The 5 D’s of Coercive Control: Double Binds, Double Speak, Double Standards, Double Vision & DARVO

With all the autocratic rulers seeking world domination these days, and with more and more awareness of how power hungry narcissists do not have our best interests at heart, public conversations are flourishing about culty dynamics, narcissism, sociopathy- and how to avoid falling prey to abusive, exploitative, transactional, or even criminally entitled people- like Keith Raniere, Anna Delvey, Elizabeth Holmes, Sam Bankman-Fried, the Tinder Swindler, and Donald Trump.

This topic is worth studying, not only to avoid the big cons, but to hone discernment when we’re meeting new friends or colleagues, dating, considering going into business with someone, or getting exposed to people who seem, at first blush, too good to be true (because they usually are.)

In order to better understand and empathize with my sister Keli and my partner Jeff, who were both harmed by cultic influences, one of my weekly listens is Rachel Bernstein’s Indoctrination podcast. In one episode, Rachel interviewed Kate Amber of Ending Coercive Control, talking about her “Quicksand” model.

I so appreciate how Kate spells out the “5 D’s” of what manipulative, narcissistic coercive controllers do to try to confuse and dominate their victims. She suggests that you might recognize that you’re in a coercively controlling dynamic if you note the presence of the 5 D’s- double binds, double speak, double standards, double vision, and DARVO (an acronym that stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim & Offender).

What Is Coercive Control?

Coercive control has many definitions. My therapist defines it as “one person controlling two or more psyches.” In a romantic relationship, it might be a “cult of two.” In a family, it could be a cult of 5. In a group, it could be a more traditional group cult. But in all of those instances, one person is controlling, and someone else is getting controlled.

In the podcast, Kate defined coercive control as when one person dominates or controls another person through the use of force, threats, instilling fear, or fraud. This can happen between parents and children, domestic partners, bosses and employees, gurus and their disciples, therapists and doctors with their clients and patients, and even politicians with those they are tasked with governing.

I appreciated the addition of the “fraud” component of coercive control. If you are brought into a relationship, a business, or a group under one set of terms or promises that turn out to be deceptive or fraudulent, if someone pitches themselves as one kind of person (“spiritual”), but they turn out to have very destructive motives they were hiding (“not spiritual”), that’s coercive. People can be psychologically manipulated into agreeing to things they would never agree to if they actually knew what they were consenting to. It’s also coercive if you’re intimidating someone into compliance, terrorizing them into obedience, or threatening to harm them in any way, if only by abandoning someone who is attached. This may or may not include physical violence as a punishment for non-conformity, as well as rewards in exchange for obedience.

So let’s unpack the 5 D’s:

Double Binds: When you’re in a situation in which you’re confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action, you’re in a double bind. Double binds make you feel trapped, and this can feel frightening. In a double bind, any decision you make is going to be wrong. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s the horror of Sophie’s Choice, which, for those of you who don’t know the story (spoiler alert), Sophie has to choose which of her children to have exterminated in the Holocaust, because otherwise, the Nazi guards are threatening to kill them both. Double binds are a nightmare because- Rock. Hard place. Ouch. While not every double bind is of the degree of Sophie’s Choice, chronically finding yourself in double binds will leave you feeling trapped, out of control, and at the mercy of the one putting you in the double bind- and that is terrifying.

For example, let’s say it’s the controller’s birthday. But at one point in the past, you forgot the controller’s birthday and were berated for not caring. So you throw a big celebration the following year and you’re berated for humiliating them by acknowledging that they are aging. Now the next birthday is coming- and you’re in a double bind. If you ignore the birthday, you might get attacked. If you celebrate the birthday, you might get attacked. So you walk on eggshells and pray for mercy.

Double Speak: Double speak (a term indirectly taken out of Orwell’s 1984) deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. The contradictory nature of the communication that comes from a coercive controller often feels like they’re saying two directly opposite things out of both sides of their mouth simultaneously. The controller is so certain that they are right, but in the same sentence they might swear, with equal conviction, that the opposite of what they just swore was the truth, is the actual truth. This is very confusing and is used to bewilder victims and distort reality. This can overlap with gaslighting, when someone lies and then insists they’re not lying, which can be crazy-making (thus the term “gaslighting,” from the movie Gaslight.) Or their words and actions don’t match and are contradictory, which is another form of double speak. If you’re frequently feeling confused about what’s real or what’s right, you may be under the double speak spell. This can also make people appear two-faced.

For example, you’re not clear about the status of your “gray zone” relationship, so you ask for clarity. “Are we dating? Are we monogamous? What shall I tell people about the nature of our relationship?” You are told that no, you are not dating this person, no, you are not in a monogamous relationship, no, you’re just friends. So you dial back your expectations, deal with your disappointment, and introduce this person to your ex as “a friend.” Then your “friend” gives you the stink eye and contradicts himself, insisting to your ex that you’re his girlfriend and attacking you later for flirting with your ex.

Double Standards: Controllers love having two sets of rules. They will often insist that you demonstrate a high level of integrity or a great deal of discipline or they’ll want access to all your passwords, emails, texts, ATM codes, etc- but the same rigid, demanding rules do not apply to them. They don’t hold themselves to the same standards they hold you to, so it looks hypocritical- and it is. They may want you to give them all your money, but you’re not equally entitled to all their money. They may invade your privacy, but they guard theirs like Fort Knox. You’re expected to confess to every wrongdoing, but they don’t confess to their own, withholding, lying, stretching the truth, keeping secrets, and gaslighting you if you try to hold them accountable. You’re expected to be monogamous, but they expect to not be held to account for affairs. Or you’re being punished for something your controller did wrong. And so forth…

Double Vision: This refers to the cognitive dissonance someone feels when they’re in a trauma-coerced attachment, also known as a “trauma bond” or “Stockholm syndrome.” It’s called a ” trauma-coerced attachment” because the bond is coerced by the perpetrator, and the victim learns to “fawn” the abuser, sometimes even feeling like they’re in love with the person who is controlling and abusing them.  When you find yourself fawning your abuser, you’re not really seeing straight, thus the “double vision.” Other people see that you’re being controlled, exploited, abused, manipulated, and otherwise harmed, but you find yourself defending your abuser, making excuses for your abuser, extending compassion or forgiving your abuser- when they’re not remorseful- and they’re not stopping the behavior. Spiritual bypassing is a common device in fawning behavior, using spirituality to justify conflict avoidance, letting the abuser off the hook, rather than fighting for your own justice and protecting yourself from harm.

DARVO: DARVO is a term coined by Jennifer Freyd at University of Oregon to describe a pattern of emotional abuse often present in domestic abuse situations, as well as institutional abuse.

DARVO is a tactical response, used to manipulate the victim out of holding the perpetrator accountable for their negative behavior. DARVO is quite effective at creating confusion, guilt and shame for the victim, and it often causes the victim to blame themselves, rather than point the finger at the appropriate perpetrator.

For example, let’s say that you are in an intimate relationship, and you protest your partner’s expectation that you do all the cooking and cleaning yourself.  You initiate a conversation about how household chores will be divided, and you divvy up the tasks. Your partner, who likes to cook, agrees to be the primary chef in the house, and you agree to dish duty, laundry, and bathroom cleaning.

Your partner holds up her end of the bargain for a while, but over time, she starts slacking off. Initially, she at least arranges to make sure dinner is on the table, only it’s take out instead of the home-cooked meal you both agreed to. This is only a minor violation, since your partner is still taking responsibility for getting you both fed. But still, you feel annoyed by your partner’s lack of consideration for the fact that you had both discussed saving money and eating healthier as goals that were important to you, but you decide not to make a big deal about it.

Then the take-out dinners stop, and your partner is no longer taking responsibility for meals at all. Next thing you know, she’s demanding that you make the dinners- and do the other household chores too.

You decide to confront her, to remind her of the agreement you both made. A reasonable person would cop to slacking off and apologize. But your partner is not reasonable, pulling a DARVO to avoid accountability. When you remind her of your agreement that she make home-cooked meals most nights, she denies ever having agreed to “any such thing” (gaslighting.) You are confused. You’re certain you remember the long conversation you both had, where the two of you discussed healthier eating and saving money by eating at home. Your partner looks at you blankly. You are getting frustrated by her lack of recollection, especially since the discussion had been really important to you.

You prompt her, trying to jog her memory. Then she attacks you, accusing you of slacking off and not doing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom. You know you’ve been vigilant about holding up your end of the bargain, but you find yourself second guessing yourself. Your partner calls you a crazy bitch and accuses you of giving her a stomach ache and trying to make her look bad. She claims you’re micromanaging her, unfairly imposing your will on her, and being controlling and ungrateful for all the hard work your partner has been doing to take care of you. You find yourself wondering if it’s true. Are you being controlling? Have you been slacking on your responsibilities? Maybe you did forget to clean the shower last week. Your head spins as you try to make sense of what your partner is saying.

Those who perpetrate DARVO are intentionally manipulating the facts, trying to confuse and bewilder their victims- as a way to avoid accountability and cause the victim to blame themselves for the perpetrator’s bad behavior. At its most confusing, the perpetrator might go on a drinking binge or get high- and then blame the victim, claiming that they only get drunk or high because of how horrible their victim is to them.

You run into DARVO most commonly when you initiate a conversation with someone high on the narcissism spectrum about something they’re doing that’s hurting you or someone else. Instead of owning up to it, apologizing, and offering to make amends, like healthy people do, you’ll get the one-two-three-four-five punch of narcissistic defenses- deny, justify, gaslight, attack you for accusing them of wrongdoing, and then pull the “poor me” pity-grab. It happens so fast you don’t quite realize you’re now being blamed for what they did wrong. If you’re not a fast mental processer, capable of keeping up with their manipulative blame-shifting so you can hold their feet to the fire, you’re likely to just give up over time- and now they’ve got you. This is classic DARVO- emotional abuse, verbal abuse, gaslighting, crazy-making, psychological abuse, and coercive control, all burritoed together.

To understand DARVO, just look at Donald Trump. When others are trying to hold him to account for criminal behavior, he lies, spins, plays the helpless victim, manipulates reality, and tries to confuse everyone by making our country a three-ring circus.

If you recognize the 5 D’s in any of your relationships, the relationship is likely to escalate to violence at some point. You may need professional help getting out of such a relationship, so don’t hesitate to call your local domestic violence hotline.

If you do find yourself at the mercy of the 5 D’s, first, I’m sorry. And by all means, get yourself safe. The National Domestic Violence hotline is 800-799-7233.

If you’re not in immediate danger but you want to learn more about coercive control, narcissistic abuse, and how to keep yourself safe with better boundaries, let me share some resources with you. It’s not easy to disentangle from attachments we make with people who don’t always have our best interests at heart. Knowledge is power, and it helps to empower yourself with knowledge. I recommend boning up on psychoeducation resources about narcissistic abuse.


Doctor Ramani has thousands of hours of content on her YouTube channel, full of practical advice for staying safe when people high on the narcissism spectrum have gotten in close to your sphere. She also has a podcast Navigating Narcissism.

Rachel Bernstein’s Indoctrination podcast is also great.

My very favorite book on this topic is Eleanor Payson’s The Wizard Of Oz and Other Narcissists.

My Substack also offers detailed guidelines and “how to” instructions on healthy boundaries, which you’ll need in spades if you’re going to keep someone who employs the 5 D’s in your life. People on the healthier end of the narcissism spectrum will respect your boundaries, even if they don’t like them. And if they can’t respect your boundaries- well, that’s information worth knowing, so you can decide what to do about it. My Substack also includes information about spiritual bypassing- and using IFS as an antidote to conflict avoidance and avoiding dealing with your trauma.

You can sign up for a free or paid subscription to The Body Is A Trailhead on Substack here.

I also invite you to check out two of my online courses:

Becoming Unfuckwithable– A guide to recovery from exploitative relationships, codependent over-giving, conflict avoidance, spiritual bypassing, and difficulty saying no so your YES is a hell yeah.

Heal Your Wounded Boundaries– An IFS approach to navigating relational boundaries, asserting your needs, making requests, setting limits, and setting up your relationships to have more reciprocity, depth, safe intimacy, clear agreements, and healthy accountability.