Warning: this article deals with the topic of domestic abuse and may be triggering for some readers.
For over a month, the world has been tuning in daily to watch the trial of Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard. Unlike almost every other celebrity divorce, the breakdown of the pair’s relationship has been laid bare, with no detail spared. Among the most shocking allegations was that the former couple’s relationship was one of “mutual abuse.”
Described by Dr Laurel Anderson, a psychotherapist and Heard and Depp’s former marriage counsellor, Anderson testified that “they engaged in what I saw as mutual abuse.”
The term is a loaded one, with many advocates saying it should never be used and others labelling it as a myth. So what is mutual abuse, and how does it differ from domestic violence? Let’s take a look.
Is mutual abuse real?
According to Elisabeth Shaw, a psychologist with over 25 years of experience and CEO of Relationships Australia, mutual abuse is real but rare and often used as a shield for domestic violence abusers. Because of this, along with society’s misunderstanding and slow progress around domestic violence, it can be difficult to discuss.
“Mutual abuse is different from domestic violence. It’s a different category and it’s really important for people to know that,” Shaw told The Latch. “The cases are smaller in number and have different characteristics and patterns to domestic violence.”
She adds, “Because the more substantial problem of domestic violence still hasn’t been dealt with, it makes it very difficult to talk about these other things, but they do happen and they do need to be addressed.”
How is mutual abuse different from domestic violence?
Where the majority of abuse is perpetrated by one person against the other, most commonly male partners against women in heteronormative relationships, mutual abuse, Shaw says, “is about both people holding their own.”
“In the sum total of what goes on both people feel no more injured than the other. They either both fight dirty or both fight fair but they both recognise that they both buy into it.”
The misuse of the term mutual abuse also runs the risk of victim-blaming people suffering domestic violence. In any abusive relationship, victim blaming by the perpetrator toward the victim, and from the victim towards themselves can be commonplace, Shaw says.
“Sometimes victims will blame themselves to keep their partner calm or to be super accountable and they will say, ‘I did hit back once or I do name call as well’ and they frame themselves as being mutually abusive, but that’s actually quite a different situation. If one person hits and one person swears, that’s an inequity that’s more to do with being a victim of domestic violence rather than mutual abuse,” Shaw says.
Shaw adds that this misrepresentation of domestic violence and victim blaming mentality is something advocates and experts have been trying to move away from for decades.
What are the common signs of mutual abuse in a relationship?
Unlike relationships where domestic violence is present, Shaw says relationships of mutual abuse can often be described by onlookers as passionate, intense, fiery or drama-fuelled.
“What really distinguishes this [mutual abuse from domestic violence] is that both people can hold their own around the anger; they don’t report feeling unsafe,” Shaw says. Unlike relationships where there is a clear victim and perpetrator, “this is quite different.”
Verbal arguments followed by intense makeup sex, a sense of being united together with an ‘us against the world’ mentality, feeling misunderstood by others, having an aversion to ‘normal’ or more traditional relationships, and bonding through volatility can all be common traits of mutual abuse.
Shaw says the risk and danger comes when boundaries are overstepped and the abuse escalates.
“Initially, it might have been screaming and name-calling and shoving that ends with a big makeup and they really do feel unharmed by what’s said and done. It may be things that other people in other relationships wouldn’t tolerate but this couple will. But where the abuse starts to escalate and one or both start to feel scared is when it becomes inequitable and unsafe.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence help is available via 1800RESPECT.