Why Everyone Is Talking About the Abusive Relationship in 'Big Little Lies'

March 24th 2017

A new show about career moms and their families has everyone talking, with one relationship raising a few eyebrows about how it tackles a very sensitive subject.

“Big Little Lies” is a limited series on HBO that focuses on the lives of four women who live in the small affluent town of Monterey, California, where everything looks picture perfect on the outside, with Celeste Wright and Perry Wright arguably the couple to envy in the town.

Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, is a former lawyer and mom of twin boys who's married to young businessman Perry, portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard. The steaminess of the relationship is played up from the beginning, but soon it’s revealed that lying beneath the surface is a relationship that’s “volatile” and “toxic” as described in later episodes by Celeste.

Viewers get a first look at the volatility of the relationship in episode two, "Serious Mothering," when Perry slaps Celeste across the face after a disagreement over their sons escalates, which ends with the two having rough sex that makes the viewer question if it's consensual, especially after she utters the words "Don't."

HBO's Corporate Social Responsibility team reached out to Safe Horizon, which touts itself as the "nation’s leading victim assistance organization," about the show’s portrayal of domestic abuse.

"It’s uncommon to see [this kind of] portrayal on a popular TV series. It’s accurate and emotional. I think having a popular actress portray domestic violence is something we don’t usually see," Kimberlina Kavern, senior director of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at Safe Horizon, told ATTN:. "But seeing it [weekly] on a big HBO show is bringing this conversation to light."

As the episodes progress, Perry goes from choking Celeste, to violently grabbing her, and then throwing full-on blows at his wife. In episode three "Living the Dream," Perry makes a peace offering. After one of his violent outbursts, he places a diamond necklace on Celeste's bruised body as she showers.

"It makes the relationship one-dimensional and the show shows it well. She has children with him, she loves him. Abusive relationships aren't abusive 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," Kavern told ATTN:.

"Abusive relationships, like any relationship, are complicated."

Contrary to other depictions of abusive relationships — like the 1991 film "Sleeping with the Enemy" where Julia Roberts fakes her own death to escape her husband's violence — "Big Little Lies" carefully let's the viewer witness Perry's violence towards Celeste bit by bit, exposing the complexities of loving someone who's also abusive, violent, and controlling.

"I think that the media often gives some damaging messages around the reality [of abusive relationships]," Kavern said, adding that Perry seems like "he's a perfect guy, he’s educated, well-dressed, charming, but behind close doors there’s this different dynamic happening."

Eventually, the couple goes to counseling and it's during the first session that Perry admits he sometimes gets "physical" with his wife. His confession is surprising to the therapist and his wife, though he never outright admits to him hitting her.

"It could also be seen as manipulative. That’s his way of telling Nicole Kidman, 'I’m willing to work on things, I'm being honest about the things I'm doing to you,'" Kavern said of the scene. "But that doesn’t mean he’s going to change what happens when they’re at home."

“One in three women and one in four men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime,” according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

There are multiple reasons people get into abusive relationships and usually the abuse isn't what brings them into therapy, Susan G. Adams, licensed marriage and family therapist, told ATTN:. "The abuse is a symptom [...] People are in abusive relationships for a variety of reasons, and it becomes the job of the therapist to discover what the problem is behind the act," Adams added.

It's in episode five, "Once Bitten," Celeste has to put on makeup to cover up her bruises from a previous altercation with her husband before she sees the therapist alone. This is when the therapist outright asks Celeste if her husband is hitting her and proceeds to tell her that the next time she comes in they'll need to formulate a plan for the next time he hits her.

The show has started a very important conversation about domestic abuse by highlighting that, oftentimes, these relationships are complicated and are not just black and white.

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic abuse call The National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for assistance which is available 24/7.

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