Much of the country has been following the defamation lawsuit filed by Johnny Depp against Amber Heard. Here are the important takeaways from one psychologist's perspective.
WARNING: If you have suffered from abuse in your relationship, this post may be triggering. While I don't go into specific allegations or directly quote testimonies or evidence, the subject of this post may still be upsetting.
Let me preface this post by acknowledging that I am not a lawyer, nor am I an expert witness, and I have no legally justifiable stance on who is right or wrong. I'm not here to weigh in on who is guilty or innocent.
However, I am a highly trained licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in couples therapy which means I have come across more than one story of intimate partner violence and am well aware of the prevalence, impact, and indicators of domestic abuse.
Like most people following this defamation lawsuit, I have had strong reactions to various testimonies and I do have an opinion, but that opinion is not the purpose of this blog post.
The point of this post is that there is value in examining this case and our reactions to it because it is representative of a larger problem in our society. So here are facts about domestic violence, important takeaways from this case, and also a request that we take this as an opportunity to educate ourselves and support survivors.
As a General Rule, We Should Believe Survivors
I'm not denying that some people falsify allegations of abuse for their own purposes, but the frequency of this is incredibly low. In general, we need to believe survivors of abuse who come forward with stories of how they've suffered.
Surviving abuse is hard enough in itself, let alone having to share it with a world that will doubt you, shame you, and attack you for it.
I've seen this too many times throughout my career and it's honestly horrifying to witness. I have seen brave people step up and escape unimaginable situations and challenge their abusers for justice, only to be met with disbelief, anger, or dismissal by the very organizations and structures in society that are meant to help people.
So let's err on the side believing people who report abuse instead of doubting them. Let's assume that they are speaking truth and provide them with the help they need.
Men Can be Survivors of Abuse Too
Men can be victims of domestic violence too. A report in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Justice stated that 1 in 9 men are victims of physical violence from their partners.
We often overlook this because men are generally bigger and/or stronger, and there is an incorrect assumption that because of this they cannot suffer violence from the hands of their partner. However, men are also abused, and we need to believe and support those survivors as much as we do for women who survive violence. Men can suffer from abuse at the hands of any partner, regardless of the partner's gender.
It's also worth noting, since we're talking about statistics here, that women make up the vast majority of reported cases of intimate partner violence (with estimates as high as 90%). However, domestic violence is also underreported by victims, and this may be especially true for male survivors who experience higher stigma associated with being victims of abuse. So while it is true that women are undeniably most at risk, men are not immune from domestic violence and it is likely that more men experience abuse than we know.
It Is Hard to Leave an Abusive Relationship
Even though it might look easy to leave an abusive partner, it really isn't. I always say that it's much easier to end a healthy relationship than an abusive one. There is a well known cycle of abuse that keeps people from leaving.
One reason it's hard to leave is because as bad as the abuse is, there are periods of reconciliation and calm that make people feel like things are better and the abuse won't happen again. There is hope that things will change, and usually there is love and attachment to the abuser despite the violence. Further, there is also often fear about leaving the abusive partner, concerns about retaliation or being alone, or worry about stigma or being doubted.
So before we question either Depp or Heard for staying in a clearly unhealthy relationship, remember that leaving a bad situation is much harder than it looks and we shouldn't be quick to judge people in these relationships.
Substance Abuse is Often Involved in Domestic Violence
The vast majority of domestic abuse cases involve substance abuse, whether drugs or alcohol. This correlation occurs for several reasons, such as perpetrators of violence self-medicating their psychological problems with substances or that abuse is more likely to occur when someone is uninhibited (which is obviously an effect of intoxication).
Also, hopefully it goes without saying that being intoxicated is not an excuse for being abusive. Even when intoxicated, we are fully responsible for our actions. People should be prosecuted if they committed a crime while under the influence of a substance just as if they were sober. And, in fact, we do prosecute people for committing crimes while intoxicated (we don't let drunk drivers get a free pass for hitting another car because they were drunk, for example).
Mutual Abuse is a Controversial Idea
There is certainly not consensus that mutual abuse is a valid concept, and many psychologists would argue that it doesn't exist. That's because abusive relationships have an inherent power imbalance, where the abusive partner has an upper hand (socially, financially, physically, etc.) and the other is at a disadvantage.
Now, victims of abuse may engage in self-defense that involves violence towards their partner. They may hit, or be verbally abusive, or any other number of behaviors, but they are not the original initiators of abuse nor do they use abusive tactics to control or manipulate their partner. Their violence is an attempt to establish their safety, protect themselves, or correct the toxic imbalance.
Further complicating the understanding of abusive relationships is the concept of DARVO, when an abuser Denies the abuse, Attacks their partner accusing them of abuse, and then Reverses the Roles of Victim and Offender, acting as though they are actually the partner who has been a target of abuse instead of the true victim. If the victimized partner does engage in protective or reactive abuse, their partner is quick to blame them for being the abusive one, when in fact they are not at fault. And because abusive relationships can be so psychologically confusing and destructive due to gaslighting, the victim may even believe the abuser and end up blaming themselves, which will further erode their self-esteem and keep them trapped in the relationship.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a good way to tell who is the abuser in an unhealthy relationship is to look at who is unwilling to take responsibility for their actions or seek help to change. Abusers justify their actions, blame the other person, and while they pay lip service to wanting change, they do very little to address their abusive behaviors. As an anecdotal example, I have never had an abusive partner be the one to contact me requesting couples therapy.
It's Basically Impossible to Detect Lies from Truth
Years and years of evaluating the polygraph test (the "lie detector") should have corrected the belief that we can accurately detect lies. In fact, polygraph test results are not admissible as evidence in courts because of the lack of reliability.
The truth is: there are no reliable indicators of lying. While we may think that avoiding eye contact, or being too calm, or crying too forcefully, or looking up and to the right are all signs of dishonesty, they are not actually consistent indicators. That's why they don't have a team of expert psychologists evaluating their behaviors in the courtroom- it would provide no real evidence of innocence vs guilt. While psychologists continue to research how to tell truth from lies, we are a long ways off from having any real, reliable methods.
Further, we cannot overlook the influence of this trial being televised. People behave differently when being watched and recorded. I mean, have you ever been observed or filmed, and felt uncomfortable or noticed you weren't behaving totally naturally? Heard and Depp are aware that millions of people are watching and analyzing them. They are likely acting differently than if they were, say, alone with their therapist processing what happened.
And finally, there is no "correct way" for a survivor to behave. Those who have suffered abuse may not "act like a victim" in a way we'd traditionally expect. Abuse can have a strange impact on how people feel and react to things. We shouldn't expect survivors to all behave a certain way. For example, while some survivors may be timid and afraid to speak about the abuse, others may be angry and turn that anger into advocacy, and yet even others may even use humor to address the awful things they experienced.
So please be mindful when you post about how this person laughed, or that person cried, and how all of this somehow proves who is innocent and who is guilty. You have no way of knowing that based on behavioral observations.
We Should Know Our Place as Observers
It's time for all of us to stop acting as though we have the inside scoop on this trial or thinking that we know the truth about this relationship.
The real truth is, no one besides Depp or Heard will ever know the full reality of their relationship. They've had so many interactions over the course of their relationship- so many fights behind closed doors, so many repairs, so many conversations about change or about divorce- and we have only a surface idea of what it was like.
I work with couples and hear their most vulnerable stories about fights. I've seen it happen in front of me in sessions. I have been the vault for their most shameful behaviors, and yet still, even I do not know the full reality of their relationship.
It can be incredibly difficult to understand the dynamics of a relationship. Even the most highly trained and very qualified couples therapists can struggle to assess and address very complex relationships such as that between Heard and Depp. So while their therapist probably has a better idea of what actually happened between them, but even she does not know the entire story.
(And also, as a side not, it's worth pointing out that couples therapy is usually contraindicated when there is physical abuse due to concerns of helping sustain an abusive relationship and that the abuse will worsen when the victim starts to speak up. At the very least, a couples therapist should require both partners to be in individual therapy in order to continue the couples work.)
An Opportunity for Reflection
So please, my last plea, take a big step back and examine your own reaction to this trial. Learn more about domestic violence, the cycle of abuse, and how to support survivors. You don't need to pick a side and join an online campaign against one actor or the other; instead, take this opportunity to understand more about the very prevalent issue of domestic violence and try to be a positive agent of change.
Abuse is real, scary, and unfortunately, quite prevalent. And despite this, people often don't understand what it looks like or what to do about it. This very publicized trial is a call to all of us- learn more about abuse, be aware of your biases and blindspots on this topic, and help those who need it.
There is so much energy wasted on believing one party and vilifying the other. The jury will decide this case. That's the whole point of our legal system. Your energy is better spent elsewhere.