As you may know, Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife Amber Heard over an op-ed she wrote in the Washington Post in 2018, in which she claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. The legal battle has come to the courts of Virginia, US, and the hearings are broadcast live. The defamation trial features painful accusations of domestic abuse in which Depp has several audio recordings of Heard admitting to hitting him and threatening him: “Tell the world, Johnny. I, Johnny Depp, a man, I’m a victim, too, of domestic violence, and see how many people believe or side with you.”
As a doctoral psychology and relationship researcher, currently writing my dissertation on the topic of intimate partner violence, I’ve been following this case with close attention and deep frustration at the double standard with which society addresses the topic of domestic abuse. In this article, I argue against the publicly endorsed gender paradigm in domestic violence and, instead, offer a gender-neutral perspective from psychology that is rooted in empirical evidence
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a global public health and human rights issue. Recently, social isolation and stay-at-home measures due to COVID-19 have further exacerbated this issue as there has been a dramatic increase in IPV cases worldwide. IPV refers to any behavior carried out to inflict harm to romantic partners; however, it is commonly associated with male-inflicted violence. This popular belief is referred to as the “gender paradigm” and stems from a patriarchal view of domestic violence. From this perspective, men in Western cultures are socialized to dominate women and even have the right to use violence to establish power and control over women. However, research consistently finds that women in heterosexual relationships tend to perpetrate violence against intimate partners at least as often as men (if not more 2). According to the CDC, one in seven men in the US has been the victim of physical abuse by an intimate partner in his lifetime, and one in 10 men has experienced rape, physical violence, and stalking by an intimate partner. Recent data from the Office for National Statistics points out that of every three reported IPV cases in the UK, two victims are female, and one is male. These numbers may even be gross underestimations considering male victims of domestic abuse are less likely to view abuse as a crime and usually don’t report it to friends or the police.
Indeed, male victims of domestic abuse are often met with suspicion or disbelief and have difficulty finding public help because services or shelters for domestic abuse mostly focus on female victims. Moreover, female-inflicted violence towards men is not taken as seriously in courts and tends to be viewed as less severe despite data suggesting that men are more likely to get physically injured by female intimate partners. In addition to physical injury, male victims of IPV also suffer psychological consequences, such as post traumatic stress symptoms.
Consequently, the view that all acts of domestic violence are the result of patriarchy alone is not only misleading but also dangerous because a) it ignores male victims, and b) it fails to explain female-inflicted violence towards male intimate partners. It is, therefore, time for a major revision of our thinking, and time to replace the gender paradigm of domestic abuse with a scientifically sound perspective of the issue that is rooted in facts, not ideology.
So, if not the patriarchy, what is factually driving IPV?
The patriarchal view of IPV has long been debunked by an enormous volume of empirical evidence suggesting that there are biological and psychological factors that place people (both men and women) at an increased risk of IPV perpetration. Everyone who is in, or has ever been in, a relationship knows that conflict is inevitable. In all relationships with high interdependence (meaning that the partners’ lives are intertwined), conflicting interests are expected to occasionally rise to the surface. This is referred to as “situational couple violence.” When partners fail to reach an agreement or resolve a problem, frustration, anger, and insecurities can arise and cause a nonviolent conflict to suddenly escalate and turn into a violent conflict. From this interdependence perspective, IPV can be understood as an impulsive behavior that emerges when partners (both men and women) experience upset or threat in their relationship. Indeed, people perpetrate violence against intimate partners at alarming rates. In the US, one in six couples experience at least one act of IPV every year. However, not all men and women resort to violence during conflict.
A large body of research suggests that individual differences in attachment styles and the way they interact in a couple dynamic can predict IPV perpetration by both men and women. Attachment theory 1 explains that we are born with an innate attachment system that is influenced by our early childhood relationships with caregivers and can affect how we relate to romantic partners. For example, people with parents who were responsive to their needs and made them feel safe tend to develop a secure attachment style. People with a secure attachment style feel safe in their relationships, are comfortable with intimacy, and can easily rely on others. Conversely, people with parents who were unresponsive to their needs and neglectful or inconsistent in caregiving tend to develop an insecure attachment style, which is conceptualized along the two dimensions of anxiety and avoidance.
Attachment anxiety 1 is characterized by attempts to maintain closeness to a partner, such as clinging, and an overdependence on a partner for security and stability. People with an anxious attachment style tend to be more sensitive to cues of rejection by their partners and constantly fear being abandoned. As a result, anxious people may use controlling or coercive behaviors, often violent in nature, as a means of getting close to their partners when they experience distress or feel threatened in their relationships.
Attachment avoidance 1, on the other hand, is characterized by a fear of intimacy and of getting too close to a partner. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to be more self-reliant and fear becoming dependent on others. Avoidant people are also more likely to ignore the signs of trouble in their relationships and tend to evade conflict by shutting down or escaping.
The research into attachment styles and IPV consistently shows that people with insecure attachment styles, specifically those with an anxious attachment style, tend to perpetrate more violence against intimate partners. However, the way partners’ attachment styles interact in a couple may be especially predictive of IPV perpetration. Specifically, the pairing of anxiously attached and avoidantly attached partners can be a recipe for disaster. For example, while the avoidant partner wants to evade intimacy, the anxious partner wants to seek constant reassurance and be physically close to their partner. The avoidant partner, who is uncomfortable with intimacy and wants to feel independent, may perceive the anxious partner as needy and clingy. Consequently, when the anxious partner’s attachment needs are not met by the avoidant partner, they can feel rejected and could resort to maladaptive “protest behaviors” (like children throwing tantrums) to get close to their avoidant partners.
The pairing of anxious and avoidant individuals is often referred to as the anxious–avoidant trap because it can trap couples in a toxic cycle of pursuit and withdrawal, pushing and pulling. It is therefore expected that these couples will report more violence in their relationships. One study in particular showed that anxious women who are paired with avoidant men demonstrate pursuit and withdrawal patterns whereby the woman demands more closeness than the man could tolerate. Consequently, the avoidant man’s attempts at withdrawal only aggravate the demands from their anxious partner, which could lead to the use of violence by both members, each for different motives: gaining closeness versus gaining space. Moreover, a breakup is a tough pill for the anxiously attached person to swallow because their nightmare of being abandoned by their partner and losing the relationship has become reality. This may be why people with an anxious attachment style are more likely to stalk ex-partners and seek revenge 1.
This gender-neutral perspective of domestic violence provides a well-rounded and scientific understanding of the issue by explaining the underlying mechanisms that can lead to IPV perpetration. However, although attachment styles offer a solid rationale for why people resort to violence, they, of course, don’t excuse abuse. The good news is that attachment styles can change over time, and it is possible to develop a more secure way of relating to others through personal development and professional help. Therefore, public and therapeutic interventions need to be further developed and made accessible for both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.
Domestic violence will never stop as long as we explain it through the lens of patriarchy and minimize, or ignore altogether, the biological and psychological factors associated with domestic abuse. By blaming the patriarchy for domestic abuse in general and suggesting that all men are socialized to abuse women to gain power over them and are, therefore, the sole perpetrators of domestic violence, we ignore male victims of domestic abuse and discourage them from coming forward and speaking up.
Finally, domestic violence should not be minimized or justified by arguing that it is mutual.
By claiming that all women are victims of male dominance and suppression and will resort to violence only as a means of self-defense, we remove all responsibility from female perpetrators of domestic abuse. As a society, we should have zero tolerance for domestic violence no matter the sex or gender of the perpetrator.
The topic of domestic abuse has never been more important than in the time of COVID-19 and #MeToo, and I hope that the Depp v. Heard case can put an end to the gender paradigm in domestic violence and spark a wind of necessary social change by reframing the conversation we are currently having about domestic abuse to one that empowers both female and male victims of abuse.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic abuse, please reach out for help from resources such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (US), the Mankind Initiative (UK), 1800RESPECT or Mensline (AU).