#CelebrateingtheRainbow at the workplace – share your stories of Pride!
Without this man, my career would not have looked the way it does now. But the thing is, the good things did not happen in a healthy space. He had a hidden agenda which took a huge toll of my energy and mental health.
Trigger Warning: This deals with domestic violence, manipulation and gaslighting by a spouse, and may be triggering for survivors.
In this newly released Netflix series The Diplomat, Kate Wyler, a highly successful US career diplomat with an impressive record of peace keeping work in war zones, is suddenly informed that her posting to Kabul is canceled and instead she has been made the US ambassador to UK, which is considered an ornamental posting.
The posting turns out, however, to be anything but ornamental and Kate is soon busy day and night preventing a nuclear war.
But meanwhile a totally different hidden plot starts showing up in the drama — turns out that Kate’s husband, a brilliant has-been in the field of diplomacy, who accompanies her on her new posting as ‘the wife’ , has actually pulled the strings with the White House chief of Staff to change her posting.
And that is not all — without Kate’s knowledge she is being screened for the post of Vice President of the United States, and Hal is behind that too. Reason? He is trying to manipulate Kate into staying married to him, while on the face of it the couple is talking divorce. And as VP she would be forced to keep him because the US people would, apparently, not accept a divorced woman as VP.
Throughout the series Hal continues to manipulate Kate’s career as Kate goes crazy trying to figure out what is real in her life and what is a manipulation by Hal. It soon turns out that Hal is being seen by both the White House and her own staff as her handler, with the job of convincing her to accept the VP post which again is an ornamental post she is not likely to accept on her own. Hal pulls strings behind the scenes in moves that appear helpful to her work, but in the end they come with the price tag of staying married to this guy who had been manipulating her through her entire career for his own benefit. At one point Kate gets so fed up with his games that she beats him up physically. And he quickly apologizes and goes back to the ‘wife’ role, and Kate actually begins to warm up again to both him and the proposed VP post. But then, the moment Hal sees a chance for his personal advancement, he does not hesitate for one moment to sabotage Kate’s work to take a shot at the post of US secretary of state.
The series also reveals towards the end that Kate was Hal’s protégé in her younger days, and Hal’s ‘success’ in marrying her is seen as an achievement of sorts among his cronies.
Watching the entire series, I could feel anger boiling up in my blood each time Kate uncovers another maddening layer of Hal’s fingerprints on her life and career.
For good reason, because for eight years of my life, I was married to a similar man. I met him as a young single mother and journalist in a local paper in Nagpur, who wanted to write about ecological issues. The first time he contacted me, I got to write a great story about the plight of some adivasi families which had been thrown out without rehabilitation by government from the forest village of Totladoh in Pench National Park near Nagpur.
And then there was no looking back. This guy proved to be a valuable contact and I got lots of stories, and soon I gave up my dud job and started freelancing. I got to travel the whole country writing about ecological issues and soon knew lots of people in my field.
I also did a lot of voluntary work for his organization which was working on the rights of forest dwelling tribals, and we became great friends. It seemed only natural that when he started making romantic overtures I responded quite happily.
In the year 2008, I landed my dream job — as a regional correspondent for the best environmental magazine in India, also globally recognised for its incisive content.
In the same year I also married this man — ten years my senior.
I thought we had made a meaningful partnership where we could support each other’s growth and also make a positive contribution towards a better and more just world. What I did not know is that the entire thing was his plan. That he had nurtured me and supported my growth with the express aim of marrying me eventually.
I also did not know — could not have known given how young and inexperienced I was– that he was actually a spent force. He had failed to grow as an activist, and instead was surviving because he could manage logistics and pull string here and there to make a few things happen. Useful jobs — necessary even — but they were accessory jobs that activists actually doing the meat and bones work to to generate awareness and build up people’s movements were glad to have taken off their hands. He was a sort of back state support staff instead of being an actual change-maker.
Me working with him had actually raised his stock with the larger national organization he was part of. People working for social causes often have difficulty getting their perspectives recognised by mainstream media, which tends to ignore them. But I had, during my freelance years, managed to bring a lot of visibility to perspectives of the grassroots people through my writings, and got them published in prominent media outlets.
And in the process he was the one getting accolades for recruiting me into this group. Unknown to me, the male dominated leadership of these people’s organisations had started seeing him as my handler. If they wanted me to visit their area and write about them, they would first consult him about how to present the story to me so I would come, before actually talking to me. Many times I found that he had given commitment on my behalf without consulting me. If a story was delayed for some reason or people did not find it satisfactory people, they would call him and then he would badger me about them.
When I started to grow and develop contacts of my own, outside of his circles, that drove him crazy because he was no longer my primary source. He wanted me to introduce him to my contacts, and even called them up behind my back, introducing himself as my husband and trying to talk to them about his work even though it was not relevant to them.
All these red flags were present before marriage in small ways, but I was inexperienced, seriously lacking in self esteem and had a tendency to fawn because of my own trauma, and I overlooked everything because of the sheer joy of the fact that I was able to do the work of my dreams, and I thought I needed the support.
it was a few days after my marriage that he boasted to me that he had made up his mind to marry me immediately after the first story I did with him, which got him pats on the back from his organisation cronies. At a time when I was yet to separate from my first husband. What is more he described in detail the road-map he had followed to get there, starting with helping me with the separation process, and it all made sense. In that moment my blood ran cold and I wondered if anything in my marriage was real, but I could not speak for myself.
With passing time his control and manipulation grew more and more obvious and desperate. After I got my dream job with he started travelling with me on my tours, and there he would try to get the attention of the people I was working with, or try to control the direction of my work, or at the very least keep trying to rush me through my work for no reason at all. Or he would walk off by himself and try to get petty benefits from the people I was working with. I stopped him travelling with me after one time when I was talking to people in a tribal village, a young boy brought me bottles of Mahua liquor. I was puzzled as I had not asked for them. And the kid told me my partner had asked for them — he wanted to take them back to impress his Nagpur friends at a party.
But things did not end there. When he could no longer travel with me he would call his contacts in whatever place I was traveling to, and tell them to ‘take care of madam’. And these people, who were often had nothing to do with the stories I was covering, would turn up at my hotel and ask to accompany me in field trips because he had told them to. It was his way of keeping tabs on me.
He was pissed that I was now discussing my stories with my editors instead of with him, so when I talked to them on phone he would stand behind me and keep dictating to me what he thought I should say, even though he could not hear what they were saying. Soon I had to shut myself in a room each time I received a phone call and even then he would question me about the call afterwards.
Once he was in Delhi for his work and went to my office to deliver some soil samples for our lab I could not send by courier. And he came back livid because even though my editors had received him gracefully and offered him tea, they had tactfully refused to talk to him about my work.
I was never sure what he would do next. Like Kate in the series, each time I put a stop to one channel of manipulation, he opened up another. The marriage, as Kate screamed at one point, was killing me, because there was no let up.
And like Hal in the series too — he would abandon me without hesitation every time he saw an opportunity for self-advancement. Once he left me alone at home for two weeks, a few hours after I had broken an ankle ligament, just so he could attend a meeting on the off chance that he might get to visit a foreign country. I was unable to walk with a huge plaster on my foot, had to literally crawl up the stairs to my house when I got back from hospital, and take care of my work and daughter alone while he lobbied for a boast opportunity for himself. Nothing good ever came of these desperate attempts — he was too far gone to pick up his career. But I had to suffer. And after each failure he would come back to control me again.
The most humiliating incident happened when my boss, the respected environmentalist Sunita Narain was in my region along with the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh and Maharashtra Chief Minister Shivraj Patil to formally inaugurate bamboo harvesting by tribals under the Forest Rights Act. I had a deep connection with the event — the Forest Department had been obstructing the tribals from harvesting their own bamboo, and my report on the subject had drawn Sunita’s attention, which is why she had worked with government to make it happen. I had a warm sense of having made a difference with my writing. I wanted to go alone — it was my work after all, but he insisted on coming with me to the event, even threatened to come on his own if I didn’t take him. I took him along because I was afraid if he came on his own he might throw tantrums. And once there he tried again and again to siddle up to Sunita, in the hope of a photo op while I worked to report live on this event that was making history in the area of forest rights.
Later, after my work was done, I came back, burning with shame, to find my car — provided by my office — gone. He had taken some of his local journalist friends for a joyride in it, leaving me stranded.
If you think things stopped after we separated (it took seven years for me to figure out I needed to and I could), well, they didn’t. He took to turning up at any event I was covering in the city, finding a seat next to mine, and introduce himself to whoever was available as my husband. It was impossible to stop him because he knew what was on in the city and had a fair idea which events would be in my line of work. After the first few shocks I started telling people when he did that that we were separated. But then he just started standing at a distance from me and pointing me out to people as his wife.
And soon as I started talking divorce, the male leaders from his organization started calling me to take him back. I could not understand why they were doing this. I found out later, when I studied narcissism, that when narcissists want to hold on to the person they get their supply from, they try to build up social pressure to prevent them from leaving. He was actually asking his friends to try and persuade me to stay. And they cooperated because he was upset with my leaving snd could not work, so it was easy for them to assume if I went on absorbing his violence he would be OK.
Exactly like Kate’s husband Hal, he tried to impress me with favors. And exactly like him, he verbally agreed to divorce, knowing all the time that he would still be manipulating behind my back to prevent it.
Long story short, it took five years after separation to finally get him out of my life. Moving away from Nagpur city helped — if I hasn’t he would still probably be trying to get back with me in one way or the other, despite a legal divorce.
Mentoring relationships with older men are a double edged sword for women, and both edges cut her, not him. Especially if they turn romantic or sexual. Towards the end of the series, Hal’s old pal from his teaching days tells him the job is not fun any more because ‘You can’t fuck anyone. You can’t even marry anyone.’ The guy is kind of regretful that he can no longer do what Hal did to Kate — ‘Keep it quiet for some time and then announce marriage.’
That scene had me stunned. And it was an eye-opener, because that often tends to be one of the hidden agendas of mentorship — it is an opportunity for wounded and attention-seeking old men to grab a young woman to lean his self-worth on.
When I look back at this relationship I realise it did do me some good. It opened up the initial pathways for my career. Without this man, my career would not have looked the way it does now. But the thing is, the good things did not happen in a healthy space. He had a hidden agenda which took a huge toll of my energy and mental health. And it was very very difficult to see that it was I — my effort, my skills, my talent — which had grown my career after that initial boost that I got from him. And that he, as an older person with much more experience in the field than me, should have been able to hold his own in his work without having to use me as a resource.
To be healthy, a mentoring relationship has to be strictly professional. It can’t humanly be entirely selfless — there would be interests involved, but keeping it professional is the absolute basic minimum. If a mentor is not able to meet their needs — relationship needs or career needs — on their own, without involving their young protégé, then they are not fit to be a mentor. They will eventually end up exploiting one or more protégé even if a romantic relationship is not involved.
And from my experience and the experience of some more women I have talked to, a mentor wanting to romance you or marry you, is always a red flag. Always. A healthy, good mentor will have developed their own resources by the time they meet you. They won’t need to latch onto you for anything at all.
Ladies, it is hard enough for women to get out of toxic relationships with men. But trust me, getting out of a relationship with an older guy who once mentored you, who has a hand in you being who you are today — is at least twice as hard if not more. Because the gaslighting and confusion will be multiple times more. Because he knows your vulnerabilities in ways that a regular husband won’t, and he has more skills in using them to his advantage. And what is more, the entire systemic framework will support him.
Watching the series, I watched in dismay as each time Kate takes a firm stand about sending him back to the US, Hal quickly comes up with a new strategy to confuse her and lure her back into trusting him. And everyone in the political picture is with Hal, so she can’t even figure out if she would survive in that world if she crossed him.
I watched in dismay because for seven years of my marriage that was me. These Horrible Has-been Husbands (HHH — I coined this term while watching the series) have way more resources that an average toxic husband to control you, and since you are likely to be their last chance at getting a lifetime source of supply, they take a lot of time weaving their tentacles around you in ways you wouldn’t even know.
So beware, that’s all I say — Beware.
Aparna Pallavi's current callings are as a therapist, contemplative writer and researcher of indigenous and forest foods. Gender and patriarchy are among her favorite subjects in her contemplative writing. Formerly she has had a read more...
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