When a newspaper published photos of cook and TV presenter Nigella Lawson sitting outside a Mayfair restaurant with her husband, Charles Saatchi’s hand gripping her throat, many of us were shocked and confused.
Some commentators immediately branded Nigella as the new face of domestic violence, while others speculated that Saatchi’s hand around her throat was simply a momentary gesture between a passionate pair which had been taken entirely out of context.
What’s the difference between volatile and abusive?
Much of the confusion stems from our muddled sense of what actually constitutes domestic violence. When does ‘a volatile relationship’ become an abusive one?
In my experience, domestic violence comes in two guises. In fact, a surprising number of people have experienced the first version – a situation when a verbal row becomes physical. Someone has been pushed or shoved out of the way, or a furious partner has picked up an object and thrown it in absolute rage.
I work with clients like this. They usually come to me because they recognise it is a dangerous and destructive cycle in their relationship and they are desperate for it to end. However, not everyone labels this domestic abuse, and it is the reason why the police have been slow to act in the past. This is because there is a common belief that domestic violence can only mean that someone – usually a woman – is covered in bruises or has bones broken and ends up in hospital.
Any aggressive physical interaction is abuse
Sometimes clients are taken aback when I make it plain that ANY aggressive physical interaction between a couple is domestic violence. It is entirely unacceptable and incredibly risky. Just one push can knock someone to the ground and cause a blow to the head which kills them. Physical aggression is to be avoided at all costs.
With both partners willing to accept full responsibility for their actions, we construct a safety plan which enables them to detect when the emotional temperature is rising. They take evasive action and come back together only when they have both calmed down in order to discuss the trigger for the potential row. This is carried out in a carefully structured way so that both parties feel fully heard. When the emotional fireworks are over, you can begin to problem solve. And it works.
Less common in my experience, and even more distressing, is another form of domestic violence, when one partner uses their ability to attack their partner, either verbally or physically, as a way of controlling the other’s behaviour. The individuals who fit this pattern rarely take responsibility for their actions, usually blaming their partner for some misdeed which triggered their own violent outburst. This means they are less likely to seek counselling. As individuals, they can be intensely charismatic and attentive, initially showering the object of their attention with what appears to be love. Which makes it even more bewildering when this is suddenly switched off, leaving the recipient to wonder what on earth they have done wrong.
A distressing and desolate way to live
After a violent or aggressive incident, that ‘love’ and attention can be switched on again, as the controlling partner begs forgiveness and offers reassurance that it will never happen again. The abused partner is told often that they are their only friend and solace, and if they were to leave it would be the end of everything. There may even be hints of suicide and the contrition will seem very real at the time. But it rarely lasts. And each time the abused partner goes through this cycle, their confidence and self-esteem is increasingly diminished. Their ability to leave the relationship is chipped away until they feel like prisoners in their own homes, treading on eggshells, desperately hoping not to upset their partner and trigger another violent rage. It is a distressing and desolate way to live.
We cannot say for sure which category Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi fit. If it is the former, and both are willing to accept responsibility for their actions and make big changes to the way they handle conflict, there is hope for the relationship. If it is the latter, and Saatchi will not accept that gripping your wife’s throat is never an acceptable way to behave, then Nigella Lawson will need every ounce of inner strength and support from her friends and family to leave the relationship as soon as she can. And never return.
If you have experienced physical violence in your relationship, bear in mind these three points:
Don’t try and discuss sensitive issues if either of you have been drinking. When the emotional temperature rises and the relationship is combustible, alcohol is the equivalent of pouring petrol on flames.
Remember that physical violence is totally unacceptable in an adult couple relationship. Seek help from a counsellor if you find that you cannot stop the violence yourselves.
If you are a woman living with a man who controls you through physical or emotional abuse and is unwilling or unable to change his behaviour, contact www.refuge.org.uk for help.