Hollyoaks couple Maxine Minniver and Patrick Blake are at the centre of what has been described as "one of the UK Soap's darkest storylines". Over the last few months Patrick's behaviour towards Maxine has grown deeply calculating and controlling. He has left Maxine isolated from all support, fearful, feeling like she's walking on eggshells, emotionally drained and trying to second guess his every move.
It's all about to come to a head in the soap this week. Maxine and Patrick are due to be married, and the plot is hanging on whether Maxine will go through with the wedding, or whether she will find the strength to leave her abusive partner for good.
Patrick's behaviour oscillates between seemingly kind, caring actions and violent, abusive acts. In one of the storyline's twists, Patrick approaches Maxine's friends stating that he is being abused by Maxine. In response to this, one commentator states, "I'm finding it hard to believe this storyline if I'm honest."
This commentator's sentiments are not unusual either for fictional characters in a television soap or sadly in the day to day lives of real girls and women. The responses of professionals, neighbours, friends and relatives to someone experiencing abuse from a partner will often involve incredulity and the minimising the abuse: "I'm sure he didn't mean to make you feel like that, he seems such a nice man!" "Really?! That seems so unlike him." "Well, perhaps if you forgave him instead of harbouring such negativity; no wonder he struggles with you!"
Many people believe abuse happens to "those women" and is perpetrated by "those men", women and men that they would have no interaction with. Such beliefs provide an illusion of safety; "If I don't know any of "those types of men/women" my loved ones and I are safe." Within the Christian community this attitude extends to believing our faith community is different, that our congregations and church family are free from abuse. However, the small amount of research that has been done in Christian faith communities shows that far from being exempt, Christian women are as likely to experience abuse as the wider community. The only difference is that Christian women is that they are likely to endure the abuse longer, having been taught to prioritise their marriage above their safety and wellbeing.
As a professional working full-time on addressing male violence against women and gender injustice, I am impressed by how thoroughly and accurately abuse is being portrayed in Hollyoaks. The calculated nature of the abuser, operating out of a desire to maintain power over and control of his partner is clearly demonstrated in Patrick's behaviour towards Maxine. He has isolated her from all support, played mind games with her, threatened and humiliated her, exhausted her and assaulted her. She is then utterly confused as his behaviour changes and he showers her with "love" and plays a game of Jekyll and Hyde with her.
With the demographic of Hollyoaks' viewers being younger than many of the other soaps, it has used the Patrick/Maxine storyline to raise awareness about abuse within teenage relationships, partnering with the Home Office's This Is Abuse Campaign. In the UK, by age 16, 25 per cent of girls will have experienced physical abuse and 72 per cent will have experienced emotional abuse from a partner. With such staggering figures, it is clear that the campaign and the use of high profile soap storylines is desparately needed.
Nikki Sanderson, the actress who plays Maxine in Hollyoaks, has shared that her work with the 'This Is Abuse Campaign' has encouraged many women to feel able to disclose the abuse perpetrated against them and seek help. With so many messages promoting negative attitudes to women and girls, it is great to see those with a high profile, using it to address abuse. For so many young people and adults, controlling behaviours from a partner are seen as normal and/or desirable. In church youth groups, relationship education is often limited to "no sex before marriage" which, apart from being inadequate advice for forming healthy relationships, disables young people from understanding the difference between sex and rape, consensual contact and abuse. Hollyoaks is providing us with an excellent opportunity to discuss the difference between healthy relationships and abusive behaviour, in our churches, families and friendship groups.
Any work that aims to successfully address domestic abuse must make clear what abuse is and why it happens. Hollyoaks have done a great job of showing what domestic abuse is, yet we also need to be explicit about why someone chooses to be abusive. Just as people do not believe abuse is happening, the majority of people will see abuse as rooted in drug/alcohol misuse, mental health issues, stress, unemployment, anger management problems or relationship conflict. However all of these are not the root cause. Abuse is a choice, motivated by the perpetrator's beliefs of owning their partner and of having entitlement over them. Within the Christian community, teaching of headship, submission, forgiveness and divorce can leave men with the impression they have a right to dominate their wives, and can cause women to feel their role is to less than their husband. This is not the message of the Gospel, Jesus said that the enemy comes to "steal, kill and destroy" but He says that in Him we will find fullness of life. Abuse and violence is not of God.
The Hollyoaks plot has some distance to go and with 142 women dead as a result of male violence in 2013 and many women committing or attempting suicide as a result of an abusive partner's behaviour, the risk of death is high for Maxine Minniver.
Patrick's abuse of Maxine is fiction, but it is reality of so many men's treatment of women. Each of us must learn all we can about abuse, so that when the signs of abuse are there or a disclosure is made, either in the church or the wider community, we can see it for what it is, believe those who are hurting and support them to discover freedom, safety and fullness of life.
Natalie Collins is a gender justice specialist. She is also the creator of DAY , an innovative youth domestic abuse education programme and she set up Spark working to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She speaks and writes on understanding and ending gender injustice nationally and internationally.