Does mutual abuse exist in domestic violence cases?

Posted on Sep 14, 2022 by Katie Carter

I needed a little bit of time to process the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard verdict. And then, after I processed, I needed a little distance, because I just found the whole entire thing so completely upsetting.

In the wake of the trial, I’ve read article after article about how the case duped America, how we should be ‘outraged and appalled’ by the verdict, how it will have a ‘chilling’ effect on domestic violence victims, how jurors FELL ASLEEP during the case, and, even, how mutual abuse isn’t really a thing anyway.
It’s enough, frankly, to make me feel a little histrionic.

I admit, my understanding of domestic violence, and the way it impacts its victims, evolved while I watched this case play out in the media. I like to think I’m fairly well versed, but, at the same time, I’m not a doctor or a psychologist, so there are things that I miss or don’t fully appreciate until it comes to the forefront of my consciousness.

One of those things is from the Depp/Heard trial is mutual abuse.

At the beginning of the trial, it seemed like a lot of people were of the mindset that both Depp and Heard were abusive towards each other. Though public opinion almost always seemed pretty dramatically skewed in Johnny Depp’s favor, it became more and more pronounced as time went on. Amber Heard, it seems, lost the case because she’s ultimately less likable. Less famous. At least, she’s not affiliated with a character that people love the way they seem to love (the fictitious!) Captain Jack Sparrow.

Personally, too, she just didn’t resonate. That’s a particular problem in a case that is ultimately decided by a jury. Even though this was, at it’s heart, a domestic violence case, it also wasn’t a domestic violence case. It’s easy to be confused, especially as someone without very much experience in the law. But this wasn’t a DV case; it was a defamation case. And defamation cases have very, very different standards than domestic violence (or family law) cases.

Is the family law system perfect? No, of course not. The courts don’t always get it right, but there is the added layer of protection that, even in the worst cases, family law decisions are rendered by judges – based, sometimes, on recommendations from Guardians ad litem and others – rather than juries. Juries are mercurial, inexperienced, ‘peers’ of those on trial.

It surprised me, too, that almost as soon as the jury entered into deliberations, they had a question. Were they trying to determine whether Johnny Depp was defamed by the substance of the entire article, or just the headline? At such a stage, after weeks of testimony, I felt that didn’t bode well. It seemed like such a fundamental question – shouldn’t they, at least, know that? But they didn’t, which means that the lawyers for Johnny Depp did a good job confusing them, and of attacking Amber Heard.

Which brings me to a discussion of mutual abuse. It’s interesting to suggest that mutual abuse is a myth. Not being, as I mentioned, a doctor or therapist myself, I don’t feel that I’m in a real position to offer an opinion. If I had a case where mutual abuse was an issue, I’d likely hire an expert to help make the point that mutual abuse is a myth.

It’s a compelling argument, though.

In most abusive relationships, there’s an uneven balance of power. One partner is maybe physically larger, and able to cause more harm. Maybe they’re also economically advantaged, too – meaning that the other partner is dependent on them for support. In this case, I think Johnny Depp also had the advantage of being beloved by so many of us regular people – and Amber Heard, by contrast, was B-list at best. In every conceivable way, Johnny Depp had the advantage.
Abusers will often try to point the finger back at their partners. “You made me do this,” or “You hit me, too”, but that kind of blame shifting is designed to make them less culpable for the abuse. It’s designed, too, to make the partner feel at a disadvantage again. How can you involve the cops when you hit him, too? Even if he was hitting you, or preventing you from leaving, or threatening you?

The fear that you might be arrested, or that you might also face criminal charges can make a battered woman unlikely to get help that she would otherwise need. Not getting the help means, then, that she has less proof than she’d need to get help at the judicial level, too.

You combine that with the typical battered woman stuff – that she just doesn’t leave, she continues to tolerate her treatment – and you’ve got a situation that looks, to an outsider, like she’s mutually abusive.

At the end of the day, none of this is about Johnny Depp and/or Amber Heard. They’re strangers to me. I don’t know them. I wasn’t there. I didn’t witness anything. But, to me, it IS about the experience of normal abused women, whether they feel that they’ll have support in and out of their relationships, and whether they feel that they’ll get what they need in criminal cases, divorce, or protective order hearings.

Is mutual abuse a thing? It does seem to me that one party here had more power than the other, and that power was utilized to a pretty devastating extent. It seems that, as a gaslighting technique, it makes sense to distract from your own blame by pulling your partner in and making her believe that she’s equally responsible for what has happened.

Divorce, domestic violence, and protective order cases are complicated and nuanced. If you’ve been abused, you may not be able to rely on your own common sense; you may need to enlist the help of an experienced Virginia family law attorney to help you get what you’re entitled to receive.

For more information or to schedule a consultation, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.