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Domestic Violence

Mutual Abuse and the Depp/Heard Trial

The complex nature of domestic violence remains difficult to acknowledge.

Key points

  • Mutual violence in relationships experiencing abuse is common.
  • Both men and women perpetrate domestic violence in about equal amounts.
  • Mental health issues such as Borderline Personality Disorder often predict domestic violence.
  • It often remains taboo to discuss the complexities of domestic violence.

The nation has been gripped by the fascinating and disturbing defamation trial involving Johnny Depp and his former wife Amber Heard. He is accusing her of defamation for an op-ed written under her name. Testimony revealed the column was, in fact, written by the American Civil Liberties Union in an arrangement with the organization timed to the release of her Aquaman movie. One of the central touchpoints of the case has been the accusation that the abuse between Depp and Heard was mutual.

As I write this, the case remains ongoing. However, both individuals have testified, supported by audio clips, witnesses, and other evidence, that the other engaged in both physical and emotional abuse. The couple’s psychotherapist, Dr. Laurel Anderson, testified that the couple was volatile; Depp and Heard each abused the other. Anderson implicated that Heard initiated physical assaults, not in self-defense, but to prevent Depp from leaving her. This would not excuse Depp’s own abusive behavior, but it points to a complicated dynamic that Anderson termed "mutual abuse.”

The use of this term in court drew howls of protests from domestic violence advocates. These arguments drew primarily on the notion of power dynamics—that in relationships there is typically a primary abuser. However, decades of psychological research conflict with these notions, which are often based on gender stereotypes.

For most violent crimes, male perpetrators vastly outnumber females. But for crimes occurring among families, that dynamic changes. Examining domestic violence shelters or emergency rooms may miss many male victims—males tend to underreport their own victimhood—but when surveyed, women generally acknowledge using violence at equal levels with men. Since the 1970s, evidence has demonstrated that domestic violence is perpetrated by females as often as males and typically motivated by the same reasons, though, conforming to gender stereotypes, female violence is often framed as reactive to male violence. Ironically, the prevalence of mutual abuse makes this easier to do. These observations are not limited to heterosexual couples, but occur among homosexual couples as well. To be sure, owing to males' greater upper body strength, women are more likely to be injured in these exchanges, even if they initiate them. Domestic violence is often associated with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is marked by impulsiveness and emotional instability. A psychologist testifying in the Depp case suggested Heard may have BPD, which is generally more common in women than men.

In a review of the literature, psychologist Elizabeth Bates found that mutual abuse is, in fact, the most common pattern for couples experiencing domestic violence. This doesn’t mean that this pattern is true for every situation, only that it is far more common than the general public understands. Typically, individuals locked in this pattern have prior histories of abuse and significant mental health concerns: Domestic violence is often a part of a larger constellation of dysfunction.

I spoke to Dr. Jenny Mackay, a senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University and expert on domestic violence. She indicated that gender stereotypes still complicate our understanding of domestic violence, with violence by women often dismissed. Indeed, one recent study found that people are less likely to take violence toward men seriously, and less likely to recommend that men report violence to police. This obviously creates an obstacle for men to receive services for domestic violence. But this also prevents us from helping women who may themselves be engaged in violence toward their partners and who seek to reduce this behavior. As Mackay put it, “…the audio clips of Amber being psychologically and emotionally abusive to Johnny, again demonstrate to me, that we live in a time when that type of abuse by women towards men is easily facilitated – it is much more normatively accepted when the genders are that way round, but never would it be ‘accepted’ if it was a man behaving like that.”

Advocates concerned with violence toward woman may fear that acknowledging female abuse or mutual abuse will result in the public taking violence toward woman less seriously. Thus, we should be clear that all violence toward woman is reprehensible, and we should continue to work to reduce it. However, this observation needn’t be at odds with the goal of reducing all domestic violence, whomever is the perpetrator.

Obviously, I can’t say for sure what happened in the Heard/Depp household. However, Anderson was correct to observe that mutual abuse is a real phenomenon. Failure to recognize this makes the work of reducing domestic violence harder, not easier.

More from Christopher J. Ferguson Ph.D.
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