I want to read more about the kind of abusive relationship I was in
February 13, 2018 7:00 AM   Subscribe

This question will likely contain triggers for those sensitive to domestic violence, and will contain spoilers for the show Big Little Lies on HBO.

I am currently watching Big Little Lies; I'm one episode from the end, so no spoilers please! I have been shocked to see the relationship of Celeste and Perry on-screen. I was married 10 years ago to a man and our dynamic was exactly the same. I've never spoken about this before, to anyone, so putting into words exactly what I mean by that is very, very hard for me. I don't know that I even have the language to express it. I guess it's easier to talk about what happens to them than to me - Celeste and Perry have what appears to outsiders to be a passionate, loving relationship. From within, the truth is that Perry is very insecure and controlling, and forces Celeste to leave her job to raise their children, alienates her from most of her friends, and is quick to anger. Celeste in some ways appears to intentionally instigate his anger, as the line between violence and sex in their relationship is terribly blurred and they have very passionate sex which they both enjoy - although in Celeste's case, she seems simultaneously turned on and disgusted by what happens to her/what she causes to happen/thinks she is causing to happen. So many of my feelings about my own marriage are caught up in every Celeste/Perry scene of this show and it's hard for me to know definitively what motivations/feelings are the character's, and which are mine that I'm projecting.

Anyway, I'm finding myself ruminating near constantly on my previous marriage since I've seen these scenes. Some of them feel like they were taken word-for-word from my own memories. The sex scenes and the non-sex scenes are both the same in that regard, as far as having been lifted from my proverbial diary, but I think the sex scenes are the factor that is really making me obsess. I've never seen a depiction of the abused partner instigating sexual violence which she both enjoys and despises before, and honestly, never considered that anyone else could relate to that. I've seen plenty of depictions of domestic violence and abusive relationships in television and movies in my life but they've never lodged themselves like a splinter in my psyche, they've never felt so TRUE, so historical. My husband and those close to me know that I have an "abusive control freak" ex-husband, which I've never been shy about sharing in those terms, but the real truth, I'm now realizing, is that from the day I left him, I never once thought about anything I'd been through. I have spent the past 10 years intentionally NOT thinking about any of it, and living in what was almost blissful ignorance of my own past! I never had a single debriefing with myself and basically considered it just another craaaazy anecdote from my past ("oh yeah, remember when I was married to that psycho, I can't believe that was even me!").

I've been spending all day reading through old emails with my ex. This has been pretty disturbing and infuriating. I don't know what the point is. I feel like I'm wiggling around a loose tooth or picking at a scab that won't quite ever heal. The sexual component to the violence always caused me a lot of shame and quite honestly made me feel like I wasn't REALLY a victim because of the ways in which I brought that on myself. Of course when we were together I was isolated from everyone and had no one I could talk to, but even if I'd wanted to, I'd have been too ashamed to tell anyone what was happening. And when I left him, my life was instantly better in every way and I didn't want to waste a single second looking back. So I just moved on - a new me, a happier me, one with everyone going for her, and just one more crazy story to tell.

Aaaand here we are. Almost 10 years later and suddenly he's all I can think of, our past is all I can think of. Ugh, even typing that and thinking we have an "our" past to share disgusts me, but if I'm being perfectly honest - thank the gods this is an anonymous question! - the sexual memories are affecting me in more disturbing ways than feeling disgusted by them as well. What a roundabout way to say what I want to say that is, but it's the best I can do. I know I'm all over the place in writing this question, I guess this is a moment of crisis. (I have an appointment with my therapist in 2 days and of course will discuss this with her then!)

I find myself desperately wanting to read experiences by other women who can relate to what I went through and now am going through. I don't even know what to google. I've tried googling a couple of things but all the "signs you're in an abusive relationship" checklists that come up are not what I'm looking for and are distressing. I want to read stories of women who came through the other side. I think I'm actually traumatized and I think my ex affected me as a person in so many ways I never realized or considered before.

The bottom line, I guess, is that Celeste and Perry's relationship is written in such a TRUE way, I know the writer either experienced this themselves or was spoken to candidly by someone who did. And that tells me SOMEONE else has been through this. And surely many other women have! Surely MANY abusive relationships have this same shameful sexual component to them and we're all so ashamed to talk about it that I didn't even realize anyone else experienced it. I realize now that I am not the only one and despite whatever narrative I've written in my head about who I am, I was victimized. I was a victim. Is there an active forum online where women talk about these things I can post and participate in? Do you have book or article recommendations for me? I'm feeling quite desperate to feel understood and to understand others.

If you prefer not to post anything in response publicly, you can email me at triggeredbybiglittlelies@protonmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to consider reading the novel, as it goes into more depth about Celeste's feelings in ways that may resonate. Much love to you as you process this.
posted by Threeve at 7:21 AM on February 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Someone once told me in counselling that there's a limited amount of energy to deal with trauma, and sometimes we just forget or block out terrible memories so we can get on with our lives for a while until we have enough happiness and energy to deal with the buried pain. That there's a reason for not wanting or being ready to deal with the memories at the time. Maybe now is the time you have the strength and the space.

I liked Evelyn Lau and Margaurite Duras for harsh writing about vulnerability and sexual obsession in damaging relationships, but I haven't seen Pretty Little Lies so I don't know if they strike the same chord of pain.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:13 AM on February 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

Their sex scenes read to me like “trauma bonding.” The forum on Chump Lady.com is a supportive healing space for all survivors of spousal abuse, including infidelity, gaslighting abuse, sexual trauma, financial abuse, reputational harm, abuse via the legal system etc, usually suffered at the hands of disordered individuals, like the Perry character, who struck me as a sociopath or perhaps a malignant narcissist.

“Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft, and “In Sheep’s Clothing” by Dr. George Simon are good reads on this subject. You are not alone, and I am so glad you shared here.
posted by edithkeeler at 12:15 PM on February 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's about control. The specifics of Perry and Celeste's relationship might be very close to what happened between you and your ex husband, but this is a pretty common aspect of long-term abusive relationships and of people who have learned what are basically emergency coping mechanisms for managing their abusers. You are not alone in having been part of a dynamic like this, and feeling intense shame about "bringing it on yourself", but please know that you do not need to be ashamed, that you were not the cause of the abuse you suffered. I don't know the clinical name of this behavioral pattern, but it goes something like this: When you are in a long-term abusive situation with a disturbed person who you have learned will abuse you no matter what, whose abuse you have no power to stop, it becomes both comforting and a survival tactic to figure out how to manage the flow of the abuse. You learn behaviors or situations that will set it off, in a path that you are prepared for, because that is better than the terror of waiting for it to randomly come down on you. You deliberately trip the wire because you know the trap is going to go off today, and if you're the one that set it off, that gives you just a scrap more ownership of yourself, of your agency, of having any hope of retaining any shard of personhood or dignity or control. It is what you do to survive when you are living with someone who never has and never will respect your "No, stop". And it feels so good in that moment to know that you've bared the truth of the relationship and the other person for what they really are, and that finally, you've made something happen, instead of terrible things happening to you, like the weather, and that tiny piece of agency feels so much bigger than it really is, which is why these encounters feel both disturbing, incredibly satisfying in the moment, and like they are completely your fault. This goes for any kind of systemic abuse-- workplace bullying, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, abusive sexual encounters, physical or sexual violence. I've seen this in people who did the one thing that they knew would set off their rager boss into a yelling tantrum, I've seen it in people who would initiate sex with coercive or rapist partners because being the one to start a bad encounter was better than being worn down or flat out attacked. You can't stop this from happening to you, but you can at least set the time, and when you are trapped in an abusive situation, any measure of control is better than none at all. You did not bring it on yourself-- your ex would have been sexually abusive with or without whatever instigating behavior you engaged in with him. This was not your fault. I don't have a name for this dynamic, but please know you aren't alone in having been there.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 1:48 PM on February 13, 2018 [16 favorites]

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