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Actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp
  • Actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are caught in a media circus as a defamation trial around multiple accusations of domestic violence and abuse unfolds in a Virginia courtroom.
  • A forensic psychologist said Heard suffers from both borderline and histrionic personality disorders, while another therapist labeled their prior relationship as one of “mutual abuse.”
  • The abuse allegations between the two celebrities have spurred conversation and controversy about who’s the victim versus who’s the abuser, so we talked to a few mental health experts to learn more.

This article contains descriptions of abuse that may be upsetting to some. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for confidential support.

On April 11, a six-week defamation trial between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard began at Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia.

In 2019, Depp filed a civil lawsuit against his ex-wife for $50 million over an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post in which she declared herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Heard responded with a $100 million counterclaim after Depp’s lawyer released a statement that said Heard’s allegations of abuse were a “hoax.”

Both Depp and Heard have repeatedly accused each other of domestic violence and abuse since their split in 2016, and have each continued to deny the accusations.

On day three of the trial, psychologist Laurel Anderson, PhD, referred to Depp and Heard’s relationship as “mutual abuse,” sparking controversy among clinicians. Other experts have said that terms like “reactive abuse” fail to acknowledge power dynamics in abusive relationships.

Then on April 26, forensic psychologist Shannon Curry, PsyD — who was hired by Depp and has treated neither Depp nor Heard — testified that Heard has borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic personality disorder (HPD), both of which may lead to attention-seeking and relationship-disrupting behaviors.

As the trial unfolds, a maelstrom of media attention has raised questions about who’s telling the truth, blurring the lines between accuser versus abuser.

Regardless of who’s at fault — Depp, Heard, or both — abuse allegations of any kind should be taken seriously. But rather than get caught up in sensationalism, Psych Central talked with mental health experts to learn more about the psychology of abuse.

From Heard’s possible BPD diagnosis and the problematic context of “mutual abuse” to validating a victim’s accusations, the following clinicians weighed in on one of the most talked-about legal cases of 2022 yet:

  • Melody Gross, founder of Courageous SHIFT, a domestic violence coaching company in Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Lori Lawrenz, PsyD, licensed psychologist, Hawaii Center for Sexual and Relationship Health in Honolulu, and Psych Central Medical Advisory Board member
  • Jennifer Litner, PhD, LMFT, CST, sexologist and therapist at Embrace Sexual Wellness in Chicago, and Psych Central Medical Advisory Board member
  • Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW, social worker and founder of Chicago Human Potential, and Psych Central Medical Advisory Board member
  • Nicole Prause, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles specializing in the impact of sexual violence and trauma

Do Heard’s personality disorder assessments explain her alleged violent and abusive behavior, and is it problematic to conflate borderline personality disorder (BPD) with abusive behavior?

Melody Gross: Not all abusers have mental health issues, and not all people with mental health issues are abusive. This diagnosis is problematic because it tries to absolve an abuser of their actions. It excuses the behaviors and puts the responsibility on the victim to understand and accept the violence because of the diagnosis.

Nicole Prause: Personality disorders are unique from other diagnoses because they are lifelong. If the BPD diagnosis is accurate, then Heard likely suffered from these issues throughout her life and not in response to later adulthood trauma.

Most women diagnosed with BPD are not physically abusive. However, women arrested for domestic violence do have a higher incidence of borderline personality disorder.

BPD is known for difficulty in romantic relationships, which could lead a person with BPD to choose inappropriate partners (e.g., abusive partners), or to become dysregulated and abusive themselves.

What happens when both partners in a relationship engage in abusive behavior and is there a more appropriate term than ‘mutual abuse?’

Lori Lawrenz: Abuse is abuse, regardless of if it’s mutual, isolated, or a singular event. So often, people are not believed because society has a template of what an abuser looks and acts like.

Celebrities, people in various professions, and often wealthy or powerful individuals do not seem like the type of people to abuse others, and so the abuse is not believed.

The case of Heard and Depp is salacious and garnering much attention, as neither of these individuals seem like the “type” to perpetuate abusive acts.

Manipulation is inherent to most abuse, and unfortunately, naming the abuse often does not change the notion that there are people in the world who get away with abusing others because they are wealthy, famous, beautiful, and often well-spoken, which is a tragedy for the victims.

Gross: The foundation of intimate partner violence is power and control, [which] drives abusive relationships through patterns and escalation. The concept of mutual abuse does not and cannot exist.

There are times when the person experiencing abuse may respond in an abusive way due to the need for safety, control, or even out of fear. Those responses are likely as the relationship progresses. This is what’s called reactive abuse.

What is reactive abuse and how can you spot it?

Joslyn Jelinek: Reactive abuse is often applied to situations where an abused partner in a relationship strikes back physically, verbally, or emotionally as a self-defense mechanism. To understand reactive abuse is to appreciate the dynamics of domestic violence and how power and control work in relationships.

Abusers can manipulate their partner enough to trigger behavior that is a fight, flight, or freeze response. Other influences of reactive abuse can be mental health issues, substance misuse, and trauma histories.

Reactive abuse is usually something that’s noticeable if a person indicates their behavior and actions are uncharacteristic: They feel “they are not themselves,” or feel shame or remorse. Generally, there is “fawning” behavior where someone attempts to accommodate their partner so the abuse doesn’t occur. When such attempts to appease a partner don’t work, physical and verbal abuse may follow.

Gross: Reactive abuse is a power play used to deny ownership of the abuse [and] can look like the victim yelling, fighting back, or defending themselves.

To spot reactive abuse, we must look at the patterns within a relationship. Looking at physical appearances is not a way to determine if a person is a victim or a perpetrator. All genders can uphold abuse biases due to our culture’s views on power and control.

Depp testified that he was physically abused as a child. How likely is it that survivors of child abuse continue the cycle of abuse?

Jennifer Litner: Research suggests that having been a survivor of abuse is a strong predictor of becoming a perpetrator. One 2022 study found that about 30 percent of abused or neglected children will later abuse their own children. Other studies have found limited evidence to support a cycle of abuse from survivors to perpetrators.

A history of childhood abuse can be considered a significant risk factor for one’s mental and emotional health. Survivors who are actively engaged in psychotherapy with a trauma-responsive clinician have a greater likelihood of healing and disrupting intergenerational family patterns of abuse.

Prause: ​​Many traumatic experiences, including childhood physical abuse, are associated with an increased likelihood of becoming abusive. This is not deterministic, though — many other factors, including environmental (e.g., financial strain) and dyadic (e.g., an abusive partner) are also strong predictors.

How common are ‘hoaxes’ in domestic violence and why is it so important to validate a survivor’s accusations?

Gross: When we determine who is the victim or perpetrator through the lens of misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and other biases, we are doing a disservice to actual victims.

We assume men can’t be victims. We think men with “power and fame” can’t be victims. We believe women can’t be perpetrators of violence. We say fighting in same-sex relationships is normal. When speaking about intimate partner violence, these assumptions are harmful to survivors.

Survivors desire two things: Not to be abused and to be believed. False claims of abuse are rare. Survivors may deny the abuse occurred, due to shame or lack of understanding of what constitutes abuse. When we better understand the dynamics, types, and signs of abuse, we are better equipped to believe, support, and validate survivors.

Prause: Estimates of false domestic violence reports vary wildly. In instances where monetary compensation is sought, one has to consider the likelihood of falsification. Psychologically, this is known as a “secondary gain motive.”

Defamation lawsuits increased to stop the #MeToo movement, because the accusers could not financially afford to defend the lawsuits — not because they were lying. It is impossible to know, of course, in the specific case of Depp and Heard.

Stories of domestic violence are often deeply unsettling and difficult to stomach. But in the case of Depp v. Heard, it’s become evident that many people can’t seem to look away.

Whether this display of media sensationalism is a distraction or a fascination is less important than getting to the truth of what happened and ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable.

When formulating opinions about abuse testimonials, it’s important to not let your own experiences with violence cloud judgment about who’s right versus who’s wrong. And maybe, it’s best to leave that up to the jury to decide and turn your attention elsewhere.

If you or someone you know are experiencing controlling behavior or domestic violence, you can:

The interviews for this article were edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.