So it’s all over. Or is it? Helen is out of prison. The jury decided that there was not enough certainty to convict her of attempted murder or even wounding with intent. Instead, the balance of evidence favoured the interpretation that she acted in defence of Henry, her son. Rob’s reputation is in tatters. He has been branded as a rapist and bully, using manipulation and mind games to systematically undermine his wife’s self confidence. It now looks as if Helen will get custody of her children, though Rob will almost certainly be granted access.
This must be the most disturbing storyline to come out of The Archers; it’s a long way from cake making to domestic abuse. It could be written as a play or a film though I suspect radio best facilitates projections from our own experience. As Sunday’s extended episode demonstrated, the members of the jury had each identified with the protagonists according to their own experience. One had a friend in the same situation as Helen, another prided herself in surviving a coercive relationship, a third had lost access to his own children. This story touches us all. Irrespective of our gender, there can be few of us who have not felt manipulated by our spouse or who, at times of stress, have not sought to coerce or control our partners. We know the territory. This story shows how risky marriage can be. We could end up losing everything.
Helen stabbed her husband; her defence was that she was so systematically goaded and undermined by Rob that this was an accident waiting to happen. Did he not actually put the knife into Helen’s hand? But how often do things go the other way? How many women have so provoked a man with threats of abandonment and removing the children that he has lashed out or found solace elsewhere, provoking what they may both most fear?
It is too simplistic to dismiss Rob as a villain. We need to ask ourselves: what is it that makes someone like Rob behave the way he does? Why does he need to be so controlling? Is it insecurity? Does he have a deep seated fear of abandonment? Rob, an only child, was sent away to boarding school at a very early age by two ambitious and selfish parents. We don’t know much about their relationship, but Bruce seems a somewhat tyrannical husband and Ursula the long suffering wife who learnt how to appease her husband while satisfying her attachment needs through Rob.
It is likely that the early experience of abandonment punctuated by spells of over indulgence left Rob him with a deep distrust of relationships, especially with women. The prediction was that they would always let him down, just like his mother. This would particularly apply to romantic or sexual relationships, and more so with marriage and children, where the consequences of failure are so much greater. So Rob would have an exaggerated sense of ownership. Helen had to belong to him. If she wasn’t part of him, she would have to be rejected. He was the man; like his father he had entitlement. He could not tolerate her having a life of her own; it made him feel insecure.
People like Rob just have to get their own way. They are often very charming. They know how to make others believe that are special. This is the entrapment. They have such a fragile sense of themselves, they need somebody else and are more likely to attract and choose a partner who also has a fragile sense of identity and can be manipulated. Rob found this first in Jess; she was 16 and had just taken GCSEs when he met her. He was older and had just left university. He swept her off her feet, married her quickly and whisked her off to Canada. It was all very romantic, but Jess never conceived and the relationship cooled. When they came back, he met Helen and soon seduced her with his charm. Helen was a willing victim and that made him feel secure, for a while.
Insecure, frightened people like Rob are highly manipulative; they play mind games, set tests, issue veiled threats, make it clear what would please them or displease them and all the while increase the level of coercion and strip away any sense of individuality. It is a form of mind control; a thought crime.
Rob fenced Helen in; he distrusted her friends, her family, he disliked her going to work, he didn’t like her wearing anything too revealing and more sinister, he was so desperate to create a copy of himself that he forced her to become pregnant. And when she was pregnant and they knew it was a boy, the control increased. He smothered her in cotton wool, got his mother in to make sure she didn’t do anything herself and when she resisted, he persuaded her she was ill and needed antidepressants. Her only way out was to leave him, but he would never allow that. The possibility that she might leave would feel like death to Robert and lead to desperate measures, like putting the knife in her hands. Such people are dangerous.
Our culture glorifies the romance of falling in love and getting married, but it is probably the most risky thing any of us ever do. Falling in love is about finding someone who makes us feel good about ourselves. People write about that ‘oceanic’ feeling of well being. Everything, even the most mundane situations, is touched with charm. Every love song that has ever been written is about us. But do we fall in love with the other person or do we experience the illusion of falling in love with an idealised version of ourselves, as viewed through the eyes of our lover? Our love object brings out the best in us just our regard brings out the best in them. It is a heady and for many, once in a lifetime experience. For a brief moment, we are one mind and one body. In successful and stable couples, it transforms into a kind of mutual interdependence that allows each partner to be themselves and grow independently, secure in the knowledge that they are loved. Trust replaces the need for control.
With couples that are less secure, falling in love possesses a quality of desperation. Those who have a fragile sense of their own identity crave somebody who will make them whole; their other half. Such couples cleave together and for a time everything is wonderful. Rob and Helen were besotted with each other. Rob was looking for somebody who would help him secure his purpose in live, a true partner, while Helen thought Rob was so wonderful, she was more than willing to be that person to the extent of giving over parental responsibility for her son and letting him take over her business. Such love is not so much blind as drugged. It is a wonderful illusion until the mist clears and they realise that their beloved has different set of needs, values and even morals and ethics, and understand that they are a mere mortal and not at all like the image one had created of them. Then the only way they can hold on to the illusion is through coercion and control.
It can only end in tears.