What 'Big Little Lies' can teach us about relationships
I’d been keeping this second series on catch-up to provide a pick-me-up for when Love Island ended. Sad, I know, but it did the trick, and why wouldn’t it - with a cast including Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Meryl Steep as an added bonus. Wow, what a scary character. A gripping drama and, just like Love Island, it provided a whole heap of insight on human behaviour, relationships, and therapy.
Big Little Lies
Support from friendships
A striking feature of the show was how supportive the female characters were, around whom the plot revolved - 'The Monterey-Five'. They were totally there for one another. They empathised with each other’s pain. When they felt they hadn’t recognised their plight, they were truly sorry. A case in point was Reese Witherspoon’s character’s remorse about not having spotted the abusive relationship that Nicole Kidman’s character was in.
By contrast, the male characters were isolated individuals. By and large, they supressed feelings. Certainly, there was no attempt made by any male character to share how he felt with another man.
Of course, we’re dealing with fiction, but it struck a chord with me as a therapist. Friends can provide an enormous amount of support, often in a way that family members can’t; usually because their own feelings and sensitivities get in the way. They aren’t neutral.
The acronym ACE represents three core fundamentals for maintaining well-being. 'A' is about getting satisfaction from achieving tasks. They don’t need to be huge. 'E' represents doing things you enjoy. The middle 'C' is about connecting. It’s here that friends can be a big help. So, what we learn from the TV show is to reach out, and for men to put down that social conditioning about 'being manly' and to share their feelings.
Shame was a big theme in Big Little Lies (BLL). The shame of an abused wife stopped her reporting the violence she suffered to friends, to police, or to social agencies. Many victims of abuse feel that, in some way, they are responsible. In some way, they deserve it. At a deep level, such feelings reflect a deep-rooted lack of self-worth. Many individuals who come to therapy because they are finding life difficult have underlying feelings of shame. In some cases, shame relates to feeling they should be able to cope better. For these individuals, restoring feelings of self-esteem is key. Banning the word 'should' from their vocabulary is a useful tool.
Shame is different from guilt. Guilt relates to a specific act which a person feels is at odds with their values and how they’d like to live them. Shame is more deeply ingrained and is about how an individual sees themselves as a person. Noting this distinction can be helpful. The origins of where feelings of shame come from, usually childhood, can then be explored and their legitimacy challenged.
Our shadow self
The female protagonist who was the victim of abuse in BLL experienced great sex when the violence ended. She was deeply ashamed. As Jung first noted, we all have a dark side - 'a shadow self'. It’s important to note that our dark side isn’t evil, but often society’s rules compel us to see it that way. For example, a life devoid of libido might be deemed 'sinless' by some, but it wouldn't do much for the continuation of the human race. Similarly, hatred can be a force that allows us to separate from others and to individuate.
Getting in closer touch with our shadow self and seeing and accepting ourselves as a whole being can be cathartic. Jung is thought to have drawn on the ideas of the philosopher Hegel, who proposed resolving the battle between polarised positions by synthesis. Put simply, we need to understand and reconcile all of who we are.
Sometimes feelings of guilt make people feel they have to tell the truth. Clearly, when there’s a moral imperative, that’s correct. For example, if they have participated in a criminal act, they need to confess. However, if a confession is simply to move the burden of carrying a guilty secret onto someone else then an absolute moral code doesn’t apply. Rather, it’s a question of individual standards and judgement.
In BLL, Reese Witherspoon’s married character had an affair. It was a moment of madness. She didn’t tell her husband. What would it achieve? When he found out via their daughter, the marriage was in serious jeopardy. I would never counsel a client to lie, but I would discuss with them their motivation for disclosing an affair, and help them understand what they were seeking to achieve. Sometimes the truth can be an overvalued commodity.
The programme showed the difficulty of moving on from an affair. It underlined many of the things I seek to impress upon clients where an affair has been disclosed. Crucially, in order to move forward, the transgressor needs to understand deeply the hurt caused and to express heartfelt remorse. Secondly, at some stage, a new beginning is required. The injured party needs to leave behind their hurt, sorrow, and anger. Both need to commit to a different future. Happily, this is what happened in BLL, but it wasn’t easy.
The intrusion of the past
Much of the plotline in BLL related to characters behaving because of how they’d been shaped by the past. The abusive husband had been abused as a child. A hugely materialistic career-focused lawyer had endured a childhood of poverty. She needed success, both for self-validation and to ensure her daughter had a very different experience.
We are all shaped by past experiences and relationships. On their basis, we often relate to the present. This covers how we respond to both situations and individuals. We frequently respond to people, not as who they are, but some previous relationship that they remind us of, usually at an unconscious level.
Thus, we need to understand our past and learn to recognise where our responses are coming from. Recognition gives us power, knowledge gives us a choice. We don’t need to be dragged back by the past.
One of the female characters in BLL had a very difficult relationship with her mother. She carried a lot of resentment about her controlling behaviour and her periodic drinking. It was only at her mother’s deathbed that she gained peace of mind - achieved by forgiveness. Hate and rage are destructive. Letting them go brings healing, and forgiveness is transformational.
The Monterey-Five all had children for whom they wanted the best. Pretty much all parents want the best for their children. We set out with the aim of being perfect parents. We can’t achieve it because it’s impossible. Nonetheless, we beat ourselves up about our failures. Put like that, it’s madness, yet most of us do it to some degree at some time. We need to recognise that, just like we can’t be perfect individuals, with our shadow side, we can’t be perfect parents.
Nor can we protect our children from hurt and existentialist threats such as climate change or the economic cycle. But we can equip them to be emotionally resilient so that they can learn to cope with setbacks. That’s another reason why we need to work on ourselves, taking on board the lessons outlined here - because we are their role models.