In Wake Of The Depp/Heard Defamation Trial, Experts Weigh In On Subtle Signs Of Abuse That Can Be Toxic

The defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard might be over, but its shockwaves are still rippling through the zeitgeist. While some treated the spectacle as prime-time TV, others cringed at the memories the trial shook loose. 

Team Johnny and Team Amber camps were crawling with armchair relationship experts. Complicated, nuanced snapshots of this couple’s worst moments were dissected on a national scale. All the while, most of us were left wondering: what is abuse? 

Most of us are somewhat familiar with the most obvious signs of abuse, like physical violence and controlling or extremely jealous behavior. Even more subtle symptoms, like gaslighting and love bombing, have recently become household terms. 

But like the messy chaos of Depp and Heard’s relationship, there are often other signs of an unhealthy relationship that go unnoticed. We reached out to the (actual) experts to shed light on the less-talked-about signs of a toxic or abusive relationship.

1. Ignoring Love Languages

Couple sits back to back, ignoring each other
(Nadia Snopek/

One such sign is someone ignoring their partner’s love language. This can look like a partner repeatedly avoiding affection, emotional intimacy, erotic touch, or other needs. (In addition to knowing your and your partner’s love languages, you should also become familiar with your apology languages.)

“When one’s needs continually go unmet, it qualifies as neglect. Neglect falls under the category of abuse, yet it is rarely discussed,” says Dr. Wyatt Fisher, licensed psychologist and developer of Apps for Couples.

2. Creating Financial Codependency

Woman being manipulated by hand holding puppet strings
(Yulia Tyutereva/

Another form of abuse that often goes unnoticed is financial abuse. Financial codependency occurs “when one partner begins relying on the other’s finances and makes them feel guilty if they express any hesitation,” explains Lachlan Brown, founder and editor of the relationship advice platform Hack Spirit.

Alternatively, financial abuse can also occur when a higher-earning partner uses money to control the lesser-earning partner. Controlling or possessive behavior around money can be a sign of financial abuse.

3. Sex Has Become One-Sided Or A Chore

Couple sleeps facing away from each other, no intimacy

—or worse, non-consensual. Chris Pleines, a dating expert at, explains that abnormal sexual behaviors can indicate potential abuse or toxicity. Healthy sexual intimacy involves giving and taking.

“It’s nice to pleasure your partner, but if you always give without being pleasured in return, this would cause an imbalance. It is also similar if one of you regularly takes without providing anything in return. This will build resentment between the two of you.”

Forcing kinks on someone is another form of abuse, adds Katina Tarver, mental health and relationship expert. In this case, the partner “has a set of sexual fantasies, and without giving any thought, they force those on you with a presumption that you will definitely like them.”

4. Swinging Self-Esteem

Man sits dejected in chair, crossed out own face in photos

Swinging self-esteem is another potential red flag, says Debee Gold, owner and clinical director of Gold Counseling. If a partner constantly puts themselves down in front of you, “this is a sign that they don’t believe they deserve anything good.”

“They’re trying to manipulate you into constantly feeling sorry for them,” Gold continues. They’re trying to push you into “making yourself small so that you don’t accidentally offend them or hurt their fragile self-worth.”

5. Using Racial Or National Microaggressions

Sitting woman covers face, hands pointing at her
(Nadia Snopek/

Some signs of toxicity and abuse are specific to interracial or international couples. Renata Castro, Esq., of Castro Legal Group, sees hundreds of domestic violence victims as an immigration attorney.

“Several times, immigrant men and women don’t recognize small but traumatizing signs of abuse,” Castro says. “They are so used to being discriminated that they don’t associate the behavior with abuse.”

“Being made fun of for having an accent, being ostracized from socializing with others of the same culture, being judged for liking food from one’s culture, these microaggressions tend to rise up to more frequent and painful forms of abuse.”

6. Always Seeming To Ruin Big Events

Man wearing crown surrounded by hearts and stars

Life happens—it’s unavoidable. But if your partner seems to always have a crisis during important life events, it might be a sign of an abusive or toxic person. “A narcissist will find a way to make themselves the center of attention,” explains Veronica Weedon, founder of Revival Health.

“Be it a holiday, promotion, anniversary, or something serious, like a death in the family, a narcissist will find a way to overshadow the event,” Weedon continues. “The more important the occasion, the more dramatic the actions will be.”

“By shifting your focus back onto them, they remove your ability to be happy, sad, or grieve. It’s another form of control. Over time, your feelings are no longer your own, as they are always based on what your partner emotes.”

7. Practicing Self-Sensitivity

Man judging woman
(Salim Hanzaz/

Finally, Pareen Sehat MC, RCC, considers self-sensitivity to be one of the most ignored (and insidious) forms of toxic and abusive behavior. “Someone displaying self-sensitive qualities will exhibit little or no concern to someone else’s feelings but display extreme levels of sensitivity when it comes to themselves.”

“Self-sensitivity is the worst trait to have, in my opinion. It feels like walking on eggshells with the other person. More often than not, self-sensitive people are harsh in their judgment of others and overly critical of everything around them.”

What To Do If These Signs Sound Familiar

If the Depp-Heard trial taught us anything, it’s that relationships are complex. Indeed, no two partnerships will be exactly alike. If any of these toxic and abusive behaviors sound familiar, that doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed to fail. 

However, it does mean that your connection is in need of some maintenance. (And even the healthiest relationships require time and energy.) It’s also important to remember that while abuse is always toxic, toxic behavior isn’t always abuse. 

Open communication, honest dedication, and professional counseling can address toxic behaviors before they develop into full-blown abuse. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, seek help immediately.

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