A jury just unanimously found Amber Heard liable for defamation after her 2018 op-ed in the Washington Post in which she accused her ex-husband of domestic violence. The jury awarded Johnny Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.
While many people cheered outside the Fairfax County Courthouse following the verdict, it is hard to feel like anyone ‘won’ in this painful saga. No matter what side of the trial you found yourself on, it’s safe to say that both Amber Heard and Johnny Depp have suffered immensely during this trial, and neither left the courtroom with any clear closure or comfort.
The case of Amber and Johnny is not only compelling because they are both rich and attractive celebrities, and not even because it’s one of the first times that we have focused on male victims of domestic violence. But it is also compelling because it’s a case in which it’s obvious both partners made numerous bad decisions and both partners played a role in abusing one another.
Another key component is that both Amber and Johnny have a shared history of childhood trauma. Johnny’s painful childhood has been well-publicized during the trial, and Amber also suffered abuse in her formative years. In my experience, I have found it is extremely common for victims of childhood trauma to find each other and fall in love…and then to re-enact those same dysfunctional behaviors that they witnessed and/or experienced as vulnerable children.
This is called “repetition compulsion,” and it’s a common response to unhealed emotional wounds.
Repetition compulsion is when a person continues to create certain situations or engage in certain relationships out of a subconscious desire to recreate the same environment of their past trauma. It’s sort of like a criminal who goes back to the scene of the crime. Except, in this case, we aren’t criminals, but rather just wounded people going back to the scene of our original wounds in a desperate attempt to heal ourselves.
The dramatic ending to the Heard/Depp trial is an important reminder that we have to be willing to explore our trauma and work on our childhood ‘stuff’ before we are ready to create relationships and families of our own.
Therapy is never easy or fun, even if you are a mega-rich celebrity with lots of resources and amazing people at your fingertips. But, as we can see from this trial, you can’t ever escape your childhood demons if you don’t face them, even if you ARE mega-rich and successful. We have to be brave enough to face our generational trauma and the pain and unhealthy coping skills we have incurred as a result if we ever want to find peace and fulfillment.
Another sad element of this case is that it has triggered survivors of domestic violence as well as those who are still trapped in abusive relationships.
The case is inescapable, which is good in the sense that it can be a teachable moment about abuse, but it can also awaken painful memories or trigger victims. This is true for people on both sides of the fence: Men watching the trial might feel vindicated as they watch Depp testify about being abused by Heard, or they might feel ashamed or angry if they hear a friend or acquaintance mocking the idea of males being abused. Similarly, women might feel like Heard is being painted as ‘crazy’ or hysterical, and they might relate to how they felt villainized and judged when they tried to seek help in an abusive situation.
Hence, being mindful about what media you consume is crucial for those who have suffered trauma in the past.
You might need to spend a few weeks staying off social media. Get lost in a good book, instead, or set rules around your screen time so that you aren’t reading triggering news stories right before bed. Reach out for support from your friends and family and ask that people respect that you don’t wish to discuss the case.
Importantly, this trial is beginning to reveal that not all abuse has to be physical.
When people heard the words ‘domestic abuse’ in the past, they tended to picture a woman with a black eye hiding behind dark shades. That’s the image of domestic violence that we often saw conjured up in Hollywood and in Lifetime movies of the week. But the Heard/Depp defamation trial is giving the public a whole new viewpoint of what abuse really is.
While abuse can be physical, it also can be sexual, emotional, financial, or some combination of the above.
Abuse always comes down to control: How you can make a partner stay and do what you want them to do. A man can be abused by a woman. A woman can be abused by a man or a female partner. And men can abuse men as well. The stereotypical idea of what abuse looks like is no longer serving us. We need to realize that abuse takes many forms and can happen in any relationship, be it straight, gay, etc.
And, most importantly, we need to realize that we have the power to rewrite our futures. We have the ability to seek help for our childhood trauma and confront our shadows with compassion and gratitude. We can build the families we wished we had as children, but we can’t do that without being willing to do the soulwork and acknowledge our own role in creating our reality. Let’s hope that the future is brighter for Amber and Johnny, and that their next relationships are healthier and happier.