It’s been hard to miss the fallout from Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi’s divorce this week. Despite all of the dirty laundry being thrown around in public, I still find the defining image to be the photo of Nigella with her husband’s hands around her throat. Charles Saatchi’s initial explanation was that it was just a playful tiff. While I appreciate such images can be misleading, Nigella certainly did not look as if she was playing. The police agreed. Sadly it’s a scene that is regularly played out in other, less public, settings.

Nonethless, I take some positives from the case. We seem more reluctant to accept Charles Saatchi’s version of events than I could imagine us being 15 or 20 years ago. I grew up in a culture that blamed women for domestic violence. From the police response: ‘It is just a domestic issue’, through to the male tropes ‘she provoked me’, to the social worker’s verdict: ‘she is not protecting her children’; the message was clear. Women were responsible rather than victims. The campaigns of organisations like Refuge and Women’s Aid have done a great deal to increase our understanding of domestic violence and to change attitudes. They have also campaigned vigorously for changes in the law. Now we are ready to see Charles Saatchi as an aggressor, rather than a man exercising his rights; and Nigella as a victim, worthy of the full support of the law. We even have the Twitter hashtag #teamnigella to underline the point. Perhaps we can see allegations of Nigella’s drug taking, whatever the truth of them, as intended to undermine, rather than an indication that the victim is somehow to blame.

But the truth is that relationships are complex, especially when abuse is involved. Perhaps many of us have urged another to leave someone who seemed to be doing them more harm than good, even in situations where violence was not a factor. I wonder though, if in the effort to get across the message that men must take responsibility for their behaviour, a simple story of aggressive male perpetrator and innocent female victim often develops. Perhaps we ignore aspects of womens’ behaviour and responses which paint a more intricate picture. I have procrastinated in putting fingers to the keyboard because, frankly, it feels that a simple story of aggressor and victim is difficult to challenge.

One of the most important functions of our earliest bonds is to understand relationships so that we learn to protect ourselves. These relationship templates develop and mature over our lifespan and are not just a factor of early childhood. But sadly, the templates we create from our early bonds will continue to play out in our lives, sometimes unbeknown to us and in complex ways. We often don’t realise how we seek to replicate what we experienced early on. It is not only the more obvious point that growing up in an environment of  violence will affect us, it may even be that a sheltered and secure environment can leave us naïve in regard to the complexity of relationships.

My interest in female responses to male violence developed when I worked briefly with a charity providing services to women who had experienced domestic abuse. I was struck by the energy and commitment that the staff showed and the campaign work that went on was truly inspiring. On reflection, though, I think I must have imagined that abuse scenarios would consist of innocent victims and aggressive male perpetrators. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that a number of women were in their third or fourth relationship with a man who was violent. Also, despite more than two decades of experience as a clinical psychologist, I had not really anticipated that the women themselves would sometimes be aggressive. Sometimes victims can become perpetrators. How did I manage to overlook that?

To illustrate how relationship templates may influence domestic violence, let me describe a woman I will call Mandy. That‘s not her real name and the story is an amalgam of several different women, but every element of it is grounded in reality.

Mandy had three young children and had had three different relationships with men who were violent, although not, she was keen to tell me, towards her children. When each relationship became violent, Mandy’s strategy was to try harder to care for her man. She was bewildered when it did not work, but thought this was because she had not tried hard enough. She accepted what staff at her refuge had told her – that the men were responsible for their violence. She would tell me that she thought each of the partners behaved as they did because they were drunk, or had a difficult childhood, or were having a hard time at work.

Mandy sought a new partner and went out to a club with a friend. The friend went off with a man, and Mandy was left to go home alone. As she walked down the road, a taxi slowed to a crawl and the driver leaned out to tell her she was beautiful and invited her to get in. Her eyes lit up when she told me this story. Mandy admitted that the only reason she did not get in was that she feared losing her place at the refuge if she revealed where it was. Mandy did not make the men in her life behave the way that they did, but I am suggesting that her self-protection strategies were ineffective.

Mandy asked to talk to me about her relationship with her children. Their behaviour often made her angry and sometimes aggressive, despite her initial assertions to the contrary. We can, of course, blame her difficult situation of being in shared accommodation away from home with small children, as well as the economic and social problems that she faced. One of the key issues facing Mandy, though, was how she came to expose herself repeatedly to situations where violence was involved: both as victim and aggressor.

It might be fairly easy to see how under-resourced women like Mandy find themselves in violent relationships. But it might be less apparent how evidently successful women like Nigella can be drawn into intimate terrorism. The situation Nigella has found herself in is undoubtedly tragic. Any case of abuse is horrible, and we should never cease to be outraged. But for all her beauty and success we can only speculate on her complexities.  Perhaps Nigella herself was surprised to find herself entangled in a relationship with a man who became abusive and whom she may have only partly understood.   As Charles Saatchi shows, there are still men who defend abusive actions, and there are still women who are attracted to them, sometimes even having some idea of the risks. Saatchi’s new interest, Trinny Woodall brings along a tragic history as well as outward glamour.

How do we think about such issues and seek change? The answers are complicated and go beyond the idea of women breaking free of one abusive relationship and gendered explanations.  What we need is to help both men and women understand their early bonds and the relationship templates that are etched into us as a result.  Our individual responses needn’t then serve up a life sentence of tragic consequences, sometimes too late to remedy. Perhaps Nigella could tell us a thing or two about that.

By Lynne Benjamin