What makes a confident successful woman stay in a controlling relationship?

And how to spot the signs

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard
(Image credit: Jim Smeal/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock)

And how to spot the signs

(Image credit: Jim Smeal/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock)

None of us will ever know the truth about what went on in Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s 15 month marriage, but what is certain, is that that Heard has been on the receiving end of some pretty bad press.

From screaming tabloid headlines about her rampant bisexual affairs, to the age-old insinuation that she’s just a gold digging wannabe trying to take down a great actor, there’s been a concerted effort to undermine serious allegations of domestic violence (and generally discredit her as a human being).

Meanwhile, The Alice in Wonderland star’s alleged outbursts have been doubted by millions or simply excused as the actions of a grief-stricken husband attempting to control his 'out of control' wife while struggling to come to terms with the death of his beloved mother.

Then came the army of friends, confidantes, and exes prepared to consign Heard to the ‘manipulative crazy girl’ scrap heap, suggesting she'd faked the whole thing. After all, how can a person be suffering the trauma of domestic violence one minute and smiling in an Instagram photo with her girlfriends the next? Surely if she was a battered wife, she’d be sobbing in bed nursing her bruises, not out two days later partying with friends and putting photos of her exploits on Instagram.

Well for anyone buying this line, it's time to wake up. As anyone who has ever known a victim of domestic abuse will testify; such women are often brave, confident, successful women who are extremely capable of putting on a ‘face’ to the outside world and pretending nothing is wrong. If ‘coercive control’ (one of the first signs of domestic violence) is also part of the abuse behind the scenes, it can also paralyse a woman into staying with her partner for years, or refusing to press charges out of fear.

Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, says that many abusers adopt what she calls ‘charm syndrome’ exploiting the sheer force of their charisma to manipulate their victims into compliance. This might explain why there is often such shock among the couple’s family and wider circle when the abuser, who seems like a great catch, is outed.

‘Lots of men exhibit occasional jealousy or anger, but the tipping point into abuse is characterised by repeated intimidation. The abuser switches from charm to rage, which is confusing. He’s not nasty all the time and outsiders think he’s wonderful, so the victim thinks she’s imagining it. Often the result is that women start to doubt their own judgement" she says. "It’s dangerous to think that abusers only prey on the weak. Many violent men seek out confident, attractive women who happen to be going through a difficult patch.’

So what is it that makes women stay? Kelly Watson, 36, an accountant from Manchester, was physically and emotionally abused by her ex, for seven years. He was finally imprisoned last year. She explains to Marie Claire what stopped her from leaving earlier.

‘He was charming, intelligent and good-looking but the warning signs were there from the start. After drinking he’d become bitter and morose: he told me he’d had a difficult upbringing. His vulnerability brought out a need in me to nurture him and, dangerously, to excuse his controlling behaviour.

When I went to the shops, he’d make me text him a picture to prove I was there – he was paranoid I was seeing other men. His verbal abuse became physical. He’d bite me on the lip, trap me in the kitchen and, if I refused sex, he'd rape me.

Had the violence come before the emotional abuse I would have left at the start. But by the time it happened, I was so entrenched. He’d chipped away at my self-esteem. He would also apologise afterwards. I made excuses to give it another go. I blamed his drinking and myself for not making him happy. I was too ashamed and frightened to tell anyone – even the police – in case I wasn’t believed.

Then one day, I stood up to him when he tried to suffocate me and I collapsed. When I came round, he was in the bathroom, so I fled to a friend’s house and she persuaded me to call the police. After he was arrested for assault.

Finally, he was found guilty of six counts of rape and one count of ABH, and sentenced to 13 years. Its only 5 years on that I’m learning to accept it wasn’t my fault. Slowly, I’m rebuilding my life and looking forward to the future again.'

Experts say that ‘emotional abuse’ or ‘coercive control’ are the first signs of domestic violence. Here’s how to spot the signs.

1. He isolates you from family and friends, monitors your phone calls, emails, texts and letters.

2. You feel you’re walking on eggshells. You can’t win and feel out of control.

3. Your every move is monitored, he checks up on you, follows you and accuses you of lying about your whereabouts.

4. He calls you names, puts you down in front of other people and sulks.

5. You excuse his actions because he always says he’s sorry– you don’t want others to think badly of him, or you for staying.

If you have been affected by domestic violence, contact womensaid.org.uk for help and advice.

Andrea Thompson
Editor in Chief

 Andrea Thompson is Editor in Chief at Marie Claire UK and was recently named by We are the City as one of the UKs top 50 trailblazers for her work highlighting the impact of Covid on gender equality. 


Andrea has worked as a senior journalist for a range of publications over her 20 year career including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Channel 4, Glamour and Grazia. At Marie Claire Andrea is passionate about telling the stories of those often marginalised by the mainstream media and oversaw a feature about rape in the Congo that won the title an Amnesty Media Award. She also champions women's empowerment, sustainability and diversity and regularly chairs panels and speaks at events about these topics. She sits on the committee of the British Society of Magazine Editors where she acts as Vice Chair and looks after Diversity and Inclusion. She regularly mentors young women from under represented communities trying to break into the media industry.