The defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard has captivated the country. It’s being watched, scrutinized, and memed to oblivion by those watching. And while a lot of that attention has been rather cruel, it has brought some important topics to the surface of conversation, including the rather controversial idea of mutual abuse.

Without going into all the nitty gritty details of the case, the bottom line is this: both Johnny and Amber have claimed that the other is abusive. Meanwhile, a marriage counselor who worked with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard testified that the couple engaged in “mutual abuse.”

This has led to many wondering whether or not abuse can truly be mutual.

Can mutual abuse exist in a relationship?

What is Abuse?

Domestic violence (or Intimate Partner Violence) implies physical abuse. But relational abuse can also take many other forms, including emotional, verbal, financial, and sexual. An abusive relationship can involve acts of physical violence, threats, tactics of intimidation, stalking behaviors, or insults.  

But no matter what, it always involves power and control.

Domestic abuse is a pattern of behaviors one partner uses to maintain power and control over the other. In other words, one person is attempting to control the other through physical violence, verbal attacks, or emotional manipulation.

The key words here are pattern and power. Abuse involves recurring behaviors and a clear power imbalance.

So, Can Mutual Abuse Exist?

Based on the definition of abuse, many believe that mutual abuse isn’t possible. In an abusive relationship, there is a primary aggressor and a power imbalance.

The primary aggressor is the partner who initiates the violence or abuse. Put simply, the one who strikes first. If a victim fights back, that’s not considered mutual abuse, but rather reactive abuse.

In addition, in an abusive relationship, there is a clear power imbalance.

The abuser is the one who holds the power in the relationship.

An abuser uses their means of abuse as a way to control their victim; they are exerting and maintaining their power. With reactive abuse, though, the victim is not attempting to control their partner. It’s not a means of exerting power, rather an attempt at self-defense.  

When it comes to power, though, it’s not always clear cut. Most (but not all) victims of domestic violence are female. And most (but not all) perpetrators are male. Biologically speaking, men are physically stronger than women and that can lead to a power imbalance.

But power isn’t solely about physical strength. An abuser could also have financial, emotional, or social power over their victim.

In regards to the Depp-Heard situation, many have argued that Johnny Depp’s fame and wealth gave him the power in the relationship. One could, however, make an argument that Amber Heard’s status as a woman gave her the power. (For example, if she physically attacked him with the knowledge or understanding that he wouldn’t strike a woman, she would be the one exerting control.)

If an abusive relationship consists of a primary aggressor and a victim, it’s easy to see the viewpoint that domestic abuse can’t be mutual.

Related Read: Self-Soothing Tips for High-Conflict Couples

But still, many hold that although mutual abuse is rare, it does exist.

In cases where abuse is mutual, there isn’t a clear victim and perpetrator. Both partners hold their own in the arguments—meaning, they might both initiate or retaliate with the abuse. And finally, a key difference is that they don’t report feeling unsafe.

Personally, I can see both sides of this particular coin. What some might call mutual abuse, others would likely deem a toxic or unhealthy relationship.

Like so many things, this is a complicated issue. One that doesn’t necessarily have a clear cut answer. But no matter what you believe, it’s important to be open-minded and listen to opposing viewpoints.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, please reach out for help. You can learn more on the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.

Mutual Abuse Pin

What do you think of the term Mutual Abuse? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. avatar
    Riyah Speaks says:

    I feel like in some rare cases both partners can become abusive, but I still believe one is more of the abuser than the other. This trial has my head spinning.

    1. avatar

      I agree – After more has come out, I do tend to think mutual abuse is possible, but I think partners who are in that sort of relationship don’t always recognize it as abuse.

  2. avatar

    I think this case/trial has definitely revealed to many for the first time just how varied, nuanced and complex abuse can be.

    1. avatar

      It can definitely be more complicated than a lot of people realize. Whether that’s due to abuse or just a toxic and unhealthy partnership, we may never know.

  3. avatar

    This trial has definitely opened my eyes about DV. It’s been an education for me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here about this topic, I’m sure it’s helpful to many.

    1. avatar

      I agree – I knew a fair amount before it started, but there’s been a lot that’s come out of it.

Let me know your thoughts!

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30ish Lifestyle blogger, relationship "expert," and modern-day agony aunt.
Sometimes humorous, always honest.