The defamation trial of Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard has people talking about domestic violence.

Trigger Warning: This post includes descriptions of abuse that could be re-traumatizing for victims and survivors of abuse.

Evidence of violence

The trial finds Depp suing Heard because of this essay she wrote in The Washington Post about her experience as a victim of intimate partner abuse. Although not mentioned in the essay, Depp is suing Heard claiming the article is defamatory.

Several witnesses for the prosecution, including Depp, already have testified. Attorneys from both sides read and questioned text messages sent between and about the former couple. These messages revealed a pattern of aggressive name-calling and verbal violence.

Several video and audio recordings, many made without the other’s consent, also have been played during testimony. In one of the recordings, Depp accuses Heard of punching him. Heard acknowledges it happened but contends she didn’t hurt him. Other videos capture Depp yelling and slamming cabinets. He threatens to cut his wrists with a knife in another recording.

Mutual Abuse?

Media coverage has used terms like “mutual abuse” and “reactive abuse” to describe the violence. In a recent interview with NBC News, Ruth Glenn, President and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, spoke about the use of those terms.

“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.”

Advocates in the mission to end intimate partner abuse know that violence is rooted in power and control. Although behaviors from both partners can be abusive, one person tends to have more control in the relationship than the other. Tactics such as emotional abuse, isolation, and threats often accompany physical abuse.

Abusers also minimize, deny, and blame others, especially to leverage support from third parties.

Blame Shifting

The National Domestic Violence Hotline website offers more insight on blame-shifting.

“Sometimes the justifications sound really good. Especially when we’re looking for something — anything — to help make sense of how the person we care for is acting toward us. It’s normal to want to rationalize what’s going on because abuse is pretty irrational.”

“We often want to find reasons because we don’t have any real data on why abusers do what they do,” Glenn said during the NBC interview. “I think we find many different ways to make it OK in our heads that somebody can be abusive.”

Legal advocates for survivors, many of whom have spent hundreds of hours in courtrooms listening to testimonies, also understand that abusers often attempt to shift the blame to victims, especially when victims have reacted physically in self-defense.

Public Opinion

Although the trial is not about establishing whether the abuse happened, or who abused whom, public opinion abounds. A recent Google search returned more than a hundred million web links to the topic.

Supporters of Depp believe Heard was the primary aggressor, and she shifted blame to Depp as the victim.They point to an absence of physical abuse in Depp’s previous relationships, which has been backed by the testimony of former partners. Testimony also revealed that Depp’s mother physically, emotionally, and verbally him as a child and also abused their father.

Supporters of Heard say the prosecution’s testimonies do not invalidate her claims of abuse. Heard believes she has a right to tell her story — in private and public. The defense is expected to present their evidence and arguments in the coming days.

Taking Sides

Given the frequency of intimate partner abuse, it’s likely you’ve struggled with many of these same questions when supporting a friend or family member who was being abused. Maybe this very public trial will help us to better understand power and control and, in turn, more deeply consider the complexities of intimate partner abuse.

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Call 800.544.2022 to speak with a domestic violence advocate.