Three women make up the epicenter of “Big Little Lies,” a book-turned-HBO-series that takes a ruthless, poignant look at motherhood, marriage, and money against the backdrop of beautiful beaches and a classic whodunit plotline. But apart from the suspense and mystery, we’ve been astounded by the normalization of domestic violence displayed in the marriage of Celeste and Perry. We asked therapist Jodee Virgo to join the conversation regarding abusive relationships to help shed some light on the storyline.
If you aren’t already watching, actresses Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, and Nicole Kidman bring their best to the show (alongside an all-star cast in general), and portray common female stereotypes — Madeline, the know-it-all blonde busybody who remains jealous of her ex’s hot new wife (Witherspoon); Jane, the young, disheveled outsider with a secret past and a guarded attitude (Woodley); and Celeste, the doting, beautiful stay-at-home mama envied by all for her seemingly perfect marriage (Kidman).
But — spoiler alert! — within the first two episodes, Celeste’s life turns out to be somewhat of a sham.
When we first meet Celeste, she’s standing on a stunning back patio of an insanely incredible mansion overlooking the Pacific with her adorable tow-headed twin boys. It is a picture-perfect moment, made complete by the entrance of her charismatic, handsome husband, Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgård). He’s been away on business, it seems, and she is delighted to have him home; the two embrace, chat, and laugh together like a normal married couple should. Then, he gropes her breasts, hard, right in front of the kids, and Celeste’s body language stiffens; she pulls away with a faint smile, and edges to the side. The scene continues with Perry innocently horsing around with their children, and the camera cuts to Celeste’s face, dark and distant.
As a viewer, you know that something weird just happened, but you can’t put your finger on it. There is the sense that Celeste loves her husband, but she might also hate him. Or even fear him. And you soon learn why. That night, during an otherwise mundane conversation, Perry slaps Celeste hard across the face, and she bounds away from him like a wounded animal.
Celeste and Perry later get into one of those boring but layered arguments couples have: while taking the boys to school for their first day, he realizes he delayed his flight for essentially carpool drop-off, and she dismisses his annoyance about the miscommunication with an eye roll. They arrive home, and he begins to angrily pack for his work trip. Celeste offers a halfhearted apology, but Perry isn’t having it, claiming she intentionally kept school details from him so she could “have the boys all to herself.” The conversation quickly escalates, and then Perry snaps, slapping Celeste once again.
This time, though, she hits him back, which leads to a strange apology from Perry down on his knees followed by rough sex against the wall. It is shocking to watch, but by the end of the ordeal, as the two straighten their clothing and walk away from one another, you get the sense that this situation might be… a regular occurrence? Celeste tells Madeline, as they gossip over wine one night, “Sometimes I think he likes to fight because it leads to sex.” She pauses, without mentioning the physical violence, and continues, “Sometimes I think I like it too.” To make matters more confusing, Perry follows up the abuse with a giant bouquet of flowers and a card declaring his love for her — and Celeste appears to forgive him.
We see more hints of Celeste and Perry’s sex life: he beckons her to flash him during a video chat. She declines flirtatiously, and then lifts her silky pajamas to provide him with a glimpse of her chest; he’s clearly turned on, and asks her to continue, but Celeste is in control (maybe?), and says no. She turns toward her reflection in the mirror, and we see dark bruises splattering her back before she quickly covers up. Episode two concludes with Perry and Celeste Skyping in the middle of the night. She calls him, discards her black robe, and begins to pleasure herself while he watches and joins in. Even though they’re both clearly active participants, the scene signals something sexy and sinister all at once.
Was the scene in the closet rape, or an off-putting depiction of aggressive, consensual sex? Who holds the power in their marriage, and at what cost? Most of all, is Celeste a willing participant? With so many questions, we brought Jodee in to help us understand the situation.
Celeste is smart, educated, and financially independent: how on earth could she allow herself to be with someone who hurts her?
Falling prey to an abusive relationship has nothing to do with intelligence or socioeconomic status and has everything to do with vulnerability. At the core of this vulnerability is a deep deficiency of self-worth. While a woman may be powerful, accomplished, and of a certain status in her career, the way she feels about herself in intimate relationships can be vastly different.
But she seems so confident from the outside.
Appearances can be deceiving. Many women who are in abusive relationships are highly self-critical and insecure. They often suffer from disordered eating patterns, substance abuse issues, anxiety, depression, and have really strong inner critics. They may feel on some level that they deserve the abuse. Typically, they are “rejection sensitive,” meaning they rely heavily on their partner to validate their self-worth and this makes them incredibly vulnerable to abuse.
Why wouldn’t Celeste just leave Perry?
We don’t yet know Celeste’s motivation for staying in her marriage, but she undoubtedly has her reasons. Learning to turn away from an abusive relationship is not always easy. It is important to understand that there are many barriers to safety in an abusive relationship. There are multiple factors an abused partner must consider in the analysis of how to respond to an abusive partner. The reality is that the most dangerous time for a survivor/victim is when she leaves the abusive partner. It becomes even more complex when there are children or financial dependency involved. These concerns are very real and must be addressed with safety planning.
She could at least tell somebody about the abuse, right?
It’s common for women to feel a deep sense of shame and embarrassment when they end up in abusive relationships. Shame can be paralyzing. They may feel that they “should know better” than to end up with someone who hurts them. When only using logic, this type of thinking makes sense, but the dynamics at play in an abusive relationship have nothing to do with logic and rationale. There are valid reasons why women end up and stay in abusive relationships, even if the reasons don’t make logical sense.
Why does Celeste accept her husband’s apologies and forgive him like nothing bad happened?
Celeste clearly feels conflicted about her relationship with Perry. Typically speaking, an abusive dynamic usually starts out by being very seductive and exciting making it easy to fall hard for your partner. At first, the abuser is charming and romantic. They behave in a way that “fills up” the deep void a woman might feel inside. This can be through compliments, gifts, wanting to spend all of his time with her, or intense sexual encounters. Over time there is a cycle of abuse that comes into play. This cycle has three parts:
- The Tension Building Phase: Tension builds over common domestic issues like money, children/parenting, or jobs. The victim tries to control the situation by pleasing the abuser, giving in, or avoiding the abuse. Verbal abuse begins. Eventually, the tension reaches a boiling point and physical abuse begins.
- The Acute Battering Episode: When the tension peaks and the physical violence begins. It is usually triggered by the presence of an external event or by the abuser’s emotional state — not by the victim’s behavior.
- The Honeymoon Phase: First, the abuser is ashamed of their behavior. They express remorse, try to minimize the abuse, and might even blame it on the partner. They exhibit loving, kind behavior followed by apologies, generosity, and helpfulness. They will genuinely attempt to convince the partner that the abuse will not happen again. This loving and contrite behavior strengthens the bond between partners and likely convinces the victim, once again, that leaving the relationship is not necessary.
This cycle continues over and over, and may help explain why victims stay in abusive relationships. The abuse may be horrible, but the promises and generosity of the honeymoon phase give the victim the false belief that everything will be fine.
The first scene doesn’t seem like a big deal: he grabs Celeste’s breasts, and she doesn’t like it. Is that really abuse?
Domestic violence doesn’t look the same in every relationship because every relationship is different. But one thing most abusive relationships have in common is that the abusive partner does many different kinds of things to have more power and control over their partners. You can see on Celeste’s face that she is not okay with being grabbed. But as the episodes unfold you can see this was just the beginning.
Can Celeste actually love her husband, even if he hits her?
Absolutely. While abuse in any form is never acceptable in a relationship, the abuser may also have very likeable attributes. Perhaps generosity, passion, and a good sense of humor are the positive traits. Maybe it’s the way Perry makes Celeste feel when he is not being abusive — loved, sexual, valued, and respected. It’s quite complex, but if one thing is true, it’s that the abuse is toxic to their relationship as a whole. Another inconvenient truth — we can’t help who we are attracted too. Attraction is chemical and very hard to control. Is this is a reason to stay with an abusive partner? No. But it’s important to note that attraction is not a switch we can turn on and off.
How do I know if someone is in an abusive relationship? What are the warning signs?
One of the most difficult obstacles in leaving an abusive relationship is confusion over what constitutes abusive behavior. People think that it should be simple to tell when you’re being abused, but sometimes it’s not. It can be confusing because often there is genuine love shared between partners, a shared history that makes it hard to imagine a future without them, or the promises that are made about the abuser changing their behavior. This can make it really hard to walk away.
Some common (early) warning signs of domestic violence include:
- Extreme jealousy/possessiveness
- Controlling behavior, unrealistic expectations
- Being overly needy
- Ignoring or disregarding boundaries/Invasion of your privacy
- Pushing you to isolate from family/friends
- Using force during an argument or during sex
- Lying or using manipulation tactics
- Being overly critical or shaming
- Sudden mood swings
- Rigid sex roles
- Verbal/emotional/psychological abuse
If someone I know confides in me about abuse in their relationship, what do I do to support him or her?
Do your best to remain calm while also sharing your concern for their safety. Stay away from criticism or blame because this will induce shame and make it less likely for any future disclosure. Show compassion and empathy and let them know you are there to help in any way you can. Ask how you can help. Do not berate or belittle their partner, this may cause the victim to be defensive and there is likely a part of them that still loves their partner.
And be patient. Just because you are being confided in does not mean they are ready to leave their relationship. Encourage them to call a domestic violence hotline (four numbers are listed below for reference) and to see a counselor or therapist. DO NOT suggest couples therapy, as it is contraindicated when there is domestic abuse involved. If you feel they are in immediate danger (being physically abused or their life is being threatened) encourage them to immediately call the police.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)
- National Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673 (HOPE)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)