The Shame of Love and Desire Within Abusive Relationships : How Celeste from Big Little Lies helped me talk about my own harmful romantic and sexual behaviors after abuse
By Sav Schlauderaff
The fear and anxiety of telling current partners about my trauma never seems to subside. Their reactions, ranging from “you need to tell me everything” to “that is too much for me to deal with”, either way it has nearly always made me feel othered. Someone to pity. Someone to avoid.
I have never found it easy to talk about sex or my own desires, the reality that I lost my virginity because I was raped and my first real relationship was wildly abusive hasn’t exactly set me up to be able to navigate relationships easily. I still have so much fear around people that I try to date, I feel like I’m just always waiting for the bad stuff to happen because at least I know I can handle that. Perhaps this is why I have again and again found myself in abusive or harmful relationships. The instability and thrill of abusive relationships can be addicting, because the low lows and the fighting would lead to grand gestures of love. That hate and desire became dependent on each other.
As a sexual assault and domestic violence victim/survivor Big Little Lies was painfully hard for me to watch, but also healing in that I saw so much of my own experiences in Celeste. In particular, her struggle with the sexual and emotional desire she still felt for Perry and the conflict and confusion of abuse becoming intertwined with physical and violent sex.
Their relationship has helped me verbalize the shame I felt, and still feel. That yes me and my partners in the past have had what appears to be a very sexual relationship but with that was also always abuse and harmful relationships. And it makes me feel sick that I could desire anything about the abuse. Did I enjoy the physical or “violent” sex because I actually enjoyed it? Or did I only enjoy it because it meant an end to the violence and the anger?
What would it mean for me to actually discuss this with a partner? When Celeste tells others in the show it becomes labelled as some sort of fetish-y sex in which she is equally responsible, that she is “sick” and “needs help”, that because they have sex the abuse couldn’t be that bad. That she wasn’t a “real” abuse victim. That having sex could only be associated with love and a good relationship.
What would it mean for us to actually be able to talk about this without using victim blaming language? To discuss how media repetitively portrays couples fighting that divulges into “hate sex” or passion? What would it mean to not erase the abuse occurring beforehand, to place it within the cycle of abuse, to see it as a manipulation tactic to show that there is still “love”. These are uncomfortable conversations because these behaviors would then include so many people who otherwise wouldn’t have seen their relationships as harmful or abusive. That we never want to think that we could find ourselves a victim of domestic violence. Moreover, it is embarrassing to admit that you fell for this manipulation, and further that you may have found pleasure in it, or that you were at some points happy in the relationship. We don’t give domestic abuse victim/survivors the space for complexity and messy stories. Or even the space to process and heal from them. We can become stuck in the narratives that people want to hear. The parts where we were “strong” and finally left.
We don’t allow victim/survivors healing to be messy either. I too like Celeste, tried to forget myself through having sex with mutliple partners many who I didn’t know or talk to again. That it would likely come as a shock to anyone who knew me in my early twenties that I can’t even say for sure if I wanted any of that. So many of my actions were out of a desire to hurt myself, a desire to make bad and risky decisions to feel something other than emptiness and sadness. How quickly a current partners’ hands on my throat, or them pushing me up against a wall, or that familiar look in their eyes can turn into a flashback. How often I have found myself crying, and having a difficult time pinning down why. And yet, I still felt like I needed the validation and the lie that I was okay. It took me years to be able to separate my self worth from the approval and desire of others.
After being sexually assaulted multiple times back in 2017/2018 I have since taken about a year break from any sort of sexual or romantic relationship. Too many people I felt I could trust, who knew about my history of abuse, still violated and pushed my boundaries. All too often my kindness and friendship was being misinterpreted and disrespected. All too often my need for friendship and healing was disregarded.
I needed time to figure out what I needed and to sort out my feelings and desires. To understand why I have always felt trapped in romantic relationships, to learn/unlearn how to have a communicative and “healthy” relationship. But I have found strong and wonderful and affirming friendships with my queer family, and with other abuse victim/survivors who didn’t need me to explain myself, who didn’t make me feel shame. In finding others who I can relate to, whether through representation in media or in my own friendships, it has finally given me the space to start to heal and move on.