Recently, the term “mutual abuse” was popularized as a result of the defamation case filed against Amber Heard by Johnny Depp. During the trial, a psychologist testified on behalf of Depp that the former couple engaged in “mutual abuse.” The problem with this testimony? There is no such thing as mutual abuse.
As an initial matter, it is important to note that the psychologist who testified on behalf of Depp has no experience or expertise in domestic violence. People who have devoted their careers to the field — such as Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) — argues that in every incident between two people, there is always a primary aggressor. A person who defends themselves against this aggression may appear to be abusive, but it is not the same as the pattern of power and control that is the hallmark of domestic violence. Similarly, people in a relationship may engage in situational violence. Without a pattern of abuse and control, however, situational violence is not considered domestic violence.
This is the single most important factor in understanding why mutual abuse or reactive abuse is a myth. At its heart, domestic violence is about an imbalance of power and control. In an abusive relationship, both partners may exhibit unhealthy or toxic behaviors. However, one person tends to have more power and control over the other. The abuse isn’t “mutual” when one person is reacting to the other’s emotional, physical, financial, or other abuse.
Understanding the Dynamics of an Abusive Relationship
While every person is different, there are certain things that many victims and survivors of domestic violence have in common that may make it easier to understand why mutual abuse does not exist. Over time, abuse of any kind can break down a person’s self-esteem and cause feelings of low self-worth. Abuse can also cause intense emotional stress, depression, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a result, some victims or survivors may engage in toxic behaviors, such as yelling back, being violent, or otherwise lashing out at their partner. While these actions are not healthy, they are often a form of self-defense that are used when a person feels as though their safety is at risk or when they are trying to re-establish their independence.
Some people who abuse engage in blame shifting or gas lighting to convince their partner that if they defend themselves, they’re to blame for any abuse in the relationship. People who abuse rarely take responsibility for their actions. Instead, they may argue that their partner is just as much at fault for what happened or that their response to abuse is just as bad as whatever initially happened. This is a form of manipulation, and another way to exercise control. When a victim is convinced that they are also abusive or that they are somehow to blame for what happened; their partner has power over them. This is particularly true when a victim believes that they are the one that has to change.
Consider a situation where a couple is having an argument. Alex physically blocks Jamie from leaving the room while screaming in their face. Jamie pushes Alex out of the way to get out of the room, and Alex responds with physical violence. Afterwards, Alex tells Jamie that they were both at fault, and they never would have hit them if Jamie hadn’t pushed first. Here, Alex was attempting to gain power and control over Jamie by trapping them in the room while yelling at them. Alex then reacted in an extreme way when Jamie tried to leave. Finally, Alex continued to assert control over Jamie by manipulating them into believing that they were at fault.
Even though Jamie pushed Alex, an isolated act of physical violence — particularly when done in self-defense or as a way to get away — is not abuse. Again, domestic abuse involves a pattern of behavior with a goal of gaining power over another person. When Jamie pushed Alex, they weren’t trying to exert control. They were simply trying to leave the room.
The Difference Between Situational Violence and Domestic Violence
While mutual abuse is not a thing, situational violence is. While we strongly believe that all relationships should be free from violence and abuse, we acknowledge that there is a difference between situational violence and domestic violence.
As noted above, domestic violence involves of pattern of behavior with a goal of asserting power and control over a victim. While the specific type of abuse may vary, there are consistent efforts to maintain control. It is not a one-off or an isolated incident.
By contrast, situational violence does not involve a pattern. Instead, it happens when one or both partners handle conflict with violence or abuse, which is usually minor and specific to the situation. It does not escalate over time, and there is not an ongoing effort to exert power and control between fights. To be clear, situational violence is still not acceptable. It may even be a crime. But it is different from domestic violence because it isn’t part of a broader pattern of behavior.
Help for Victims and Survivors of Domestic Violence
When you are involved in an abusive relationship, it can be hard to gain perspective on what is and is not normal. It can also be difficult to accept that even if you engaged in violent or abusive behavior, you are a survivor — not an abuser.
At Blackburn Center, we offer a range of services for victims and survivors of all types of violence, abuse, and crime. Our services include a 24 hour hotline, counseling and therapy, support groups, medical and legal accompaniment, and civil legal services. We are committed to providing trauma-informed care that focuses on helping you rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. All services are or can be accessible.
If you need help, we are here for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-888-832-2272 (TDD available). All calls are free of charge and can be anonymous.