Big Little Lies: Truth and Fiction about Domestic Violence

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HBO’s series, Big Little Lies, won eight Emmy Awards for its emotional depiction of the struggles of three women in a small, wealthy community. Struggles with gossip, with abuse, and even murder.

If you haven’t watched the series, you may want to bookmark this article and return after you have watched, as it contains spoilers!

A major theme in the show depicts the shockingly violent relationship between Celeste and Perry, played by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard, both of whom won Emmy’s for their roles.

Unfortunately, violent relationships are far to common. There are 20 victims of domestic violence per minute in the US. One in four woman will be a victim of domestic violence during their lifetime. Yet, despite it being part of our culture, domestic violence is often misunderstood.

Let’s break down some of the truth and fiction about domestic violence, as portrayed in Big Little Lies: How much of that plot is true for everyday Americans? When are victims in the most danger and was the advice given to her appropriate? We will also discuss some better options for leaving an abusive relationship.

TRUTH: Domestic Violence Occurs in Rich Households

Domestic violence happens to people at “all levels of income, education and occupation.” The biggest risk factor is being a woman–four out of five victims of domestic violence are women. It is a common belief that only poor people suffer from this kind of abuse. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Abuse occurs at all levels of income, however it can be even more isolating for those of higher income. The victims often feel alone, as if they are the only ones, and the abusers feel their high social status puts them above the law.

TRUTH: Victims are Most at Risk When They Leave the Relationship

The terror depicted in the last episode, when Celeste knows that she is moving out, is palpable and realistic. The abuser has lost control of his victim’s actions and he is enraged. To protect herself, she seeks the company of others. She hopes Perry will continue to maintain the secret of the violence, but to no avail. He attacks her in public–something he has never done before.

Statistics show that violence is likely to escalate in the hours, days, and weeks after a victim leaves the relationship. It’s important to take steps to protect herself when she contemplates leaving. Advocates call this a Safety Plan.

This plan includes steps that include preparing to leave, leaving, and protecting yourself after you’ve left.

Preparing to leave includes steps such as documenting the abuse through pictures and medical reports, learning a marketable skill, and hiding money aside, if possible. When the time comes to physically leave the house for good, The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a list of important items to make sure you take with you. Items like your drivers license, children’s birth certificates, emergency phone numbers, etc. Having a go-bag hidden with these items will make a quick getaway easier.

Once the victim has actually left, the danger only increases. The abuser will try to reassert control. This can start with promises of change but may result in violence when it becomes clear the victim will not return home. Victims can get a restraining order and attempt to eliminate all means of contact from the abuser. Victims should change any common routes of travel to work or school, consider changing their work schedule and alert the children’s school of the situation, or even change their school completely.

FICTION: The Best Way Out is to Rent a Secret Apartment

Celeste’s counselor advises her to get an apartment and stock the fridge. Was that good advice?

For Celeste, who has seemingly endless financial resources, this is an option. But most people do not have the funds to rent and furnish an apartment on a whim.

Another reason this is improbable is because physical violence is rarely present without other types of abuse, particularly financial abuse. Financial abuse takes many forms, and results in limiting a victim’s ability to make purchases without the abuser knowing.

Even though Celeste’s family had the resources to rent an apartment, it’s extremely unlikely that Perry wouldn’t find out about it in time to stop her. We already see that he has restricted her from earning an income. This is common, although I have also seen abusers who refuse to work and insist that the spouse work to support the family. Abusers often restrict a spouse’s access to funds. While the abuser spends money freely, the victim gets an “allowance” for family necessities like food and clothing. The abuser will destroy the victims credit by putting the family’s debts in the victim’s name and failing to pay those bills. Meanwhile, placing all assets in the abuser’s name.

This leaves the victim with no financial resources, or access to credit. Leaving them totally dependent on the abuser.

TRUTH: Victims Have Other Options to Stop the Violence

Another option available to Celeste, that wouldn’t force her to move the children to a different school district, would be to obtain a restraining order. The restraining order would evict her husband from the house and restrict him from contacting her or the children, or coming within a certain distance of them. It would protect the children at school as well. In Massachusetts, the restraining order can also require the parent being restrained to pay the household bills and/or child support to the victim.

A Massachusetts restraining order can also prohibit the abuser from owning guns. This has shown to reduce homicides by 25% in the states that restrict gun ownership by abusers.

You can check your state’s restraining order laws by visiting

If you or someone you know would like to know more about how to escape violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline can point you in the right direction: 1−800−799−SAFE (7233). If you are in Massachusetts, contact Jane Doe Inc..

I work with survivors of domestic violence when they seek restraining orders, divorces, custody, or child support. Please contact me if you would like to speak about your situation. I only provide pro bono representation through the Women’s Bar Foundation.

Once you have successfully left a relationship, violent or otherwise, you will have a new set of challenges. One of which will be the responsibility of managing your family finances on your own. Be sure to check out my family budget to help get you started.


Rebecca Neale

Principal Attorney

As an attorney, Rebecca represents people in divorce, custody, and guardianship proceedings. She also advises people about end-of-life decisions and creates estate plans tailored to their needs and goals. Read more about Rebecca’s Experience here.
Bedford Family Law

Bedford, Massachusetts

Let's Work Together

When you reach out to Bedford Family Lawyer for a consultation, we will ask, “What is your goal?” We want to know how we can get you from where you are now to where you want to be, and we will show you the different paths to get there. 

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