Victims (and abusers) don’t always behave or look like one would expect.
The show’s abuse plot line centers on Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, a lawyer who gave up her career to raise twin boys. To the outside observer, her life appears picture-perfect: She has a stunning home; she has healthy children, and a gorgeous husband whose adoration of her is obvious to everyone. But as the show progresses, the facade crumbles. Celeste is deeply worried about her marriage. She uses the word “volatile” to describe it, but the more accurate label is abusive.
While her charismatic husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård, can sometimes treat her “like a goddess,” he is more often possessive and controlling. He is quick to physical aggression, choking, slapping and throwing her against the wall. Celeste hits back at least once in an act of self-preservation, bucking the traditional role of passive victim.
Their fights typically conclude with rough sex scenes, which are ambiguously consensual. It’s unclear to the viewers (and perhaps to Celeste herself) if she is engaging in sex because she desires Perry, or because she feels she has no choice. Afterwards, he offers apologies and gifts.
In episodes 3, 4 and 5, the couple goes to marriage counselling. The resulting scenes offer a profoundly nuanced look in an abusive relationship and the complicated landscape a couple in a similar situation might navigate.
In the couple’s first therapy session, Celeste, looking extremely uncomfortable, talks about their issues in the plural, constantly glancing at Perry for approval. “I just think things can get a bit volatile,” she explains. “We fight a lot, we yell, we scream. We just have a lot of anger that we need some help controlling.”
Of course, it is not really her anger that needs controlling, it is his anger. At its core, domestic abuse is about maintaining power and control over another person. It is clear that Perry’s need to dominate Celeste is at the root of their problems.
Later, she sees the therapist alone. When she is asked directly about the abuse, she continues to insist she is equally at fault. “We both become violent sometimes, I take my share of the blame,” she says. “I’m not a victim here.”
It is a startling moment. As she asserts her autonomy, Celeste unabashedly rejects the label of victim. It’s debatable if she does this because she has internalized negative stereotypes about the type of people who end up in abusive relationships ― weak, damaged women, not independent, accomplished ones like herself ― or if she truly does not see herself as abused.
According to research, it could be a mixture of the two; it’s common for victims to take time to process their situation before accepting it.
When people think of domestic abuse, they often focus on physical violence. But domestic abuse occurs whenever one person in an intimate relationship or marriage tries to dominate and control the other person.
For abuse to be ‘domestic’, it doesn’t have to occur within your home, only within a relationship (with family or an intimate partner). Domestic violence and abuse are used for one purpose and one purpose only: to gain and maintain total control over you. An abuser doesn’t “play fair.” Abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation to wear you down and keep you under his or her thumb. Your abuser may also threaten you, hurt you, or hurt those around you.
Domestic violence and abuse do not discriminate. Abuse happens among heterosexual couples and in same-sex partnerships. It occurs within all age ranges, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels. And while women are more commonly victimized, men are also abused — especially verbally and emotionally. The bottom line is that abusive behaviour is never acceptable, whether it’s coming from a man, a woman, a teenager, or an older adult. You deserve to feel valued, respected, and safe.
This control or abuse can be expressed in different ways.
Physical abuse. If someone is hurting you physically, or is threatening to hurt you or a loved one, then you will need to take action.
Emotional abuse. Emotional abuse often goes unrecognized and can be very hurtful. Someone who is emotionally abusive towards you wants to chip away at your feelings of self-worth and independence.
Economic abuse. If someone close to you controls your finances, and keeps you financially dependent on them so that you always have to ask them for money, this is a form of domestic violence.
Social abuse. Social domestic abuse occurs when someone insults or humiliates you in front of other people, keeps you isolated from family and friends, or controls what you do and where you go.
Spiritual abuse. Spiritual domestic abuse involves preventing you from having your own opinions about religion, cultural beliefs and values. It may also involve manipulating your thoughts on spirituality in order to make you feel powerless.