How To Spot Emotional Abuse & Gaslighting In Relationships (When Your Partner Plays The Victim)

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What Is Gaslighting In Relationships? How Men & Women With Sex Addiction Use DARVO As A Type Of Emotional Abuse

Most of us don’t think much about gaslighting in relationships or emotional abuse strategies when we start dating someone new. Instead, we enter new partnerships with optimistic hopes for what the relationship can bring.

Partners of men and women with sex addiction are no exception. They frequently find a partner who is charming, loving, and maybe even doting … at first.

Yet all too often, when sex addiction is present, what starts with the promise of life and love can devolve over time into a relationship wracked with hopelessness and despair through the use of gaslighting.

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What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is defined as "a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim's belief."

Gaslighting in relationships is a strategy where a person attacks the intuition or truth of another, making that person feel crazy. Sometimes, it's conscious and sometimes it's unconscious. The offending party takes the focus from themselves and places it on the other.

So how does a relationship spiral into a pattern of emotional abuse?

How does a partner end up feeling like the source of all the problems in a relationship — to the point where they are perpetually walking on eggshells around their partners, too afraid to speak up for their own wants and needs?

How does the addict start out as the perpetrator and end up so quickly playing the role of victim?

One gasligting tactic that often results in this type of relationship is DARVO.

Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, first began using this term to address power dynamics in relationships where betrayal trauma is present.

DARVO is an acronym — which stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse, Offender, Victim — to describe one typical "reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior," which can lead to a pattern of emotional abuse in relationships.

In situations when one member of the relationship wants to obfuscate the reality of the other to preserve an active addiction, we see DARVO showing up in relationships. As you can imagine, when sex addiction is present, the addict wants to keep their secret at all costs.

They may not even know they’re using this strategy, but it’s a way to keep their partner in the dark about the reality of the behavior the addict is truly engaged in.

DARVO is a way an addict gaslights their partner, shifting blame from themselves to the other.

How does an addict use DARVO as a form of gaslighting in relationships to play the role of the victim and use emotional abuse to manipulate their partners?

1. They deny the accusation

Typically, this relationship dynamic starts with the partner finding something, intuiting something, or suspecting something. The partner shares their suspicions with the addict.

Again, these suspicions could be direct evidence (pictures, text messages, online profiles) or intuitions (feeling like something is "off", confused by the addict’s irritability or erratic behavior, stories not lining up).

But either way, the partner brings this up with the addict, only to be met with a denial, such as, "You’re imagining things,
"What are you talking about?"

Or the addict could then move into the next phase of this dynamic by stating something like, "I can’t believe you’d even think that!" or "What were you doing snooping around in my phone for?"

2. They attack you — their "accuser"

After the denial, the addict will make an attack. This could be subtle like, "I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I love you so much I couldn't even imagine doing what you're accusing me of."

Or, it could be not so subtle like, "What’s wrong with you? You’ve got some serious trust issues. Take a look at yourself for once."

Either way, the blame gets shifted back to the partner.

3. They reverse the situation by playing the victim

The addict is now starting to shift attention from themselves to the partner. What may have come as a simple question from the partner may get turned into an onslaught from the addict.

The original question or suspicion becomes clouded now, as the addict moves into the victim role. As the addict shifts focus from themselves to the partner, they now become the victim in this dynamic.

They may express this posture in a number of ways. They may come across as hurt and wounded, enlisting the partner as a supportive rescuer, withdraw/retreat from the partner out of offense from the question/suspicion/accusation, or become angry/hostile/aggressive in their attack against their partner.

Regardless of how the addict expresses the victim role, the partner shifts from being the confused, hurt, and angry party to the supporter or perpetrator in the dynamic.

RELATED: 4 Levels Of Gaslighting, Ranked From Least To Most Dangerous

4. They make you feel like the offender

The partner now is the "bad guy" and has to justify themselves and their behaviors, apologize for what they said, thought, or did and console the addict because of the insult or brace for an attack.

As you can see, this dynamic is devastating in relationships. It’s a gaslighting strategy that shifts focus from the addict’s behaviors to those of the partner. It may start off very subtle in relationships, but it can ultimately escalate into a destructive power dynamic in relationships struggling with the impact of sex addiction.

Gaslighting is often not a conscious strategy on the addict’s part. They are concerned with preserving their relationship with their addiction(s) at all costs and, therefore, they are threatened by their partners coming near the truth.

That said, whether this dynamic is intentional or reactive, the impact on the partner and on the relationship is extremely deleterious.

If you recognize this pattern in your own relationship, just know that truth is the first step towards healing.

Make sure you find safe, supportive professionals around you who can help you understand betrayal trauma and the impact of emotional/psychological abuse on you and on your relationship.

A specialist trained through The Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists or a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist who utilizes the Multidimensional Partner Trauma Model in their professional work will be a big help.

If you recognize that you’ve been subjected to this DARVO strategy in your relationship — or even using it yourself against your partner — make sure you get some professional help.

Often times, 12-step communities focus solely on sobriety from sexual behaviors, and these patterns of emotional and psychological abuse do not get addressed. For effective healing of yourself and your relationship, you will need to address these patterns, as they are all part of the intimacy problem that leads to and is expressed by sex addiction.

There is hope for sex addicts, but they will need to work to take responsibility for their behaviors and to build openness, honesty, and empathy with their partner.

Healing is possible if the gaslighting addict is willing to make the courageous attempt to change with the help of a safe, supportive guide. Recognition of the problem is the first step towards healing.

RELATED: 12 Subtle (But Scary) Signs You're A Victim Of Gaslighting

Dan Drake is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, a Certified Clinical Partner Specialist, a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist Supervisor, and EMDR trained. For more information, visit his website or send him an email.

This article was originally published at Banyan Therapy Group. Reprinted with permission from the author.