On the third day of the defamation trial initiated by Johnny Depp over a 2018 article in which his ex-wife, Amber Heard, described herself as a survivor of domestic abuse, the court heard from the couple’s former marriage counsellor, Laurel Anderson. She described the couple as engaging in “mutual abuse”, and cited a session in which Depp, recounting one of their fights, said that he was “chaotic, violent” but that Heard “gave as good as she got”.
To some the term “mutual abuse” might seem like a useful shorthand for understanding a particular form of toxic relationship, one that is damaging to both parties. Some relationship experts report encountering mutually abusive relationships. But for many women’s charities the term raises alarm bells.
The phrase, and its deployment in court, certainly didn’t surprise the barrister Charlotte Proudman, who specialises in gender-based violence and family law. Speaking by phone, she told me: “I’ve seen it framed a lot in that way: ‘mutual abuse’; ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other’; ‘toxic relationship’ is another common one. ‘Situational abuse’. ‘High-conflict relationship’.” She said that these terms are commonly used by the defence to “minimise the domestic abuse by suggesting that they are both complicit in it, rather than that there’s a victim and a perpetrator”.
The strategy is common, she added, because it can be effective — especially when the professionals involved, from psychologists to judges and lawyers, have not received specialist training in domestic abuse and trauma. It can be deceptively easy to characterise a violent incident as a “matrimonial dispute that has got out of hand” but, Proudman argued, once you understand wider context and the underlying power dynamic, you are usually able to identify a clear victim and perpetrator. What matters is not only the crude facts — what each party said or did — but the bigger questions, such as who holds the most power, physically and financially, or who might be especially vulnerable, because of their mental health or social isolation. Gender is a component here: the victim is most often female and the perpetrator male, though not always.
Ammanda Major, the head of clinical practice at Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationship support, agreed that mapping power dynamics is key to distinguishing between different types of unhealthy relationships. Major said that mutually abusive relationships do exist. “They’re often very angry with each other, very upset with each other, they blame each other for absolutely everything, they tell everybody else that it’s the other one’s fault,” she said. “It’s very difficult, it causes a great deal of upset and each party is left feeling very depleted, very unheard, very angry — which then fuels the next iteration of poor communication.” In relationships where one or both parties abuse drugs or alcohol it becomes even more likely that communication will break down in this destructive way.
She added, however, and this is a significant caveat, that it’s common for relationships that are initially presented to counsellors as mutually abusive to in fact be instances of coercive control. In this case, the couple might seek counselling following a violent altercation. “One partner is saying: ‘We’ve come to you because of this thing that my partner has done.’ But when you drill down into it, what you see is that there has been a reactive response to being coercively controlled.” Some examples of domestic abuse are very clear-cut from the outset, but in other instances victims fight back, or also say things that are abusive. The job of the counsellor, or any professional, is to identify that this violent behaviour is a response to being abused or controlled.
Major said that relationship counselling is often inappropriate in relationships marked by coercive control (a principle of relationship therapy is that both parties need to share a willingness to and responsibility for change, something that is not found in controlling relationships) and also in mutually abusive relationships that are very violent and volatile, when de-escalation is rarely possible before both partners have completed extensive individual therapy. Major underlined that she would not comment specifically on the Heard/Depp case.
Some of those watching Anderson’s court testimony might wonder whether the therapist was serving her clients’ interests in continuing marriage therapy even after she was aware of the violence taking place between them. Anderson described Depp as someone who had been “well controlled” for decades, but who was “triggered” by Heard — with the implication that Heard was the underlying problem and had brought the violence on herself.
Sarah Davidge, the head of research and evaluation at Women’s Aid, emphasised that terms such as “mutual abuse” need to be understood in the context of gender inequality. Last year the domestic violence charity conducted joint research with the University of Bristol on how gendered narratives shape survivors’ experiences of domestic abuse and attempts to seek justice. It found that sexist stereotyping leads women to frequently be described as “hysterical” or “over-emotional”, which means that they are less likely to be believed when they come forward with abuse claims and are less likely to receive support. “Without properly exploring that context, and the impact of fear and control, there’s a real danger in using labels like reciprocal violence and mutual abuse, because it can mask harms and obscure who wields the power,” she said. “That then serves to excuse abusers for their violence and abusive actions.”
She pointed out that abusers themselves often use counter-allegations — “well you hit me too” — to try to silence survivors, making them afraid to speak out. It is estimated by the Office for National Statistics that fewer than a fifth of women who experience intimate partner abuse report it to the police. “One of the key reasons for that,” said Davidge, “is because they don’t think they will be believed, often because they are living with someone who is telling them they won’t be believed, that they aren’t credible, potentially telling them things like, ‘Well, you do this to me, you hit me back that one time, remember? I’ll tell them that and they’ll believe me, because I’m an upstanding citizen’.
“It’s very difficult to talk about anything being mutual and reciprocal when we still have structural inequality in our society, when women’s inequality, sexism and misogyny are blatant throughout our whole society, whether that’s everyday sexism of sexual abuse.”
Women’s Aid has worked in conjunction with other charities to create a police training programme called Domestic Violence Matters, designed to help officers to identify controlling or coercive behaviour. A 2020 study found that the training programme led to a 41 per cent increase in arrests for coercive control. The problem remains, however, that domestic violence training is not mandatory, for either the police or the judiciary. “We know from our work with survivors going through the family courts and going through the criminal justice system that in no way is it consistent, and in no way can you guarantee that you have a judge who understands the nature of coercive control,” Davidge said.
Proudman said that as well as being a form of “victim-blaming”, when relationships are mislabelled as mutually abusive women are put at risk. “If we’re not identifying victims, and we’re not identifying perpetrators, that can result in the behaviour escalating and getting worse, especially post-separation, which is one of the most dangerous times for women.”
The Depp vs Heard trial is due to reopen on 16 May, and closing arguments are expected on 27 May. It is too early to predict the verdict, although millions of celebrity-watchers have already made up their minds. These high-profile cases indulge our voyeuristic instincts. We’ll obsess over the specifics and probably miss the bigger picture: how hard it still is for any survivor to come forward, knowing their own behaviour will also be on trial, and how impossible it is to prevent domestic violence if we don’t dismantle the cultural myths and social inequalities that allow it to flourish.
[See also: Why the Depp vs Heard trial has been more vicious than Wagatha Christie]