HBO’s Big Little Lies tells a story of domestic abuse that sneaks up on the audience. Celeste (Nicole Kidman), an elegant former attorney and envy of the school drop-off line, and Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), her younger businessman husband, are rich, successful, and madly in love — the picture-perfect California couple. Their passionate chemistry is the talk of the neighborhood. And yet, unbeknownst to the neighbors in their sleek glass houses, Perry is abusing Celeste, covering her body with bruises when he isn’t professing his undying love to her and showering her with lavish gifts.
Big Little subverts the familiar onscreen picture of domestic violence in a number of ways: There’s an abuser who admits he has a problem. A victim who fights back. A genuine sexual chemistry that blurs the lines between consent and coercion. And yet the show does an impressive job of exploring the complex dynamics of abuse, according to three mental-health professionals who have seen the first four episodes.
On Sunday’s episode, we watched Celeste’s therapist (Robin Weigert) try to get her client to admit that Perry makes her fear for her life, while Celeste protested that she was equally to blame for the violence at home. Yet according to Nelson, a nontraditional and “sex-forward” couples therapist who wrote The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity, Celeste’s tendency to seek conflict isn’t surprising. She points to a scene in episode four, where Celeste goads an angry Perry by asking, “Are you going to hit me now?” and he responds, “Do you want me to hit you, Celeste?”
“It’s a very common dynamic to have that cycle of abuse in abusive relationships, where [the victim] would very likely trigger some sort of argument or conflict to bring on the abuse, because you know its coming and it gives you a sense of control,” says Nelson. In her view, when Celeste seems to spark conflict with Perry, her actions serve as an attempt to gain some feeling of control (however illusory) over her situation. Sussman, though, said that she hadn’t tended to see that kind of response from women she’s worked with: “These women have a hard time finding their voice.”
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Perry and Celeste’s relationship is the way their sex life and their abusive dynamic seem to intertwine. The couple share an intense erotic chemistry, and many of their scenes together, particularly early in the show, are shot in such a way that the audience isn’t sure whether to be frightened or titillated (or both) — it’s unclear whether we are watching scenes of consensual sex or marital rape. Sussman said she also didn’t find this side of the relationship convincing: In her experience, women in abusive relationships tend to lose the desire for sex as the abuse worsens, and often find their self-esteem so depleted that they don’t have the strength to fight back. “I think what a lot of women who are being abused tell me is that as the abuse gets worse, and their self-esteem gets worse, their desire to have sex gets lower, they lose their libido, and then they get shamed for that,” she told me. But Nelson and Springer both said that this dynamic — while certainly not applicable to all abusive relationships — seemed psychologically plausible for these characters. “I don’t know that it would be super common, but what it looks like is their relationship is very sexual and they’re very interested in each other that way. And some people are turned on by aggression, either rough sex or aggressive sex or sex resulting from feelings of aggression that may fuel this type of highly charged sexual encounter,” says Springer.
“A lot of people like rough sex and it can be totally separated out of an abusive relationship. But when it’s integrated with domestic violence, then it’s a whole different dynamic,” added Nelson. She pointed to 50 Shades of Grey as a key source of cultural confusion. Despite its marketing as the ultimate high-end BDSM fantasy, the relationship depicted in the popular novels and films isn’t actually a healthy BDSM dynamic — Christian is manipulating Anastasia as a way of working through his own childhood trauma. In Nelson’s view, Celeste seems to be “kind of into being submissive to him, that’s what kind of turns her on” — but, “at the same time, how much is her saying, ‘if I don’t have sex with him I know where this is going to go’?”
Big Little Lies works to make Perry feel human, to lay bare the psychological issues that might cause somebody to hurt the person they love. “Oftentimes you’ll see the abuser is a very insecure person that wants to kind of encapsulate their partner in their life in their home. They’re always afraid on some level that the partner is better than them or might leave them. So they’re trying to chip away and make their partner’s life smaller and smaller and smaller,” said Sussman. All three therapists agree that Perry possesses many of the traits one would expect to see in an abuser: jealous and controlling, resistant to Celeste’s independence, crippled by fear that she’ll leave him. Likewise, as Celeste defends Perry to her therapist, we see the many complex reasons a victim might choose not to leave her abuser — both the genuine love she feels for her husband and the shared history and family life that binds them together, as well the complicated mix of denial, guilt, and shame that many victims feel after having their self-esteem decimated by an ongoing cycle of abuse. “A lot of these men are very very disturbed, and they take the position that their wife or their girlfriend is the source of the problem 100 percent,” adds Sussman. “That’s why these are difficult couples to work with. Sometimes the women are so wrapped up in this also and they’ve lost their own reality that they even blame themselves. When I get down on the husband sometimes I’ve seen the women jump in to rescue the men.”
The show has yet to address the way violence can reverberate through generations — but the therapists I spoke to thought it was something the show might easily spotlight in upcoming episodes. While it remains to be seen how all the threads will come together, Springer predicts that, if the show is striving for psychological realism, we might learn that Perry and Celeste’s twins are the ones responsible for hurting Renata’s [Laura Dern’s] daughter Amabella at school. “[Witnessing violence] is very damaging to kids emotionally and psychologically, even if they are not hit or touched,” Springer explains. “It’s definitely a generational thing, because things are learned by observation, by environment, and if there’s genetic personality factors that lead to poor emotion regulation or anger management that certainly can be passed down. You could expect these types of kids may turn around and be violent in school. Who knows, maybe one of them may be the one who grabbed [Amabella’s] neck. I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes out that they’re the ones [doing it].”