Abusive Relationships Big Little Lies

Are you caught up on HBO’s miniseries starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern?

Big Little Lies, based on the book by Liane Moriarty, came to a conclusion on Sunday. The series absolutely enthralled me—the setting (Monterey) was gorgeous, the characters were interesting, and the acting was stellar.

More importantly, viewers were let in on a very realistic portrayal of an abusive relationship.

Celeste (Kidman) and Perry Wright’s (Alexander Skarsgård) relationship seems perfect to their friends, but the viewer has a window in to the cycle of domestic violence, which plays out repeatedly between the couple.

Though it was hard to watch at times, I hope that the series provided an outlet to get people thinking about and talking about domestic violence—an uncomfortable topic which is often avoided and can be kept secret even from those closest to us.

I’d like to share some background information about domestic violence, what we can learn from Celeste and Perry’s relationship, the one thing I would have added as Celeste’s therapist, and what you can do if you or someone you know has been impacted by an abusive relationship.

Domestic Violence Facts

(source: WEAVE, inc.)

-Abusive behavior can be physical, emotional, financial or sexual; it is used by one partner against the other to gain or maintain power and control. The abuser may intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt or injure their partner.

-1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of some sort of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.

-Domestic violence can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender or economic status.

What Big Little Lies Did Well

The Cycle of Violence: Part of what keeps us in abusive relationship is hope. Hope that our partner will change, hope that there is real love in the relationship, hope for happier times. This hope can get reinforced by the abusive partner through periods of apologies, promises, gifts, and displays of affection. One moment Perry would be ridiculing and beating Celeste, the next moment he would be crying and showering her with love. Celeste describes what it is like to be stuck in this pattern to their therapist, seeing this pattern as the passionate love they share. Luckily, her therapist sees through this and is able to help her understand the danger in the relationship.

Why Celeste Stays: If we’ve never been in an abusive relationship ourselves, it can be hard to understand why someone would stay. This series looked at some of the reasons someone stays with a partner like Perry including: thinking it would be better for the children to have their parents be together, belief that their partner can change, love and compassion for their partner, not wanting to hurt their partner emotionally, and fear of what others would think if the relationship failed or the truth about the violence was known. Celeste is highly educated and has more financial resources, but another main reason people will stay in an abusive relationship is the financial dependence on the abusive partner.

Isolation/Manipulation: Perry did much to try to isolate and manipulate Celeste. Insisting that she does not work, distracting her from her social life, and demanding involvement in every decision she makes. He also counts on Celeste’s dedication to keeping up appearances—though Celeste has close friends, she kept their struggles a secret. Victims of domestic violence often do this to protect the reputation of their partner/relationship, for fear of retaliation, and/or for fear of rejection/judgment by friends and family.

Effects on Children: Big Little Lies also highlighted that children are affected by abuse between their parents even if the violence is not blatantly in front of the kids.

The Need for a Safety Plan: It’s rare that I am impressed by therapy sessions in tv or movies—too many times the therapy is played out for entertainment purposes and not that realistic. Not so in Big Little Lies. Celeste’s therapist took important steps to point out the reality of Celeste’s situation and to help her create a safety plan. Putting a plan in place of where to go and who can support you is a very important step even if you are not ready to leave a relationship.

One thing I’d add as Celeste’s Therapist

The one missed opportunity in this series was to tell Celeste—and the millions of viewers—that the risk of violence escalating to extremes, even murder, can increase greatly when trying to leave the relationship. Leaving is dangerous and may need to involve leaving quickly, keeping your new location a secret, getting a restraining order or using police support.

Help for those affected by Domestic Violence

If you are in an abusive relationship and need support, there are support lines and crisis centers in most communities. Here in Sacramento we have WEAVE (Support Line: 916-920-2952). Even if you are outside the Sacramento area, you can call their hotline for information and resources for your community.

If you are a friend or family member of someone in an abusive relationship, it can be very hard to see them suffering. Remember how hard it can be to leave the relationship and show them compassion and understanding. You can encourage them to get help or to consider leaving the relationship, but remember that they need supportive people in their lives and if they feel judged, they may become more isolated.

If you have experienced abuse in a past relationship, you may still feel the effects. We can have a hard time creating new, intimate relationships or we may live with symptoms of PTSD even after being out of the abusive relationship for many years. You don’t have to live this way—support is out there! Contacting a local domestic violence counseling center or a trusted therapist with experience in relationship trauma can help you heal and move on with your life.