Dr. Ramani Durvasula: Don’t Waste Your Time with Toxic People
An interview with the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist
How does she do it? That’s what I wanted to know when I interviewed her. Dr. Ramani Durvasula is
nothing if not lively and energetic—a true dynamo and a Solo Mom. She
parents her two daughters, Maya (15) and Shanti (12), in Los Angeles,
but Durvasula can be found on pretty much every major network on
television (CNN, Fox, NBC, Bravo, and more) speaking on topics from
emotional eating to dysfunctional relationships.
Clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, and author, Durvasula is best known for her book You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life (Skirt!, 2013) and is currently promoting her latest book, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist (Post Hill Press, 2015).
Q: What exactly do you do?
A: I am a licensed clinical psychologist with a PhD in psychology. I am a full-time professor at California State University, Los Angeles. I have a private practice where I see adult patients and then I do all this work in the media. I’ve done commentary for almost every major network in the world, and I just finished my second book.
I sleep about six hours a night. I don’t have much of a nightlife.
Q: I take it you don’t date much.
A: At the present time, I finally found someone who is wonderful and patient with the juggling act. I’m super involved with my girls, even on the weekends when I don’t have them. And I’ve come to realize that building a relationship when you have children requires a lot of flexibility and compromise on the part of both parties.
For better or for worse, I’m very ambitious. I love what I do. And I look forward to challenges of the future. Obviously at my age, I’m not going to have more kids. When [my youngest daughter] Shanti leaves, I may finally have the opportunity for the first time to consider working outside of the country. I didn’t get to travel and work overseas when I was younger because I was getting my education and having children. There will be a chapter two where I get to do all that stuff. But I don’t want to wish my life away, and instead want to enjoy life as it unfolds.
Q: Tell me about your first book, You Are WHY You Eat.
A: The book came out when I was just starting my media career. I’d worked with many clients who had eating disorders, so this is where it began. It was a personal journey and a personal story, as I actually lost 85 pounds myself.
I didn’t have surgery or any of those things. It took me 17 months, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to pull it off. This, combined with all the things that happened in my life at the same time, made me realize it would be a book about emotional eating—how we live our lives more toward what people tell us to do than what we know to be right for ourselves. As a result, we throw ourselves under the bus. We are in jobs we don’t want to do, marriages we don’t want to be in, and lives we don’t want to have because people tell us this is what we are supposed to do.
So the original premise of the book comes from how we are told to eat everything on our plate, even if we aren’t hungry.
Q: What prompted your new book, Should I Stay or Should I Go?
A: This book is my passion project. It’s a really good book and is going to create a lot of conversation. I came at the subject from every angle: I teach about it, I research it, I treat people who are in these relationships, and I’ve even been in these relationships. For better of worse, I know this territory better than most.
Narcissists rule the world. They are always the head of everything, and they’re so toxic that they push everyone out, so the world is running on their schedule. I thought, “We need one book that calls them out.”
Sadly, it increasingly seems that in order to be successful, narcissism helps. Leaders and politicians who are bullies often get the most attention and the biggest paychecks. Our system is set up this way. It works in our society. There is no room for compassion. All the ethical people I know are broke.
If I could get every divorced woman to pick up this book, my guess is that the majority will have witnessed many of these patterns. Because one place where narcissism doesn’t work is in relationships—if you are on the receiving end. If you want the fancy car, the fancy house, and the big wallet, be prepared for what you are signing up for. Great material providers are often not empathetic partners.
Q: When and why did you become a Solo Mom?
A: It was incompatibility. In 2008, I left. I made the decision. But to be frank, when I took stock of it all, I realized I may have been better made for motherhood than marriage at that time. I come from a traditional Indian family. But I have no regrets. My children have a father they are connected to. I’m lucky. My ex-husband is a good dad. And when we split, I made the best decisions I could to soften the blow of divorce-but it’s never an optimal decision for children.
Q: How do you see your future playing out?
A: I intend to keep working until I’m 80 years old. I love working. I love the pace of my life. I’m just not good at marriage.
Q: Did being a Solo Mom impact your career?
A: The logistics were hard, but my career took off when I became a single mom.
I could put my kids to bed and go to work. When I first divorced, I did not really date much-so I had time. I oftentimes work from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. I work weekends. I work every second I have. At that time, I couldn’t do that if I was married. I could focus on my kids and wasn’t also doing the work of a marriage.
Q: How did you manage during your transition to solo motherhood?
A: I’m lucky. A professor’s schedule is often quite flexible. I hired a babysitter who was often a driver. So it was a combination of babysitters, favors, and the flexibility of my schedule.
Q: When your status shifted from being married to single, did you feel a shift in your community?
A: Yes. Sadly, many married people wanted nothing further to do with me. I don’t know what that’s about.
I have married and long-time friends on the East Coast. But in Los Angeles, most of the people I am closest to now are divorced. Like me, my friends are a bit more unorthodox and unconventional.
What I don’t know is what the empty-nest thing is going to feel like. My empty nest won’t feel the same as most people’s because I’ll make shifts in my career and take on new kinds of work.
Q: Can you recommend specific resources for women going through divorce?
A: I think there are two kinds of divorces: divorces that are done to you and divorces that you make happen. Mine was the second. It was my decision. I didn’t feel like anything was done to me. Regardless of the story of your marriage dissolution, I highly recommend that a person find a good therapist to help through the transition; groups like DivorceCare and support groups are critical. Figure out who your go-to friends are. Talk about the test of a friendship! You look at who’s left standing after a divorce. My nearest, dearest friends were there.
One major piece of advice: do not waste your time, especially in those early fragile months, with toxic people—people who are questioning, people who are naysayers. In general, we take all the stuff we want to get rid of to Goodwill. We need a Goodwill for toxic people.
Q: Was there a defining moment that drove home you were raising children alone?
A: Going out to dinner alone with them. There was a loneliness that would overtake me. They were young, eight and five. You’re still cutting their food. You’re craving adult conversation. They’re too young to even have a conversation.
Q: What are you most proud of as a Solo Mom?
A: That I’ve come out like a phoenix rising from the ashes: I’ve written two books; I’ve gotten teaching awards. I could not have done any of these things if I didn’t really assess what was and was not working in my life. I’m proud of my successes, and I survived.
Q: What are your favorite Solo-Mom tips?
A: Surrender to [ride-hailing service] Uber if your kids are old enough when you are in a tough minute. Driving your kids around during the day can be a full-time job. I drive almost three hours a day for my work—which is where Uber comes in. When your kids are a little older, they can use Uber during the day! (night is still typically my problem.)
Falling asleep together counts as time together: we’ll go on vacation, and we’ll get a hotel room with one king bed; or it’s a Saturday night, and we’re all in bed and they’re watching TV and I’m reading. It’s like the girls’ club. Falling asleep next to them is sacred time.
This piece has been updated at the request of Dr. Ramani Durvasula (12/21/15).
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 18, and William, age 14.
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