Dependency II: The following blog is based on a real TV series!
I have been thinking about dependency in relation to the work that I do as a coach. In the context of dependency being of one person on another. Vulnerability, how we each experience and react to it, has also been on my mind. Both are fascinating as we all experience them in our own unique ways. The nature of our experience is connected to our identity, to the dynamics of our relationships with other people, and to the environment in which we are living. Both dependency and vulnerability have a positive aspect given the benefits we might notice when they are present at the ‘right level’. When either or both are experienced at heightened levels the consequences can be deeply uncomfortable in the short term, and damaging to wellbeing and mental health in the longer term.
A promotional image from The Following Events Are Based On A Pack Of Lies (original here)
The subject matter of The Following Events Are Based On A Pack Of Lies is brazenly shared in the title. The acting and staging of the drama was similarly unsubtle. Here was a man, Rob the disruptive explorer, whose self-coined brand and credentials were so obviously absurd that no one could possibly be sucked in by them, surely. The quirky camera work, over the top acting and the colourful scene setting all appeared to be in on the joke as well. The joke being how could anyone be so absurd as to believe in this man, to the extent that they become dependent on him. Totally bonkers, right? Most definitely. Let’s sit back and watch this as a lightweight comedy.
Yet then, you are drawn into relationships depicted against this quirky background, and the experience, at least for me was not particularly comfortable. More on that in a moment. These relationships are different in relation to the time that they began, and all involve Rob, our disruptive explorer.
One is with Alice, his wife. They met a long time ago and got married after a very brief fling interrupted by Rob’s ‘unexplained’ disappearance, shortly after he ripped off Alice’s Dad by getting him to invest in a dodgy scheme. Now, by complete coincidence, their paths have crossed again. Rob now has a different identity, one that he is using to influence Sir Ralph in the second relationship, one that is already established as we join the story. The third is between Rob and Cheryl, a recently bereaved wealthy author, whose relationship develops from a standing start and thereafter at an astonishing speed.
Over a relatively short series of scenes we are taken on a journey from thinking of Rob as a scallywag, towards being a benign buffoon clever enough to dupe the unwary, onwards to being a coercive and gaslighting bully, and ultimately a violent sociopath.
On this journey we are exposed to different forms of vulnerability on the part of each of Rob’s victims. Alice experiences his resurfacing in her life as reliving the trauma of his controlling behaviour that he used once they were newlyweds, all those years before. The portrayal of Alice being triggered by his return demonstrated so clearly the reach of that sort of trauma over time. Once she had been triggered Alice was shown as having two realistically portrayed approaches to dealing with Rob. One was to activate her tried and tested (this was inferred rather than portrayed) survival mechanism of withdrawing from the world to find, and stay, in a safer place. The second was to overcompensate in reaction to her inclination to withdraw, and try to become someone she was not yet ready to be ……. yet. As the viewer I found myself cheering her on as she built herself up to avenge the wrongs of the past, even while having the strongest feeling that she was not going to be ready for the consequences of her actions. Those consequences were to lay bare the true version of Rob, an implacable force of evil beyond the ability of a single person to deal with and, another point made as the drama unfolded, beyond the reach of the law. The dependency that Alice’s experienced was one based on her historical survival strategy being applied automatically in her present day situation.
Sir Ralph’s vulnerability is based on the fact that he is a wealthy, successful man moving towards the end of his career. He is completely taken in by Rob, believing in him, defending him to others, even as furniture is being removed from his huge house to pay for debts accruing because of his donations to Rob’s mythical climate enterprise. His gullibility could be taken as comedic, and there were laugh out loud moments. Even so the underlying feeling was sadness to see how someone who we assume was intimately acquainted with success might so quickly become a figure of ridicule. For me his vulnerability was borne from wanting to hang on to a purpose and wanting to retain influence and status. In the absence of being able to do this himself he gave up trust entirely to someone who might provide him with all those things vicariously, and in doing so, became dependent on him.
One of the reasons for being uncomfortable in watching this is that in my own thinking I am wondering about my purpose as I get older. I have no plans to retire, and don’t anticipate living my life through the deeds of someone else. What I do understand is feeling a little more vulnerable about things like purpose, direction, and perception of others, than I did 10 years ago.
Rob’s third relationship was with Cheryl and we see this one unfold from the outset. There are a lot of cliches in their relationship which are laid on quite heavily. There are moments where, as the viewer, you might think ‘reeaallyyy??!! However, the point was being made that even a successful, wealthy lady, in full control of her faculties, who is strong in character and mind, can be manipulated if someone takes advantage of her vulnerability. Her vulnerability was from being bereaved. It was more than that though. She had cared for her husband who barely recognised her for 2 years, while suffering in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. She had denied herself everything apart from her caring role. She was now bereaved, and grieving as a consequence. She was also feeling a sense of freedom that caused her to experience guilt. Her vulnerability was about having a need for affection, perhaps love, reciprocated by another and she quickly became dependent on someone she experienced, however briefly, as being able to do that. This was all played out against a backdrop showing a strong lady being pressurised by dwindling wealth caused by care costs, a sense of her readership fan base turning against her, and her feeling the pressure to form business partnerships that did not match her values. Ah, and over reliance on a dog! As an aside her role as a fantasy writer provided an excuse for some of the more fantastical scenes. However, overplayed they were, they did not seem out of place – a neat directorial trick.
Some people commenting on the series have talked about how it was an uncomfortable portrayal of what being the victim of misogyny is like. It most definitely was, but I think it was also conveying messages more broadly about the exploitation of vulnerability. How someone like Rob, with a complete conviction that the only thing that matters in life is fulfilment of his needs, and his needs alone, might seek out vulnerability and use it to satisfy those needs. The different ways of exerting a malignant influence were shown time and again: gaslighting, patronising, confusing, criticising, blaming, doubting, deceit, and insincerity, to name just a few.
Some of the scenes were so deliberately overacted as to feel preposterous, encouraging a pantomime like behaviour of shouting at the screen ‘surely, SURELY, you can see through that’. That was the point though. What is obvious to the majority may not be to those who are vulnerable. If the need associated with vulnerability is satisfied by someone, a connection is made with them which is then difficult to sever. The longer they remain in the grip of the person manipulating them the further they travel from knowing the truth - that they have a choice in how they respond to their abuser.
Another thing that I found uncomfortable was noticing how other characters around Alice undermined her. Her employer Juno was dreadful while appearing to try and be nice. Juno exerted her hierarchical power in ways that are all too common in the workplace, if not quite so extreme. There was a sense that this came from a place of judging someone to be inferior, rather than an attempt to manipulate as Rob was doing. The effect was just the same though in terms of removing another person’s self-esteem.
Then there was Alice’s Dad Bill, a victim of Rob’s, almost as much as she was. There was no question that Bill was caring for his daughter. However, his switching from confidence in her abilities to tackle Rob this time around, to questioning whether she had it in her to do so, spoke of the fine line between care and control. Was his motivation to prevent her from tackling Rob in support of her needs (care) or of his own (control)?
Curiously, it was perhaps this by play between daughter and father, Alice and Bill, that caused me to feel most uncomfortable. Over the last few years I have had caring roles with a variety of aging relatives. I am confident that my intentions were good in delivering that care. Yet I was also aware of how easy it was to slip into questioning whether it was right for them to do something, and should I perhaps do it for them instead? The motivation was good yet the impact was infantilising or disempowering to someone who was doing their best to maintain their independence and some level of control over the basics of running their life.
The same applies in looking after my lovely wife whose hip operation cast me in the role of short (very short) term carer for a fiercely independent lady! For a couple of days there were things that I had to do for her but in short order her own determination led to her being off her crutches in four days. I remember saying ‘are you sure you should be walking without them?’ and later on ‘don’t walk up that hill just yet’ and still later ‘are you sure you should be picking that up?’. I like to think my intentions were good, yet was I actually doing something to fulfil my needs (control) rather than hers (care)? Perhaps I had grown used to the power and influence that comes with any carer’s role, both of these attributes that need to be harnessed, not abused?
I was not sure about how to draw all this together but arrived at the following, a form of words that hold some meaning for me: The level of agency we have in our relationships is proportional to the awareness we have of our ability to choose our behaviour. Someone who is the victim of abuse will have lost connection with their ability to choose. The job of their community of family and friends is to help them navigate their way back to it, and not to inadvertently undermine their confidence even further. It might be that professional help, in the form of therapy is required, although sometimes coaching may have a role to play.
You may take the view that the above does not point the finger enough at the abuser. That is not my intention. My intention is to concentrate attention on where resolution will come from, and that is by building again from within, drawing on the resources of love and trust of those around you. The abuser is not beyond redemption, but changing their behaviour is not something that their victim is likely to have any traction with. Sadly, the likelihood of repeat behaviours by an abuser was captured fleetingly in the final seconds The following events are based on a pack of lies. We see Rob in an interview room as a result of the law finally catching up with him. Even now he sees an opportunity to manipulate another person. In this case the person whose role it is to gather evidence of the behaviours he has shown that might actually be punishable under the law.
That’s a lot of reflection prompted by visual entertainment! I could go on but instead I’ll finish with some enquiries that might prompt some reflections for you.
What do you do to balance your needs with the needs of others whose circumstances might cause you to consider them as being ‘under your care’?
What do you notice about yourself when you are feeling a growing need to control a situation, and what best works for you to manage this need?
What is most effective for reminding you that in response to the actions of another, you always have a choice about how you interact with them?
If you are feeling under-resourced to deal with behaviour towards you that you feel is controlling, how do you go about seeking support from others that you trust?
If the exploration implied in these enquiries interests you, or you are curious about how enquiry on something that is particularly topical for you might be helpful, please do get in touch with me. You can check out my earlier dependency related blog here too.