What Big Little Lies Gets Right About Domestic Violence

Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO.
There's a new HBO series premiering this weekend called Big Little Lies, based on the addicting novel by Liane Moriarty. People who have read the book acknowledge that it's a touch melodramatic, maybe slightly trashy, and the perfect "beach read," because the plot revolves around the lives of PTA-perfect moms in an elementary school by the beach. But the plot is far from cookie-cutter, and it's laced with brutally realistic details about an abusive and violent marriage.

The show will definitely get people talking, if not about the cliffhangers, because it's such a disturbingly accurate portrayal of what it's like to be in an abusive relationship — or at least it will be if it sticks to how the book portrays it. But since it would be pretty uncharacteristic of Hollywood to include every detail from an adapted book's plot, and because we haven't seen the series yet, we can only hope that they do the topic justice.

"Seeing domestic violence covered in books creates a conversation that's not intimidating," says Cameka Crawford, Chief Communications Officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. "The only way we're going to eventually end domestic violence is when we're having conversations and taking away the stigma of talking about it." So, lets talk about it.

We spoke to counselors and spokespeople from two domestic abuse and violence hotlines and shelters about the intricacies of the abusive relationship between two of the main characters in the book, Celeste and Perry (played in the show by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård). Here are some of the truths about this complex, volatile, and sadly very realistic relationship.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
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Domestic violence survivors can hit back.

At the core of most abusive relationships, there's a gnarled dynamic of power and control, says Rachel Goldsmith, LCSW-R, Associate Vice President for the Domestic Violence Shelter Programs at Safe Horizon. The first time Celeste describes Perry hitting her, she mentally runs through her usual reactions: respond like an adult, yell, walk away, or hit back. To someone not in an abusive relationship, it might seem obvious that she should run away, but that's usually not a clear or easy option for people in an abusive relationship, Goldsmith says.

Hitting back can be self-defense, and it can also be another dangerous byproduct of being trapped in an abusive relationship, she says. "Rarely do the two people have the same level of power and control in a relationship where there's violence," she says. It's important to look at the relationship dynamic as a whole before you jump to the conclusion that Celeste is being abusive to Perry by hitting him back, Crawford says.

"Is someone hitting back because they’re trying to defend themselves?" Goldsmith says. "Or do they feel like there’s consequences for not going along with the dynamics in the relationship?"

Crawford says that some people refer to this as "mutual abuse," but caveats that by saying mutual abuse is not a thing. "Domestic abuse is a pattern of behaviors where one person is trying to get control over their partner," Crawford says. Abuse is chameleonic, and though Celeste was being abused physically in this moment, it had presumably taken over her emotional life, too.
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The smallest things can trigger abuse.

Things that seem like infinitesimal "missteps" can cause an uproar in an abusive relationship. In the book, Celeste let her sons leave their Legos all over the floor, and in return, Perry dumps the entire box over her head and then slaps her — which is completely unjustifiable behavior.

"There’s an illusion that domestic violence comes up when there’s some big incident," Goldsmith says. "But really, anything can trigger violence, and that’s why it’s so confusing for survivors in a relationship." It goes back to power and control: Domestic abuse survivors don't have the power, so they don't know what will trigger the violence, and so they are forced to walk on eggshells.

Celeste thinks that "marriage to Perry meant she was always ready to justify her actions," as the book says, and that's an accurate way survivors cope, according to Goldsmith. "As people, we don't want to believe that abuse could be triggered from just nothing, that our partners would choose to hurt us just because of their own desires, not because of a real reason," she says.

Survivors link violence back to an incident, regardless of its logical weight, in order to to process the moment, she says: "It’s hard to contextualize that the reason could just be that your partner wants to have power or control over the situation." So blame becomes internalized, and when the abuser points to a reason, the cycle of abuse is reinforced.
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There are usually good moments, too.

Perry's affluence also affects how Celeste justifies his abusive behavior, because after he hits her, she's often rewarded with a gift, like an over-the-top piece of jewelry. She also goes on donation binges to deal with her "hangover" from the abuse the night before, and uses his money to adopt needy children in Africa. The other moms at her kids' school fawn over her clothes and over Perry like he's a celebrity.

Even so, it can be hard to understand how someone so horrible can be appealing to someone who knows the truth. "Relationships start in love, and nobody goes into a relationship thinking the other person is going to break you down," Crawford says. Celeste admits that she still wants and loves Perry despite the violence — which is a perfect example of how complex abusive relationships can be.

"Very few abusive relationships are abusive every minute of everyday; the abuse comes and goes," Goldsmith says. Survivors see the rare nice moments as an excuse to stay in the relationship, which is ultimately the abuser's end goal, she says. In one passage, Celeste imagines Perry's reaction to her injuries from the abuse: "We're special. We love each other more. Everything is more intense for us. We have better sex."
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It can happen to anyone.

There is no singular face of domestic abuse, only a stereotype, Crawford says. In a way, Celeste's socioeconomic status in the community defies what people usually think of when they picture domestic abuse. "We see sensationalized cases in the media, or we have the idea that it's only poor people, but power and control can happen in any relationship," Goldsmith says.

Celeste was a lawyer, and she tells herself that, because she's educated and has financial freedom, it's her own fault that she hasn't sought help. "The emotional experience of being a survivor of abuse is going to be the same regardless of your socioeconomic status," Goldsmith says. "She may have more options if she has financial resources, but that doesn't mean you're not impacted by the abuse."

The neighborhood in Big Little Lies is supposed to be an idyllic seaside town (in the show, it's Monterey), and it's almost Stepford Wives-like, so Celeste is mortified about her peers finding out about the abuse. As the book says, "Husbands and wives didn't hit each other in these sorts of congenial little social circles."
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Seeking support can be difficult.

When Celeste finally goes to a counselor for help, she describes her mental state during the drive there as a "trance," and thinks about bailing many times. Even once a survivor decides to seek professional help, fears continue to swirl because they're afraid the counselor will force them to leave the relationship, and they may not be ready yet, Goldsmith says.

"Survivors have also heard so many horrible things from their partner, and they don't want to hear those same things from a counselor," she says. They also could feel shame or embarrassment by revealing details about the relationship, something that Celeste experiences in the book: "She'd spoken in a low, neutral voice, as if she were telling a doctor about a revolting symptom. It was part of being a grown-up, being a woman and a mother."

Goldsmith wants to make sure people know you can seek out help and a counselor won't make you do anything. "You can still get support and have time to process what you want to do for your life — only you can decide what the right step is," she says.
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Violence is a learned behavior that kids can pick up.

The drama between the kids at school mirrors what's happening between the parents. Jane (played by Shailene Woodley in the show) is a young mother who got pregnant after she was raped, and her son is accused of strangling other children, which is precisely what the assaulter did to her. This brings up a lot of past trauma for Jane, and she considers the possibility that her son inherited his father's abusive behaviors.

However, it doesn't really work that way. According to both Goldsmith and Crawford, domestic violence is a choice. "That son doesn't have anything innate and genetic in him," Crawford says. "It would be a behavior that he learned and saw."

When kids witness domestic violence, they internalize that that's an acceptable way to interact with other people, Goldsmith says. "We gravitate toward relationships that bring a sense of familiarity; and even if abuse isn't what you want in the relationship, it may be what you're used to," she says. As for Celeste, she blames her dynamic with her siblings for her abusive relationship with Perry: "Maybe if she hadn't grown up with a big brother, if she hadn't grown up with that tough Aussie tomboy mentality: If a boy hits you, you hit him right back!"

Celeste also refers to Perry's rage as his "mental illness," but that's not actually the case. "Domestic violence is a behavioral choice that people make, and people can make the choice not to be violent," Goldsmith says. It's important to teach kids early on that there are non-violent ways to handle disputes, she says. "In a relationship, you can get angry, upset, and frustrated, without being physically violent or controlling toward your partner."
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Consent makes all the difference.

In the book, Jane tells her friend Madeline (played by Reese Witherspoon in the show) the story of her sexual assault, and how her assaulter tried to convince her to let him choke her. "It's fun. You'll like it. It's a rush. Like cocaine." Madeline takes this information and asks her husband if he would ever like to try erotic asphyxiation. Her husband playfully jumps at it ("I was just trying to show my willingness to accommodate"), but it's important to understand that these two scenarios are completely different, because of the relationship dynamics.

In Madeline's case, she was exploring something that she and her partner had mutually consented to. "If both people are willing to participate in this situation, power and control isn't there," Goldsmith says. And in Jane's situation, she explicitly says, "No. Please. Please don't. Please don't do that again."

"Two people within the context of a relationship can decide what they want to enjoy and the type of sexual relationship they want, but in [Jane's] case, it was imposed on her," Goldsmith says. If you're interested in trying out a kink with your partner, especially a violent one, you must talk about your kink first — no matter where it falls on the spectrum — to make sure you and your partner are both on board and boundaries are set.
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You can help your friends.

There's no shortage of social drama in Big Little Lies, but there are also some deep friendships between the characters. When Celeste finally confides in Madeline about the abuse, Madeline is wrought with guilt and wishes she had helped her sooner. If you want to help a friend, the most powerful thing you can do is tell them you're there to support them, Goldsmith says.

These conversations can be difficult for both sides, but there are ways to make it easier. Point to an interaction that you saw that was concerning, and be very specific because sweeping generalizations can turn the other person off, she says: "Let the other person know that they can talk to you and you can help them get help from a professional." Be prepared for them to balk, because again, people are nervous about the prospect of having to leave the relationship.

It's important to be willing to help, but you shouldn't get involved in the dynamic of the relationship. "Confronting someone's partner could lead to more violence, so instead show your friend that you're concerned," Goldsmith says. "Know that it takes a while to leave, so continuing to be there for your friend can be really important."
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