistently get away with it.
As a society, we hate to believe that bad things can happen to people who don’t deserve it — the dark side of the American dream, where people only ever get what they deserve — because that opens up the possibility that it could happen to us. And that’s terrifying.
Instead, we favor the abuser’s point of view. We question the victim — they have to be flawed somehow. They must have done something to deserve this. And this predisposes us to believe, not the wronged party, but the perpetrators.
But even though it’s an incredibly effective tactic, whether regarding emotional abuse, sexual assault, or even racism, it’s possible to spot it and call it out when you see it.
Here are the signs, and how you can learn to spot them.
Even if the proof is explicit — there are pictures, screenshots, or even the abuser’s words ringing in your ears — the minute the victim stands up and calls the abuser out it triggers the beginning. The abuser will refuse to acknowledge it happened.
“You’re being crazy.”
“How can you think that about me?”
“I never would say something like that.”
Here’s the wild thing: even if we have the proof in our hands, when someone denies it, it automatically creates a dichotomy.
And outsiders, the public, we don’t like to take sides, so the easiest place for the audience to go is the middle.
They might not outright disbelieve the victim, but it will seem like the sensible thing to do is to “hear both sides of the story.” No matter how much evidence is there, there’s a possibility that it’s an unfounded accusation.
That’s the first step. The minute the abuser has you believing their side is valid, it’s the first step down a rabbit hole of misinformation and deception.
This segues on naturally from the first step. The abuser already has us on the back foot. We’re doubting the story, unsure of where the victim stands. So they start tearing away at the foundations of support for the victim.
“Why were you snooping through my phone?”
“Why do you hang out with her when she makes wild accusations about me like that?”
“As if you’ve never made a mistake before! Take a look at yourself.”
This bit plays on what I mentioned before: we don’t like to believe that bad things happen to good people. So the victim can’t be perfect. If what they’re saying is true, they must have done something — something avoidable, crucially — to deserve it.
So the blame and the onus starts to shift. The victim themselves might even begin to believe what the accuser is saying. The audience, already predisposed to consider both sides even if one is backed up by evidence and facts and the other is absolutely groundless, begins to doubt the victim.
3. Reverse victim and offender.
The abuser now has the audience and the victim potentially believing their version of events and casting aspersions onto the character of the victim. At this stage, the abuser now flips the switch and starts talking about themselves as the victim. The classic example is the falsely accused role.
“I’m being attacked.”
“This is a witch hunt!”
“You’re hurting me when you say that.”
Consider when someone makes a racist comment. Someone might point out to them that they’re being racist. They burst into tears.
They’re hurt. They’ve been called a bad name. And before you know it, they’re the victims even though they were the ones being racist to begin with. The person who called them out is now in the crosshairs.
By playing up the victimhood role, the offender makes the true victim doubt their acts, and even doubt what they know is true about the abuser.
The offender might say that the victim is harmful, that they’re truly the ones to blame for the failure in the relationship, or that the victim is actively trying to ruin the abuser’s life.
The thing is, innocent people don’t use these techniques. They’ll deny a false accusation, sure, but not in this over-exaggerated pattern of reversing the attack.
Guilty people take advantage of their partners, friends, relatives, and rely on the fact that their victims are more likely to self-blame than others, to continue getting away with what they do. And the more they do it, the more victims tend to self-blame in a vicious cycle.
The three steps are correlated, meaning that when an abuser does one, they tend to do all of them. It’s a pattern that they know they can use to twist the credibility of their victim, not only to outsiders, but to the victim themselves.
“Many of those who participated … reported feeling disappointed by their abuser’s reactions, that they had feelings of guilt, and self- blame afterwards, and even reported doubting their own recollections.” — Kitty Wenham, freelance writer on LGBT issues and mental health.
The good news is that once you know it’s a commonly tactic, it’s easy to spot. Research shows that when the audience is educated on these techniques before hearing a case, they are more likely to believe the victim and disbelieve the abuser.
Spot it in the news, spot it in real life. Learn to call it out. It’s time abusers stop getting away with it.
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