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Blue Personal Objects

Couple Science Blog

What can we learn from the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial?

It's not everyday we get an inside peek into the private lives of estranged mega-stars.

But there are examples to be gleaned from the testimony so far about how Johnny and Amber allegedly dealt with conflict.

Dr's John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute in Seattle Washington, identified 4 factors that have been correlated strongly with the near-certain demise of a relationship: Stonewalling, Contempt, Criticism and Defensiveness.

For example, John Gottman has explained that Stonewalling is when someone shuts down, becomes like a stone wall, and/or leaves the situation entirely. A stonewaller is really just trying to calm down, and not make things worse. However, as the Gottman's research has shown, "When one person shuts down, the other person escalates."

When Johnny Depp describes frequently leaving the room, or the Penthouse, (or the Country) that Amber Heard was in because he couldn't handle the fighting, he's describing his attempts to de escalate conflicts. This is a great intervention, but if a couple doesn't routinely come back to a discussion of what their problem is and how to fix it, then the opportunity to process and repair the rift doesn't occur.

"There is always one person on the outside of the bathroom door" rings true in most relationships where stonewalling and escalation is routine in a household.

The antidote for Stonewalling includes learning ways to calm yourself down. It can include deep breathing, muscle relaxation exercises, meditation, and sleep. However, if you turn to substances to calm down, especially alcohol, this can have a disastrous effect on your ability to think straight and truly calm down.

Contempt, is when you communicate to your partner that you think you're better than they are. Acting superior, using put downs, and flat out insulting your partner is the "Sulphuric Acid for Love" and Dr. John Gottman talks about it in this video:

It would be difficult to find a better example of contempt than the use of physical violence against another person. Physical abuse, or abuse of any kind is very harmful and definitely conveys that not only do you not care about our partner, you believe you have a right to take advantage of your relationship with them, and your proximity to them, to cause harm.

Pathological abuse is about power and control, and if it's happening in your relationship your safety is at risk. Do not hesitate to reach out. You can start here:

The antidote for contempt manifested by hurtful words and behaviors, is to build a culture of appreciation in the relationship and also to express your own feelings and needs. So instead of pointing out faults you look for positive things to build on. And instead of accusing your partner of "always" or "never" doing certain problematic things, you talk with your partner, not to them. Talking with means you have an intention of sharing your feelings and needs calmly and are willing to hear what your partner's side of the situation is.

So far in the Depp/Amber trial we've heard many criticisms of both partners, and it's clear that the relationship was fraught with dysfunction. Also, if you listen to recordings of some of their arguments, you can hear excellent examples of defensiveness. Defensiveness occurs when you feel verbally attacked by your partner, and you lash back out, pointing out their issues to deflect the perceived attack.

The antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility for even part of the problem. That allows couples to have meaningful dialogue as opposed to tit for tat arguments.

While these 4 destructive forces and their antidotes have been explained clearly by the Gottman Institute, they are not easy to put into practice on your own. It takes guidance, teaching, and lots of practice to use the antidotes and keep your relationship on a positive note.

We will have to stay tuned to see the ultimate legal fate of the battle between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, but in the meantime we can definitely learn what not to do in a relationship.

Kathleen Anderson LMHC, LLC

copyright 2022 all rights reserved

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