Amber and Johnny: Lessons Learned

Creating a Story Sells: But What’s the Story?

Over the last few weeks the news cycles have have been flooded with stories on the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trail. I was interviewed by USA Today for a piece on the trial and answered questions on couples and the impact of substance use on relationships, when to be concerned, and how couple recovery is a key approach in addressing substance use problems.

Let’s step back from the Hollywood drama and sensationalism of this story, and the question of “Who do you believe?” What we can all probably agree on is that this is a sad story reflecting the pain and the destructive behaviors of the individuals and in the relationship. I don’t say this with judgement or accusation, but looking at the portrayals given and descriptions of the level of the intense conflict in the relationship, clearly there are a number of issues that this trial is raising.

The Real Story: The Perfect Storm for Disaster

If we look at the making of disastrous outcomes in relationships there are a few givens.

  • Substance misuse and addiction
  • Escalating anger characterized by criticism, blame, defensiveness, and contempt
  • Lack of positivity in the relationship
  • Emotional abuse and control
  • Physical abuse
  • Lack of individual support and resources
  • Lack of relationship support and resources

Getting A Perspective on the Real Story

Substance misuse and addiction. One of the questions I was asked in the USA Today article was the impact of “designer drugs” as a harmless and a common behavior among some couples. There is no such thing as a category of safe designer drugs. Any drug that activates the reward (feel good) neuropathways in the brain can potentially be problematic or addictive. Addiction is a specific category of a substance problem where the stop mechanism is broken and use continues despite bad outcomes. Substance problems can be addressed through education and developing new behaviors, and addiction is treatable and preventable.

Escalating anger. Anger is not predictive of bad outcomes in relationship unless it is characterized by escalating patterns of blame, defensiveness. Effective anger management and strategies individually and as a couple are well established and researched

Lack of positivity. Stepping back from the problems in the relationship and thinking about the things that are going well in the relationship, and expressing appreciation to the partner serves to buffer the relationship from escalating conflict. If it seems impossible during calm periods to say anything positive about the relationship or the partner, then that could mean more work is needed individually to sort out internal feelings, or that the damage in the relationship has taken its toll.

Emotional abuse and physical abuse. Abuse of any kind is never acceptable or excusable, it must be addressed. Depending on the specific circumstances of these behaviors a professional assessment is needed to determine appropriate treatment options. The Gottman research differentiates categories of intimate partner violence and when couples therapy is a good idea and not a good idea.

Lack of individual support and resources. Getting the right help is an important decision. Professionals trained in addiction assessment and treatment can provide ideas, suggestions, and options for the individual to consider to address substance use concerns and whether there is evidence of misuse or addiction. Similarly, mental health issues need to be part of the assessment. Help and healing is available, but reaching out to receive that help is a decision.

Lack of relationship support and resources. Couple therapy provides a framework for understanding the problems in the relationship with a different perspective. Finding the right couples therapist is not an easy task. The Gottman research on divorce prediction and prevention included a study that distressed couples wait an average of six years after identifying unhappiness in the relationship before getting help. By then, it is too late for some couples. On the other hand, research indicates that couple therapy can have long-lasting positive effects on ailing relationships

Creating Your Story

If you have concerns in any of those perfect storm scenarios, consider the options to address those concerns sooner than later. While any of these areas of concern can feel overwhelming, even impossible to address, consider that you and your partner have a say in how the story develops.