Luisa Tam
SCMP Columnist
The Naked Truth
by Luisa Tam
The Naked Truth
by Luisa Tam

Don’t be like Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – the signs of a toxic relationship to look out for and when to walk away

  • Many believe abuse is always physical. As showed by the case of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, it can take the shape of gaslighting, control and unhealthy jealousy
  • A relationship coach explains what red flags to look out for in your own relationship, how to try to salvage it and when to recognise it’s better to walk away

The courtroom drama swirling around the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation lawsuit was captivating to watch and, at times, far more exciting than the average Hollywood blockbuster.

Apart from the salacious details that spawned countless memes and entertained a global audience, the high-profile trial held at a courthouse in Virginia in the United States also depicted what “mutual abuse” in a romantic relationship can look like.

As certified relationship and intimacy coach Nathalie Sommer points out, many people believe abuse is physical, which isn’t always true.

As shown by Hollywood stars Depp and Heard, mutual abuse that wasn’t necessarily physical in nature clearly took place in their relationship, Sommer says.
Johnny Depp and Amber Heard at the US premiere of “3 Days To Kill” in Hollywood, California, in 2014. The courtroom drama swirling around the Depp-Heard defamation lawsuit was captivating. Photo: AFP

“How much of this was reactive abuse – that is, one party trying to ‘bait’ the other into fighting back – remains to be seen. But either way, the entire relationship was filled with constant digs and put-downs of one another.

“They both brought out the worst in each other by using each other’s pain points to tear each other down.”

Know your partner’s love language and have a better relationship

Sommer says a lot of times, abusers believe they have the right to control and restrict their partners’ lives, either because they believe their own feelings should take priority or because they enjoy the power trip.

She points out some common warning signs of a toxic and abusive relationship.

Gaslighting by claiming that the abuse didn’t happen, blaming the victim for anything bad that happens, accusing the victim of flirting with others or having affairs and controlling what the victim wears are common red flags.”
Nathalie Sommer is a relationship and intimacy coach.

Other red flags include being controlling in general, showing unhealthy jealousy, lashing out or accusing the partner of infidelity for no reason.

“The act of gaslighting also involves apologising for the abuse that happened and then promising it will never happen again; obviously, the cycle of abuse soon restarts after this,” she says.

For those who want to escape from toxic relationships, Sommer advises that the first step is to recognise abusive behaviour, then make a plan to leave.

Maintain open communication with your partner and pick a suitable time to talk. Photo: Shutterstock
It is possible to prevent a relationship from becoming toxic if both partners are proactive communicators, but the sad reality is that most tend to become toxic with time as negative habits develop and are allowed to fester.

“Abusers chip away at your self-esteem by constantly criticising you, even in public or in front of friends and family,” Sommer points out.

“Psychological intimidation is another red flag. This is when they instil fear by saying you are worthless without them, or they threaten to ruin your life if you leave.

Illustration by Perry Tse

“A toxic relationship often causes fear of conflict in a partner, as partners become conflict avoidant out of fear of reprisal.

“Some toxic partners will impose financial restrictions to control their spouse and take away their independence.”

Sommer says it is also common for abusers to systematically isolate victims from friends and family.

Co-dependency is typical in these kinds of relationships, but it’s more than being incessantly clingy. One or both parties are solely dependent on their partner for fulfilment and feel worthless unless they are “needed” by the other person, she says.

Heard departs the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, on June 1, 2022. Photo: AFP
Toxic partnerships are often marked by a lack of trust. Sommer adds: “You may feel the need to hide things from your partner, or constantly fear that the other person is hiding things from you.”

Be on the lookout for passive-aggressive behaviour, which is another subtle move for control. “They will use words like ‘whatever’ or ‘I’m fine’ when you ask them what is wrong. The toxicity lies in stealing your capacity to respond.

“Toxic relationships are often marked by patterns of ineffective communication. This might involve not talking about problems, avoiding difficult issues, expecting the other person to be a mind reader, not listening, getting defensive, or stonewalling to avoid confronting problems in the relationship.”

Still looking for ‘the perfect partner’? Stop – it’s not going to happen

But there is still hope for repairing a toxic relationship, provided that both parties are willing to put in the work and remain self-accountable.

“Getting outside support from a counsellor or coach may help, as they can act objectively and mediate difficult situations.”

Sommer points out that you must also set boundaries and work on your own self-awareness. Maintain open communication with your partner and pick a suitable time to talk. It goes without saying there are “better” times to have big conversations, as both of you will be in the right head space and receptive to feedback.

That being said, we still need to know when to walk away, she stresses.

There is still hope for repairing a toxic relationship. That being said, we still need to know when to walk away. Photo: Getty Images

When there is physical, emotional or sexual violence taking place, and an intense fear of what might happen if you leave the relationship, it is time to go.

“If your motivation for staying in the relationship isn’t your care for the other person but fear of being alone, you need to leave,” she says. “If one partner refuses to work on the relationship and repeatedly acts out instead of committing to open communication and change, it’s time to make a plan to leave the relationship.”

Luisa Tam is a Post correspondent who also hosts video tutorials on Cantonese language that are now part of Cathay Pacific’s in-flight entertainment programme