Intimate Terrorism – What Saatchi vs Lawson tells us about “Normal Marital Sadism”

g_logo_smHolding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else”, said the Buddha, “you are the one who gets burned.” It’s a truth that Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson might reflect on. Besides the personal suffering endured since their rapid divorce following Saatchi’s apparent assault on his wife in a West End restaurant, the recent court case brought against their employees, the Grillo sisters, saw Lawson forced into the witness box to admit her drug use and Saatchi characterised by his wife as an emotional terrorist. If their anger towards each other was suppressed until Saatchi held his wife “by the neck to make her focus”, it is certainly out in the open now.

It’s been easy for the media to play this as the excesses of the rich and famous. F.Scott Fitzgerald’s view that the very rich “are very different to you and me” has been trotted out to keep this couple’s behaviour at arm’s length from the rest of us. But as any good couples counsellor will tell you, anger and hatred are present even in the most successful relationships. Indeed, it’s the ability of successful couples to acknowledge and manage this part of themselves and use it creatively that actually helps keep them together. “Normal marital sadism”, as the American couples guru David Schnarch terms it, is not the monopoly of the super rich or the underclass caricatures of Shameless. It’s part of all our intimate relationships and it can easily develop into “intimate terrorism”.

We deny our hatred and anger, even on the therapy couch, because it offends our narcissism. Client couples are there to try and repair, so would rather show their best sides rather than own their inner bullies. Therapists too find it hard to manage these negative emotions in themselves and fear the consequences of encouraging clients to express them. But hating your spouse is part of loving them. “We hate them sometimes because we love them,” writes Schnarch. “Our love makes us vulnerable to what they can do to us, what they can do to themselves, and what can befall them (and, indirectly, us).” Successful couples learn to manage these emotions by understanding their aggression and anger, soothing their distress and anxiety, and mastering themselves. These darker parts of our selves can then be turned into something creative and life-giving – most powerfully and usefully in healthy, energetic and positively aggressive sexuality. In short, fucking.

However, neither Lawson nor Saatchi appear to have been able to manage their hatred and aggression and use it positively within their relationship. If we can trust the second-hand accounts in the media, the couple appear to have enjoyed a lot of sexual chemistry when they met ten years ago. What attracted them to one another, besides their mutual fame and his wealth, is unclear, but enough has been said to speculate that Saatchi’s “brilliant but brutal” dark side was one part of him that attracted Lawson. If so, she may have been disappointed. “I am not that fascinating,” he was quoted as saying recently. “I don’t have whips and chains in a dungeon.” That may well be the case, but it’s much healthier to learn how to enjoy consensual, safe, aggressive sex in the bedroom than it is to grab your wife by the throat in public.

Anger and hate might seem a long way from the public image that Lawson herself presents. Every goddess in the ancient Greek pantheon was as capable as their male counterparts of violence, anger and destruction. Lawson’s Domestic Goddess persona is a mixture of wholesome, middle-class saintliness in the kitchen with a strong hint of sensual naughtiness in the bedroom. Not surprisingly, in the fallout from their divorce, she has positioned herself as the victim of Saatchi’s aggression. Yet Saatchi has described his marriage to Lawson as like the experience of a carpet python who “made a fatal error when he decided to make a tarantula his lunch”. Nigella’s bite may be subtle, but no less dangerous.

Which brings us back to the phrase she used to describe their marriage: “intimate terrorism”. It’s worth remembering that Saatchi is originally an Iraqi Jew, born in Baghdad, so any description of him as a terrorist is certainly meant to wound. The adjective intimate is also significant. Intimacy is a euphemism for sexuality in our culture, so to use this phrase raises the stakes by implying a level of sexual violence and abuse. The connection between anger, hate and sex seems unmistakeable, and in my mind indicates that this couple have never been able to manage this aspect of themselves and express it creatively in their relationship.

Given the so-called “war on terror”, the phrase certainly attempts to put Lawson on the side of the angels while demonising Saatchi as some sort of emotional Bin Laden. Yet the analogy doesn’t really stand up. Anyone, powerful or weak, can commit an act of terror, yet terrorism per se is the weapon of the weak, forced underground in the face of overwhelming force. If there was a powerful emotional war machine in the power struggle of this marriage, it is likely to have been Saatchi. The photos in Scott’s restaurant may show a woman in terror while a man appears to throttle her. Saatchi may be a bully, but if so, the most likely candidate for emotional guerrilla fighter in this marriage is Lawson herself.

It might be seen as unethical for a couples therapist to analyse two people’s relationship on the basis of second-hand gossip and the odd personal confession from the newspapers. But the point is not whether I am right about the motivation but whether I am right about behaviour that is public and therefore open to comment. The fight between Saatchi and Lawson is a demonstration of the kind of normal, intimate sadism that we all practice at different levels. And the important thing about this behaviour is that it takes two to collude to commit it. Those involved may seek to exculpate themselves by claiming they were bullied or deceived. Yet both partners share equal responsibility. Unless physical coercion is involved, and Scotts restaurant aside there have been no allegations of physical abuse, the “victim” who chooses to stay in the relationship may be playing a game in which they have as much power as the aggressor. Single victims are rare in most marriages. What I see in my consulting rooms are complex interplays where both partners commit their particular form of terror on the other in their unique way.

I doubt whether Saatchi and Lawson tried couple counselling. But at the point of their divorce, I would have advised that if anger and hatred are among the issues that wrecked this marriage, they need to be acknowledged and processed before either can move on. The fact that the couple are still fighting one another through proxy court cases and newspaper articles is a sign that they feel very strongly about one another but are presently only able to express that mutual passion in ways that are destructive. When Nigella takes something hot from the oven in her inevitable comeback special, she would do well to remember that carrying hot coals requires thick oven gloves. 

For more information on “normal marital sadism” see Constructing the Sexual Crucible, David M. Schnarch, 1991. pp. 413 -420.

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