Being A Powerful Man Does Not Protect You From Abuse—Here's Why

While the conversation surrounding domestic abuse is still front and center in the media, thanks to the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, I think much of this conversation has been misguided.

By Jaimee Marshall8 min read
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Following the jury’s verdict that Amber Heard defamed Johnny Depp, many news outlets have been churning out article after article, tweet after tweet, claiming that Depp could not have been a victim of domestic violence because he “had all the power.” The basis of this claim is largely grounded on the fact that Johnny Depp, as a man, was larger, stronger, richer, more famous, and better connected than Amber Heard. 

Outlets like Vox have said that even if Heard instigated acts of violence, she still never had the power in the relationship. This is an extremely harmful myth that is being perpetuated, so we must understand why anyone, no matter their age, gender, socioeconomic status, or career, can be a victim of domestic violence. Abuse is indeed about control, and this can be exercised over victims in many ways – physically, sexually, psychologically, emotionally, financially, and culturally. There is one common denominator in abusive relationships, though, and that’s the type of person that abusers seek out.

“Powerful” People Are Not Immune to Abuse

In her article for Vox, Constance Grady says, “Depp at all times had more power than Heard. When they met, Heard was 22 and Depp was 46, and he was hiring her for a job. He was a household name. He was richer, more famous, more beloved than she ever was.” This, of course, is true in a literal sense. However, what’s implied here is that because Depp was more successful and had more resources at his disposal, he could not be abused. 

Grady goes on, “If Heard is not a perfect victim, if at times she instigated violent encounters with Depp, that does not change the fact that Depp had power over Heard that she did not have over him.” 

Let’s start with the troubling statement that even if Heard instigated physical violence against Depp, it doesn’t matter because she was less powerful and therefore the victim. The notion that success, wealth, status, good looks, and strong relationships make one immune to abuse is not just wrong – it’s often the very reason that an abuser is drawn to them in the first place. The higher their victim is on the status ladder, the further they have to fall. To an abuser, the greater the challenge is in gaining control over someone, the greater the satisfaction when they feel they’ve been successful. While preying on a weaker, more submissive target may seem in their best interest, this is often not as “fun” for them. This is why you’ll often hear victims of domestic violence say that they didn’t think of themselves as a typical victim. They are often strong, independent, and successful – until an abusive person comes into their lives and slowly wears away at them.

Anyone, no matter their age, gender, socioeconomic status, or career, can be a victim of domestic violence.

While it may appear that someone like Heard is powerless in comparison to someone like Depp, the devil is in the details. Let’s start with the fact that Depp is older and much richer than Heard. This is no security blanket against abuse at all. June happens to be elder abuse awareness month – a time to bring attention to a commonly overlooked vulnerable portion of the population. Older people are often preyed on by close family members and friends as they decline in health and cognitive capacity. While the abuse can take many forms, financial abuse is one of the most common ways someone can take advantage of their elder family members or friends. 

While Depp is not an 80-year-old man riddled with dementia, he is one of the most famous men on the planet who may make a useful target for someone who wants to elevate their own fame and wealth. Depp alleges that Heard was upset that he wanted out of the relationship which is why she vowed to take him down by filing for a temporary restraining order. Doug Stanhope wrote a guest column in 2016 stating that he knew Heard was blackmailing Depp and attempting to extort him if he failed to give in to her demands. This certainly disproves the idea that more money inherently means more power.

Abuse Is Wielded Differently by Men and Women

Now let’s explore the notion that because Depp is a man, he could not be abused. Even the most radical feminists who assert that we should always take a woman’s word for it when they say they’ve been abused do not deny that men can be victims of abuse. What many do have an issue with, however, is seeing how a man who is larger and stronger than their female partner could live in fear of her physical abuse. This simply comes down to the different ways that men and women tend to express control and domination. 

It’s true that, generally speaking, men can cause more damage to women due to their strength and size. However, women also get away with perpetrating violence against men more often for the very same reason. Men hit their wives at a lesser rate than women hit their husbands, according to a series of studies performed by Suzanne Steinmetz. After analyzing many different modes of physical violence perpetrated by men and women in marital relationships, she found that female perpetrated violence against men exceeded that of the husbands in violence committed as well as frequency of the violence. The only category where women committed violence at a lesser rate was pushing and shoving. Wives committed more instances of throwing things, hitting/slapping, kicking, hitting with something, threatening the use of a knife or gun, and use of other violence.

Another study by Straus found wives committed an average of 10.3 acts of violence against their husbands during 1975 while husbands averaged only 8.8 acts against their wives. These studies have faced considerable criticism and suppression by those concerned that these findings will cause harm to female victims when it comes to crafting public policy and allocating resources to victims. It’s worth noting that this concern only surrounds women, despite the fact that virtually all domestic violence shelters are for women, we have legislation like the Violence Against Women Act, and federal funding to help women get out of abusive situations. No such support of the same scale exists for men. 

Men often do not come forward, afraid they won’t be believed or that their masculinity will be questioned.

However, studies on female perpetrated violence show that women also cause significant harm and fatally kill their partners at lesser but still concerning rates. A number of studies also show that men who are victims of personal violence experience higher rates of PTSD, depression, suicidal thoughts, reduced overall health, and general psychological distress. This can be attributed to a sense of shame in being a male victim, being unable to recognize that they are a victim of abuse due to society's downplaying of female violence, a lack of resources to help, and fear that they will be seen as the aggressor by police and social services, which can result in losing custody of their children.

Underlying biological realities can explain why women hit men at higher rates and perhaps why this behavior has become rationalized as being “no big deal.” Because men are generally larger and much stronger than women, the underlying threat of violence is almost always fatal. There is no denying that a heavy and muscular man punching a woman with all of his force can kill her. Women are significantly more likely to be killed as a result of IPV committed by men. Consequently, women understand that they’re less likely to deal significant damage to men in a comparative sense. 

Of course, there are always outliers in which women are stronger and bigger than their male partners, and even without being so, the use of weapons can level the playing field. Studies on the matter have shown that 1/3 of abused men sustain serious injuries. Men are also limited in their ability to respond to violent aggression from women because they’re aware that they cannot hit back under any circumstances. This becomes a unique trap for pathological women to take advantage of. Women prone to aggression are often paired with much more agreeable men, who want to avoid conflict to please their partner, or are worried that he may be accused of being the abuser himself. When police or social workers are called to investigate, the man is usually the primary suspected abuser.

It’s interesting to see all this talk of power and how men can use defamation suits to intimidate and discourage female victims from coming forward. What we don’t often hear about is how false allegations are, firstly, a form of psychological abuse, and secondly, how this particular form of abuse is vastly more common among women. Men are, as psychologist Dr. Curry has testified, significantly less likely to falsely accuse a woman of being abusive: “About 90% of male victims of IPV have reported that a female partner who abuses them makes threats to report their partner as an abuser. It's less common for men to make that statement to female partners just because there's less potential consequence.” 

False allegations are a form of psychological abuse and are vastly more common among women. 

Furthermore, framing domestic violence as a uniquely male occurrence erases female victims in same-sex relationships. In fact, rates of domestic violence within lesbian relationships are comparable to or higher than heterosexual rates of domestic violence. Making excuses for female abuse only hurts women in abusive same-sex relationships. What does the “believe all women” movement suggest we do when a woman accuses a female partner of abusing her? Do we default to whoever has the most money, measures as taller and heavier, and has the more esteemed career as the abuser? This is a prevalent problem in same-sex couples, as people often assume that the more masculine partner is the abusive one based on stereotypes. Making excuses for the Amber Heards of the world does not just hurt the Johnny Depps. It also hurts the Tasya Van Rees who are being told that when a woman hits you, it’s no big deal.

What we’re lacking in the national conversation about domestic violence and sexual assault is nuance. Power can be wielded psychologically; it isn’t always material. Abuse involves isolation, manipulation, gaslighting, and tearing down the victim’s self-esteem. This cycle of abuse can happen to anyone. A small woman can wield a lot of power in a relationship where she knows the man will never and can never lay a finger on her. In addition to this, the knowledge that a man is likely to feel shame in coming forward as a victim because it violates acceptable expressions of masculinity is another form of power that a woman uniquely holds over a man. Despite 1 in 7 men reporting experiencing intimate partner violence in their lifetime, men often do not come forward for two main reasons – fear of not being believed and fear of their masculinity being called into question.

Abusers Prey on Agreeable People

Are you a highly compassionate, kind, and cooperative person? Do you consider yourself to be a highly empathetic person? Is your cup always running empty because you’re helping others without getting anything in return? If this sounds like you, you’re likely a highly agreeable person. People high in agreeableness are very warm and considerate, but they are also much more likely to put others' needs above their own and get taken advantage of. They're often unable to define their own desires because they're always living for others and are very conflict-avoidant which stops them from standing up for themselves. This is why people who are very high in agreeableness should be wary of who they surround themselves with and may even need to go through assertiveness training with the help of a therapist. Otherwise, they are ripe for exploitation in all areas of life – socially, romantically, and professionally. 

Agreeable people can be thought of as “people pleasers.” They generally get the short end of the stick in just about every situation in life. They’re less likely to get a raise because they don’t know how to negotiate, they’re less likely to know what they want to do in life because they’re accustomed to living for others, and they’re more likely to get trampled by domineering people because they hate conflict and just want to keep the peace. Being an agreeable person has its advantages in many contexts, but you need to have boundaries. Without them, you’re walking around with a neon flashing sign signaling to others that you will let them get away with treating you poorly. This may start small, like constantly requesting favors or berating you when they know that you won’t fight back. However, abusers test the waters to see how you will react before pushing you further. When you fail to set boundaries, you learn to tolerate unhealthy communication styles and generally toxic relationships because you assume all of the responsibility for keeping everyone happy. 

Something that I’ve noticed while following this case is that Johnny Depp presents as a man who is extraordinarily high in agreeableness. While he certainly has flaws of his own, he appears to be an especially kind, empathetic, and generous man, almost to a fault. On the extreme ends of the spectrum, pathologically disagreeable people are prone to antisocial behaviors, and extremely high agreeableness often leads to codependence. Depp likely falls on the extreme high end of the agreeableness scale. Paying for your wife’s friends' lifestyles and allowing them to live in your penthouses rent-free for years, financially supporting friends so they can pursue their dreams of painting, visiting sick children in the hospital dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow, and helping advance others’ careers without asking for anything in return is exactly the sort of temperament that an abuser would take advantage of. 

The fact that women are statistically much more likely to be high in agreeableness also plays a role in why we assume that the woman is the victim and not the abuser. However, you can always find deviance from the norm, where the man is significantly higher in agreeableness while the woman is particularly disagreeable. 

How To Set Boundaries

As Dr. Jordan Peterson has warned in his lectures, “One of the things you have to be careful of if you’re agreeable is not to be exploited, because you’ll line up to be exploited.” An abuser wants to exercise power and control over their victim, but they don’t just come out of the gate hitting their partner on the first date. It’s a carefully calculated long-game strategy that involves a lengthy period of love bombing before showing their true colors. Abusers are often paired with self-described “empaths,” which is not a real psychological term, but I’ll use it here for common understanding. 

Setting boundaries, saying no, and standing up for yourself are not optional life skills. 

Essentially, highly empathetic and kind people are used to seeing the good in everyone. While they may truly have only good intentions, they can mistake this blind optimism as being a universal experience, unaware of the lurking dangers from predators who don’t share the same temperament. At first, it might seem like no big deal that your partner no longer wants you to speak to your friends and family that often anymore. Maybe they even convince you that they’re dragging you down or are a part of the problems you're experiencing. Then, you notice they’re slowly taking control of more aspects of your life, down to the things you’re allowed to wear, who you can interact with, and where you’re allowed to go. 

Someone high in agreeableness doesn’t want to rock the boat. They just want to please their partner and may even take responsibility for their partner’s dissatisfaction and hostility in the relationship, thinking that it must be something they’ve done to cause them to act like this. If you take anything away from this article, please recognize that setting boundaries, saying no, and standing up for yourself are not optional life skills. They’re mandatory, if you want to make it out in one piece, physically and spiritually. Recognize the signs of abuse. It’s not normal to be met with extreme jealousy, rage, manipulation, and isolation. Physical violence is never excusable and is not an expression of passion or love; it’s an expression of control. Abusers abuse you because they want to – not because they’re mentally ill, or because they lost control one time, or because they have so much love for you that they don’t know what to do with it all. These are all justifications for toxic behavior that you should never accept.

Closing Thoughts

The unfortunate reality is that many of us think about abuse in a very time-constrained and unrealistic way. Most of us think when someone gets in an abusive relationship that once they leave, the abuse ends – but it often doesn’t end when the relationship does. False allegations and public smear campaigns are just another way for an abuser to take control of the victim’s public image to continue to psychologically abuse them. 

Children can be turned against the partner who left the abusive relationship, and abusers can use the family court system to drain them of their resources and ruin their reputation. This is a way to continue to inflict harm and control after the victim has left. False allegations brand someone for life and are not the small inconvenience the media wants to chalk them up as. Many men contemplate or go through with suicide as a result of being falsely accused. Allegations of this magnitude should not be taken lightly. If you’re currently in an abusive situation, you can call the domestic violence hotline for help.

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