Experts question the phrase 'mutual abuse' after testimony in Depp-Heard trial

The phrases "mutual abuse" and "reactive abuse" fail to account for the power dynamic in abusive relationships, some experts say.


The phrase "mutual abuse" has circulated online after a clinical psychologist used it during the defamation trial involving Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. It's a divisive concept, domestic violence experts say.

Depp is suing Heard for defamation over an essay she wrote for The Washington Post in 2018, in which she said she had become the “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Although the article never mentions Depp by name, his attorneys said it indirectly refers to allegations she made against him during their 2016 divorce.

The trial, which is expected to take weeks, is being widely followed and discussed on social media. Both Depp and Heard have testified that the other was physically violent during the course of their relationship.

Laurel Anderson, a clinical psychologist and the couple's marriage counselor, described their dynamic as one of "mutual abuse," testifying that Depp told her that Heard "gave as good as she got."

“It was a point of pride to her, if she felt disrespected, to initiate a fight ... her father had beaten her,” Anderson said. 

Heard would rather be in a fight with Depp than see him leave, and she “would strike him to keep him there,” Anderson said in court. During cross-examination, Anderson clarified that Heard reported to the therapist that she “fought back” after Depp became physical.  

In court filings, Heard said she hit Depp only in self-defense or in defense of her younger sister, according to The New York Times.

Since Anderson's testimony, the phrase "mutual abuse" has become a point of contention in discussions online. Some have described Depp and Heard's relationship dynamic as "reactive abuse," a similarly divisive term to describe a victim's emotional outburst against an abuser.

Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), disputes the existence of "mutual abuse." In every incident between two people, she said, there's a "primary aggressor."

"I don't believe in mutual abuse. I don't believe that two parties decide to meet in the kitchen and box it out," Glenn said. "It just doesn't sound right, reactive abuse. I'm going to abuse you as a reaction? No, I'm going to defend myself as a reaction."

I don't believe in mutual abuse. I don't believe that two parties decide to meet in the kitchen and box it out.

ruth glenn, president and ceo of the national coalition against domestic violence

Glenn added that self-defense against a primary aggressor can "look like abuse," but it's a not the same as an abuser exerting control over a victim.

Reacting to abuse in self-defense can include name-calling, physically pushing back, and other emotional outbursts, according to psychologist Betsy Usher, who specializes in treating abuse and trauma. In a 2021 blog post, Usher wrote that abusers may shift the blame to their victims and accuse them of being the abuser if they react in self-defense.

Janie Lacy, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in relationship trauma, said extremely volatile relationships may be described as "mutual abuse," and that in many cases, this dynamic stems from trauma. Lacy uses the term "trauma bond" to describe the "toxic emotional attachments" sometimes embodied in intense relationships.

When a victim is caught in a cycle of abuse and affection, they may develop a trauma bond to their abuser, experts say. The alternating violence and kindness reinforces a victim’s attachment to their abuser, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and can enable escalating abusive behavior.

"People can't necessarily leave them, but they can't stay, either," Lacy said. "When they have these 'come here' and 'go away' dynamics, it becomes this very exploitative relationship. ... And there's this constant shifting of power and these types of dynamics."

Trauma bonds aren't exclusive to romantic relationships, Lacy noted. Children can develop trauma bonds to abusive parents. Employees may develop trauma bonds to abusive workplaces. Even followers can develop trauma bonds to a cult or religious institution, a 2017 review in the International Journal of Psychology Research states.

A child who was trauma bonded to an abusive parent may experience "trauma reactivity" in relationships as an adult, Lacy said. The phrase is used to describe the exaggerated stress response a person might have after experiencing a traumatic event and may be exhibited as a highly emotionally charged outburst.

"It's like all the stuff from the past is now coming forward, and the person standing in front of them is going to get all of that stuff, from a heightened, almost abusive standpoint," Lacy said. "So if they felt betrayed by a parent, for example, and they're now responding to what feels like a betrayal, it's going to come from a very heightened, reactive and abusive standpoint, which can also lead to domestic violence situations."

When both parties experience trauma reactivity, it can "lead to a lot of destructive patterns for the couple," Lacy said.

Trauma reactivity may be an explanation, but it's not an excuse for abusive behavior, experts say. Glenn cautions against using someone's past trauma, substance abuse or life circumstances to absolve them of abusive behavior.

"We often want to find reasons because we don't have any real data on why abusers do what they do," Glenn said. "I think we find many different ways to make it OK in our heads that somebody can be abusive ... Most of them actively make the choice to be abusive. They have a need for power and control."

During highly sensationalized and publicized court cases, terms to describe abusive behavior often trend online. Misappropriating phrases like "gaslighting" and "mutual abuse" can minimize conversations about domestic violence, Glenn said.

"Please don't use them until you understand," Glenn said. "Because you're causing more harm than good."