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What the Depp-Heard trial tells us about toxic relationships

There appears to have no clear victim-perpetrator dynamic with both Depp and Heard being toxic to each other, say therapists

Amber Heard has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder
Amber Heard has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder (AP)

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The whole world is witnessing the drama around the Johnny Depp - Amber Heard trial unfold - there are multiple testimonies, mounting evidence and depositions that can sway anyone towards either party. While the trial is still underway, one must keep in mind that a lot is unknown, and the dynamic is too convoluted for an outsider to wrap their heads around.

While no one can decide who is the victim and who is the perpetrator right away, psychologists agree that both Depp and Heard have their own baggage, their own set of mental health issues, that make this trial extremely complicated. So far, the relationship appears to have no clear victim-perpetrator dynamic, Depp and Heard might have both been toxic to each other. Tanu Choksi, psychologist, counsellor and associate fellow and supervisor in RE- CBT, The Albert Ellis Institute, New York, who has been keeping track of the case, for the most part, says that it is crucial to keep in mind that the trial is not over, no verdict has been reached. She believes that in a case like this, with two people pitted against each other, especially two high-profile individuals, it is easy to villainise one person.

Divya Srivastava, a counselling psychologist and the founder of Silver Lining Wellness Centre, Mumbai shares her perspective by adding that all relationships are a two-way street and nothing is black and white - there are shades of grey everywhere. She adds that with the amount of information being shared and sensationalised by the media (which is known to be biassed, especially in today's world) "our tendencies to elevate celebrities to God-level and believe they can do no wrong is a privilege that many celebrities enjoy - be it Hollywood or EPL Football."

Also read: How games can be used in therapy

In terms of her views on the Depp-Heard case, she says that both Depp and Heard have mental health concerns. "Johnny Depp was diagnosed with ADHD, depression and chronic substance abuse, while Amber Heard has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder. At present, Johnny Depp's mental health condition is being used to defend him, and Amber Heard's mental health condition is being used to attack her - the truth is that none of us knows the real story. It would be ignorant on my part to not acknowledge the role power dynamics and privilege play in the establishment of 'truth' in the eyes of the people; therefore, with access to only information shared during legal proceedings, one can only speculate and never know for sure who really is the victim and the perpetrator."

So how exactly can two people be mutually toxic? Therapists offer some answers.

Differentiating toxic relationships

Choksi defines toxic relationships as ones where there is a constant imbalance of power and one person in the relationship always has the upper hand. "There can be emotional, psychological, verbal, and physical abuse in the relationship, which leads to dysfunctionality and disturbance between the people and others- friends, family, etc.," she explains. She further clarifies that toxic relationships do not necessarily have the perpetrator vs victim dynamic. Two people could just be bad for each other- they could be highly co-dependent, not mindful of their needs, thus projecting it on their partner; they might cheat on one another etc.

Johnny Depp sued his ex-wife Amber Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a public figure representing domestic abuse
Johnny Depp sued his ex-wife Amber Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a public figure representing domestic abuse (AFP)

Srivastava apprises that while it may be tempting to only recognise the other party as toxic in the relationship, one needs to realise that both parties exhibit unhealthy behaviours in a toxic relationship and do not respect boundaries. She further explains, "A toxic relationship is where the partners are competing, disrespecting or constantly undermining each other. With the power dynamics in play, depending on the situation, both partners can switch between the positions of being the victim and the perpetrator. It is possible for a person to be a victim in one scenario but a perpetrator in a different scenario," she states.

Choksi agrees with Srivastava. "No individual comes with a clean slate, and since a relationship deals with two or more people, that's twice the number of nuances, complexities, trauma, needs, and desires. It is possible for any relationship to become toxic and both partners to harm one another- sometimes one might harm more than the other, but ultimately, they are not good for each other."

Srivastava also brings up the drama triangle, a model of dysfunctional social interactions by Stephen Karpman. According to it, every individual plays the role of a victim, rescuer, and perpetrator at different time points across different scenarios. "The Drama Triangle acknowledges that people do switch roles from time to time," she says, adding that therapist Dr Laurel Anderson testified in court that Depp and Heard were mutually abusive towards each other during their married life.

She says that all relationships are messy and that we've all been inconsiderate, annoying, disrespectful, demanding, and unable to care for and support our loved one(s) at some point in time or the other. She also clarifies that being in an emotionally, physically or sexually abusive relationship is not the same as being in a toxic one. "In an abusive dynamic, one person attempts to control the other through psychological tactics, physical violence, verbal abuse, or some combination of these. Abusive relationships are always the fault of the abuser, never the victim's fault," she adds. "However, when there is a consistent destructive behaviour pattern, we may label the relationship as 'toxic'."

Choksi throws light on the different types of toxic partnerships

The deprecator/belittler:

They belittle and demean you, often in public or in front of family and friends. They are dismissive and condescending.

The bad-tempered partner:

They have an unpredictable, 'hair-trigger' temper. You often feel like you're walking on eggshells around them.

The guilt-inducer:

This is seen in romantic relationships and even otherwise. They induce guilt in the other person and often tell someone else to convey their disappointment in you.

The overreactor/ deflector: 

If you express your unhappiness over something they did and make it about their own happiness. You find yourself taking care of them instead of your own feelings, you are dealing with a deflector.

The overdependent partner:

One method of toxic control is to be fully passive. This partner will refuse to make their own decisions and rely completely on the other person for their emotional and physical wellbeing.

The "independent" partner:

This is the opposite. Their motto is "I will never be in your control". This could include rarely keeping their commitments and not listening to others.

The user:

This is when the relationship is completely one-sided.


Their 'jealousy' makes them do terribly controlling things, including what you wear, who you spend time with, etc.

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Identifying The Signs Of Toxicity

Srivastava says that it is difficult to identify if one is in a toxic relationship when one is in the midst of it. Having said that, talking to a trusted someone after taking a few steps back to reflect can be helpful. She suggests that asking some simple questions can help one reflect and evaluate whether or not they are in a toxic relationship:

  • How does being in this relationship make me feel?
  • Is the relationship taking more out of you than giving?
  • Are both you and your partner growing together, or are you growing at each other's expense?
  • How comfortable do you and your partner feel around each other?
  • Are there instances when my partner or I feel nervous or uncomfortable around one another?
  • Is this relationship helping me become the best version of myself, or is it turning me into a person I don't like or recognise?







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