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What Padma Lakshmi's marriage to Salman Rushdie tells us about high maintenance husbands

Padma Lakshmi new book lifts the lid on her marriage to novelist Salman Rushdie, and gives us an insight into why women fall for narcissistic men.

When I saw that Padma Lakshmi had exposed in gritty detail the ins and outs of her three-year marriage to Salman Rushdie, I wanted to do two things: give her a hug because she went through it, and buy her a drink because she left him.

To say her account of Rushdie's behaviour during their marriage is unflattering would be an understatement. In an interview to promote her memoir Love, Loss and What We Ate, published this week, the former model described her ex?husband as a man who appeared needy; who was begrudging of her success; and who wanted her at his beck and call. As their marriage soured, she claimed that he once referred to her as a "bad investment".

Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi during Fashion Week in New York  in 2006.
Salman Rushdie and Padma Lakshmi during Fashion Week in New York in 2006. Photo: AP

I immediately recognised the relationship described. Most women know these men. The kind of men who claim they "love women" ("I love my mother!", "I love their smell!", "What would the world be without women?"), but what they mean is, they love the idea of a woman. They love women as a figment of their imagination; vanilla?scented and stress-free. There to listen to them and nourish them. This figment doesn't have problems or goals of her own. She doesn't bleed, cry or complain. She is merely an accessory to his life; an extra in his film.

And - here's a sentence I never thought I'd write - we have all dated a Salman Rushdie. A man who showers you with attention at the beginning, who makes an art of courtship when you're nothing but a dazzling appendage on his arm, but seemingly loses interest when it isn't all about him.

Salman Rushdie arrives with Padma Lakshmi at the 57th Film Festival in Cannes in 2004.
Salman Rushdie arrives with Padma Lakshmi at the 57th Film Festival in Cannes in 2004. Photo: AP

I watched a friend have a serious stint with a man like this. For six long months she was entangled in a thankless romance with her own Salman Rushdie. She was drawn to him for all the reasons that many women hook up with this kind of man - he was creative, clever, interesting, charming, well-read, he knew more about music and literature than any man she had ever met. He'd dated famous women; he'd befriended famous men. For her to have "earnt" his gaze felt like an achievement.

Initially, he could not have been more attentive. He bombarded her with texts; he wanted to see her all the time. He immediately involved her at the centre of his life, always introducing her to his friends or inviting her to dinner parties. But after a few months, things started to unravel. He saw her drunk for the first time; being uninhibited in a crowd in a way she hadn't been before. She told stories, instead of listening in awe to his. She made people laugh, instead of giggling on cue at his jokes. He was cold and distant over the following week and barely returned her calls.

He also got "freaked out" when she wanted to talk to him about a problem she was having at work and said he "didn't know what to do", as if a crying woman is as confusing as a crying baby that you don't know whether to feed or burp.

Then he forgot her birthday - and asked if she could make dinner, as he'd run out of cash. So she made steak bearnaise and spent the evening talking about an issue he was having with a creative project. She was always heading off to his home at the end of the night, while he didn't even know which postcode she lived in.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie Photo: Chris Young

This type of man may sound horrifying, but behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings tells me it's not an uncommon archetype. "It's quite often a narcissistic character. He likes the thrill of the chase - very bright people often have short attention spans. They also often have a sense of entitlement and very fragile egos. Older men, in particular, can't seem to leave behind this idea that their young and successful partner should park their success at the door of their relationship."

So why do otherwise bright women fall for them? "In those early stages, men like these are captivating, interesting, complex," says Jo. "But if they can't maintain that, it will turn in on itself and this will become a needy, demanding, badly behaved person."

The most disturbing behaviour Lakshmi describes is how her ex-husband reacted when she became severely ill with endometriosis - a condition affecting the lining of the womb - that prevented her from having sex. While the condition left her "balled up in bed" for days, she said the writer felt rejected and suggested the ailment was a "convenient" excuse.

This language peels back an annoying, narcissistic behaviour pattern and, I believe, reveals a grim form of misogyny that can chip away at a woman over time. It is as if a woman is to be loved in part, as if we are Barbies that only look good in a certain role: bride Barbie, hostess Barbie, great-as-a-plus-one Barbie, good listener Barbie. Women will find themselves having to put on an ongoing performance to respond to their needs and must never slip out of character. We should remain a good investment - reliable, presentable, funny, clever - but only in the context of a certain narrative. We absolutely cannot let our stock plummet.

The irony of this notion is that men who are demanding in this way are often the most fallible of them all. While the woman's character is constantly being assessed during the relationship, the man's is allowed to grow in any which way, without any form of appraisal. With some of the guys I have dated, who have been needy, narcissistic, insecure, self?obsessed, loving them has meant we have to love all of them without question. Lakshmi tells how Rushdie was so riddled with insecurities that he needed consoling every year that he didn't win the Nobel prize for literature.

But, of course, not all men are like this. Imagine the relief of meeting a man who, when I had a bout of severe anxiety a few months into our relationship, told me: "I can't like all your fun, sexy stuff and not accept your wobbly moments. You're only human."

And this is true - most adults understand that every wonderful personality attribute may come with a pay-off. The woman who is the life and soul of the party might have a drinking problem. The high-flying career woman may have anxiety. The funny girl might be the insecure girl; the intellectual might suffer from depression. But these are things we accept and help someone work through, when we love a whole human.

It seems appropriate here to quote from Rushdie's Booker-winning triumph Midnight's Children: "I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine...to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world."

It seems a shame that a man who, on paper, has such a developed understanding of the complexities of human nature - of the millions of flecks of experience we are made up of - can reduce a woman to feeling like she is a two-dimensional presence on the sidelines of his intricate existence. It is perplexing to think that in his own life he would try to create a central character with a two-word description and nothing else: My Wife.

Telegraph

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