Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Courtesy of HBO
'Big Little Lies' Explores If Abusers Can Change

by Yvette Manes

Anyone who's spent time in front of the television or in a movie theater is familiar with Hollywood's depiction of domestic violence. A woman is seen cowering in a corner while her (usually inebriated) partner punches, kicks, chokes, or even rapes her. Occasionally, abusers are portrayed as mentally ill, and victims are almost always blamed for "triggering" the abuse or for not simply leaving on their own. Rarely are abusive partners shown actively seeking rehabilitation. The world is full of "recovering alcoholics" and "recovering drug addicts." but on the big and little screen it's uncommon to hear of a "recovering abuser," which begs the question, can a domestic abuser change?

In HBO's Big Little Lies, the viewer is initially enticed by a scandalous murder mystery, but continues to tune in because something about the characters (if not the setting) makes them frighteningly relatable. Celeste Wright (played by Nicole Kidman), a former attorney turned stay-at-home mom, and her exceptionally handsome husband Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgård), are that one canoodling couple everyone seems to have in their social circle. After years of marriage, they still have the hots for each other and don't mind participating in some PDA. They're the couple whose relationship sets the bar among your group of friends, and also the ones who inadvertently make you feel inadequate.

But, behind closed doors, the Wrights' marriage is complex and volatile. Perry's insecurity makes him possessive, vicious, and violent. Celeste fights back, which almost always culminates into a violent sexual encounter that's difficult to watch. As Celeste confides in her therapist, Dr. Reisman, the balance of power only temporarily tips in her favor after the abuse, while her bruises are still visible. The lines between rage and passion, adoration and obsession are blurry for the Wrights, but one thing is clear — the violence can't go on. In an effort to work through the abuse, Celeste and Perry seek counseling.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Courtesy of HBO

But, is it possible for domestic abusers like Perry Wright to be rehabilitated? According to the Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence, it is possible for an abuser to change, but they face a great challenge in achieving lasting success. An abusing partner must be ready and willing to change. They must relinquish the power and control they’ve held in their relationships, and they cannot trade physical abuse for other kinds of abuse, such as psychological or financial abuse.

Celeste and Perry seek couples' counseling, but according to the website for Emerge, the first abuser education program in the United States founded by David Adams, Ed.D. in 1977, this may have been a mistake. The website warned that couples' counseling can be dangerous if there is ongoing violence in a relationship. Because therapy may bring up strong feelings, couples' counseling may make the situation much more risky for the victim. In fact, Emerge noted that, due to safety concerns and state certification guidelines, those who enter abuser education groups specifically in Massachusetts are restricted from couples' counseling unless there has been a period of nine months with no violence.

Although rehabilitation is possible, psychologist Dr. Kathie Mathis noted on her blog that only 3 to 11 percent of domestic abusers make permanent changes after seeking treatment. Most become repeat offenders. The website for the National Domestic Violence Hotline suggested that this low percentage of recovery may be because domestic violence is a learned behavior embroiled with feelings of entitlement and privilege, which can be extremely difficult to change. Additionally, abusers who are sent to court-mandated intervention programs make very little progress unless they are actively ready to seek help and commit to their recovery.

On her website, licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Jill Murray listed the six criteria that are necessary if an abuser is to change. She wrote:

1. They understand that their behavior is inappropriate and abusive.
2. They do not cast blame for their behavior onto their partner, parents, teachers, or anyone else.
3. They take full responsibility for their abusive behavior.
4. They have a desire to change and aren't just seeking help to stay out of trouble or because they are nagged to do so.
5. They follow up their stated desire to change with concrete actions.
6. Their new actions are continuous, not just for the moment.

Anyone seeking to change should not be discouraged by the statistics. There is hope. But safety should always come first. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 with advocates who speak over 200 languages. They can help victims as well as abusers. You can call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). It is toll-free, and completely confidential.