Author’s note: names changed to protect confidentiality.
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“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.” ~ Nbcnews.com
Before I circle back to Heard and Depp, I want to share my own experience with the nuances and grey lines between abusive versus “trauma bond” relationships.
The year was 2003, and I was in seventh grade. Denise and I weren’t friends yet, but we were on the same basketball team. I admired her energy and lively spirit. Normally quiet, I talked and laughed more when in her presence. She helped bring me out of my shell.
Midway through eighth grade, after her group of friends temporarily exiled her, Denise began eating at the same lunch table as me.
We became friends pretty quickly. Our friendship consisted of talking in accents, hot pepper eating contests, and arm-wrestling. When each of us was away at summer camp, we’d send the other care packages.
“I could not stop laughing,” she’d tell me later, of a cassette tape I’d included in one of mine, filled with long recorded ramblings and inside jokes. “I listen to it falling asleep sometimes.”
Denise brought excitement to my life. She made movies more entertaining by interjecting funny commentary throughout them. Through her mom’s rolled-down car windows, we once belted out an Ashlee Simpson song loudly enough for everyone on the street to hear.
I often felt significantly lighter after spending time with her.
Transition to Toxicity
Things began to take a turn a few months in.
Denise and I were walking home from school one day—having, from what I remember, a completely normal conversation. All of a sudden—seemingly out of nowhere as I was mid-sentence—she shoved me into a bush.
I don’t remember what I’d said to provoke it, or if I’d even said anything. What I do remember is asking her once I’d gotten up: “Why did you do that?”
And I remember her response (communicated while rolling her eyes): “Stop being so sensitive.”
An insidiously common refrain of anyone who’s ever invalidated another’s emotional experience—though I didn’t know it at the time.
I decided to let it go. Even though I didn’t like that form of “play,” I knew some friends messed around with each other like that. Maybe I did just need to grow a thicker skin.
Still, a few days later, it happened again. I started noticing other things too, such as how I found myself paying for things far more often than Denise did (when I resisted, she would tell me with a straight face that I was being selfish). After coming over, she’d leave messes behind that I’d later have to clean.
When I spoke up about these behaviors, I received further eye rolls and jokes at my expense.
One night, we were at our school dance together with our group of friends. I again don’t remember what I’d said to lead up to this (clearly it was a comment that had annoyed her). What I do remember were her hands pressing firmly against my chest. I remember my body in my navy-blue sequined dress landing hard against the uncarpeted gym ground. And I remember her face when I got up, seething with disdain and contempt.
“Why does she stay?”
I knew Denise was hurting me—but I also really liked her. I did try to end our friendship several times, but our “breakups” never lasted long. I always ended up missing her or feeling guilty, and we’d become friends again soon after. To some extent, I also worried what would happen if I made the friendship termination permanent.
“You don’t ever want to get on my bad side,” she’d matter-of-factly stated once, from her seat on my backyard swing set. She seemed so sure of herself as she pulled her can of orange soda away from her face to reveal mustache resembling flames.
I also felt attached to Denise. That moment we were singing together with the windows rolled down, I remember thinking how unbelievably good it felt to be her friend.
And for all the ways the friendship had harmed me, at the same time, it had rejuvenated me. Especially after the year-long depression I’d lost myself to, during which I’d retreated from everyone—perhaps most of all, my own self.
Light existed within her—this I also knew. At many moments, hers beamed brightly. She lifted my spirits. She had a rare and special ability to blow past people’s defenses, unearthing their authentic inner child energy. She had the enviable ability to be unapologetically herself.
I did finally extricate myself from the friendship. And in the years following, I vacillated between different feelings and conclusions. I wanted to acknowledge to myself the pain our relationship had caused me—but I also didn’t want to lose sight of the harm that I too might have caused.
I questioned whether—more than a narrative of victim and bully or one wherein I was the blameless party and Denise was bad—our story was more nuanced. I wondered if maybe, as two insecure kids who’d been hurt by showing our vulnerability in the past, we’d both behaved awfully to each other in different ways, participating in a friendship from behind a wall of self-made shields.
Denise’s version of what had happened was likely entirely distinct from mine, I also knew. She probably even saw herself as a victim too. I knew this because in her parting letter to me, she’d told me I was “the most evil person she had ever met” before condemning me to a life absent of meaningful friendships (I’m grateful her prophecy didn’t come true).
Though seemingly docile much of the time, I could also bite back when needed. Denise attacked, and I attacked back. I learned to fight fire with fire, launching my own brand of unkind behavior in response to hers.
Some of these behaviors included giving her the silent treatment or the cold shoulder. I excluded her from group plans. I said mean things about her (to our other friends) behind her back. Maybe it was easier for Denise to shove me than to verbally express that these behaviors had hurt her, or that she’d felt disrespected.
Distinguishing Reactive Abuse from Mutual Toxicity
Janie Lacy, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in relationship trauma, has used the term “trauma bond” to describe the “toxic emotional attachments sometimes embodied in intense relationships.”
According to USA Today,“Experts in domestic violence say toxic, unhealthy relationships can include bidirectional violence with no primary aggressor, and abusive relationships with a primary aggressor.”
These latter types of relationships “can include victims who use violence as self-defense or as a way to try and reassert control.”
Also with the latter type, as NCADV president, Ruth Glenn, explains it, the primary aggressor may feel like they are the wronged party when the victim fights back.
Psychologist Betsy Usher stated in a 2021 blog post that abusers “may shift the blame to their victims and accuse them of being the abuser if they react in self-defense.”
According to Usher, these defensive reactions can take the form of name-calling, physically pushing back, and other emotional outbursts, among others.
Whether Denise was a primary aggressor or both of us together were “in a mutually toxic relationship,” my jury’s still out on. I do believe I, at times, reacted to her aggression (and occasional cruelty) in an unskilled, reactive, and emotionally immature way. Yet, I’m also aware that we were both just kids, neither of whom was literally in a position of power over the other.
I can’t say the same about the Heard-Depp verdict.
So many clear signs point to Depp having been a primary aggressor. All the (substantiated) allegations from 2013 to 2016 show that the violence began with him (according to an article in Vox, “The judge at the first trial in 2020 found Heard had proven 12 of 14 allegations of abuse”).
Heard eventually behaved in highly emotional, “explosive” ways in reaction to years of abuse. Many people found these behaviors jarring and lost trust in Heard as a result of them. Yet “reactive abuse” isn’t really abuse in the true sense of the word (a distinction exists between harm and abuse).
The Black and White Nature of the “Perfect Victim” Stereotype
“The public wants this pure, often passive view of the victim. But someone can be angry. Someone can fight back, and they’re still a victim of domestic violence,” an article in USA Today quotes nonviolence advocate Kiersten Stewart as having said that.
And as sociologist Nicole Bedera put it: “People also have specific ideas about what a victim looks like—meek, virtuous, non-retaliatory, female. Perfect.”
Many victims do display passive and placating demeanors. They don’t fight fire with fire. Heard did. And I am not saying it was justified. My aim is not to defend unhealthy responses. As Apollo Love put it, “while reactive abuse or having a triggered toxic reaction is a bit more justified than being a consistent intentional abuser, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay.”
What I am saying is that Heard’s reactions do not mean she was lying about the initial abuse that likely precipitated this entire toxic cycle to begin with, that not conforming to the stereotypes of a perfect victim does not mean she wasn’t a victim at all.
Another Example of Reactive Abuse in the Media
Eleven taking a roller skate to her bully’s head in the most recent season of “Stranger Things” is another example of reactive abuse. This reaction was unacceptable, but Eleven’s bully was no innocent, wronged victim. She had been venomous and horrible to Eleven, for no reason other than that Eleven was different.
Eleven had literally done nothing to her to provoke this mistreatment. When she eventually exploded in an angry and frightening way, suddenly all the focus turned to her reaction with none on the bullying that preceded it. The person who first introduced abuse into the dynamic gets off easy, taking zero accountability for their own cruelty.
What this Verdict Means for the Future
The previously referenced Vox article mirrors my beliefs:
“The basic facts of the case have gotten their day in court once already, having been heard in a British court in 2020, with the judge finding in Heard’s favor. But the basic, well-established facts do not seem to matter.
They do not seem to matter to people who would normally care about facts, truth, and nuance. They do not seem to matter to the tabloid media gleefully reporting on every aspect of this case. The facts do not seem to matter to any of the people who have latched on to the image of Heard as a manipulative villain, as if she split her own lip, punched her own face, and pulled out clumps of her own hair.”
Leveraging his lawyers, money, acting skills, and sociopathic ability to remain calm in order to maintain the appearance of a man who is in the right, Depp has succeeded in conning even the most progressively minded of us. He has succeeded in leading us to think that, at best, he and Heard were just two adults (with no power differential) in mutual disagreement, and that at worst, he himself was the prime victim of domestic violence.
And that, in my mind, is a huge step back in the fight for victim empowerment. It communicates to me that many of us really don’t understand the nuances of abuse at all.
And this worries me for future generations.
As Lexie McMenamin phrased it in an article for Teen Vogue: “We never progressed past the idea of good versus bad, of perfect victim versus evil abuser. As we continue to reinforce that narrative, that there’s no room for nuance for assault victims, it’s the abusers who have everything to gain.”