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David Schnarch
Dr. David Schnarch

New ideas, important thoughts, and assorted musings


Why Rich and Powerful People Cheat

Part 4 of 4: How Would I Treat Tiger and Elin Woods?

By Dr. David Schnarch

Author of Intimacy & Desire and Passionate Marriage

Couples don't realize there are differences in how therapists treat affairs. Many of my clients, who failed in prior marital counseling, don't realize this until our first session.They finally see the light when they encounter something different.

Differences in how therapists approach extramarital affairs

Traditional treatment usually starts off by looking at the “cheater’s” transgressions. The cheating spouse is encouraged to apologize, beg forgiveness and promise never to do it again. Another primary focus is usually how he or she has betrayed the partner, and the partner is offered the position of being the wounded party.  Although this role might be gratifying to Elin, it is probably not in her best interest.  Lots of people think an affair creates an irreperable hole in a relationship, because this was their personal experience. After working with couples for three decades I do not share this view. Looking at the affair in terms of victimization and betrayal reinforces relationships dynamics that fuel further affairs, exacerbates issues of reflected sense of self (e.g., "betrayal"), and makes "trust issues" a boondoggle. Common approaches to resolving affairs often makes affairs unresolvable.     

 Our program takes a different approach, which we find more effective in repairing the relationship, making both people stronger, and reducing the likelihood of further affairs. I would work with Elin first, to help her unhook her reflected sense of self from Tiger. Now is the time for her to take an important step for any partner of a powerful person or celebrity:  Unhook her self-worth and identity from her husband, and become more of an individual in her own right. I would help Elin remember (or establish) that she is a separate person, and there is no reason to assume she was inadequate in some way because her husband had an affair. Then I would help her figure out why she had a hole in her “radar” (presuming she didn’t see this all along). 
Were Tiger to see Elin unhook her self-respect from him and stand on her own two feet, this usually has several positive impacts. First, it would increase his respect for her and his desire not to lose her. Second, you don’t mess around on a partner who takes this huge step in self-validation and independence. If your wife won’t put up with her own immaturity, she certainly is not going to put up with yours.

Understandably, Elin could feel betrayed, wounded, and humiliated by Tiger’s actions. Unfortunately,persuing therapy according to her feelings is an ineffective strategy. As long as you take personally your partner’s wrong-doing, he or she is more likely to do it again, especially when he or she is angry at you. If Elin wants to decide whether to leave or stay, it’s a much smarter to shift from “How could you do this to me?” to “How could you do this to yourself?”

Cage that Tiger

THAT’S when it’s first possible to really work with Tiger, and see what he’s really made of. As long as Tiger is primarily focused on cooling Elin’s anger, containing the situation, and obtaining her forgiveness, his prognosis for avoiding future affairs is not good. His history with women many not indicate he strayed from his values, but rather, that this is what he really wants. When your wife says she has no forgiveness to offer and questions how are you going to rebuild your integrity, you know you’re in trouble. If Tiger goes into a deep, protracted and painful personal crisis, in which Elin’s feelings about him are secondary, it is more likely he has enough moral fibre to build on so that he changes his ways. 

I would help Tiger into the Crucible of his life, where he has the proverbial “dark night of the soul.” Where he confronts who is really is, despite all his money and fame. Where he looks at whether he violated himself, gutted he values, and diminished himself in his own eyes. He may not actually feel this way, and I would encourage Elin to watch him closely.  The real security that one’s partner won’t have further affairs doesn’t come from promises he won’t do that again to you. It comes when you know he won’t do that again to himself. 

For some wealthy men, Tiger’s sexual lifestyle is really what they want. For others, this kind of fiasco is a turning point in their lives. It’s depressing to find your life is empty, while you have all the trappings of success.  In most respects you have everything anyone could want, and yet you have nothing of real meaning.  You realize another million dollars or winning another tournament—or another affair-- isn’t going to make you happier. You realize it has to come from within you, and from meaningful relationships with people you respect.  People who go through this process usually don’t have more affairs, and go on to live happier lives than before. For some wealthy and powerful people, it’s the first time their life has meaning.

Avoiding pitfalls

I'd also pay attention to not let Tiger slip off in to the morass of labeling himself a “sex addict.” Sexual addiction is a conceptualization and diagnosis disputed by many competent experts with whom I concur. Once the notion of “sex addict” is invoked, the motivations, predisposing factors, and best course of treatment are seemingly beyond question (to the "addict"). Issues of character and moral fibre disappear from consideration, because sex addiction is suppose to be a disease. It’s better to approach this as “compulsive sexual behavior,” and look at the many varied motivations that can propel this. Having worked with many people who’ve had multiple affairs, I’ve found “sexual addiction” diagnoses complicate treatment by creating myriad loopholes in treatment. Perhaps that’s why many “sex addiction” proponents believe sex addiction is incurable.

In the course of treatment couples often need help dealing with their friends' help. They have to cope with interference and unhelpful suggestions from well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) friends, whose own issues, agendas, personal shortcommings and misguided loyalties come out in droves. Many couples have had to fend off encouragements to lawyer-up, make defensive (or offensive) tactical moves, and bail out prematurely. Some have felt as if they owed it to friends to go through with a divorce, as if they were being disloyal by reconciling with their spouse. 

Our intensive Therapy Program involves 3 to 4 hour daily sessions over four or more days, with subsequent follow-up sessions available to increase and solidify progress. For more about the Intensive Therapy Program, click here

To learn more about dealing with affairs and reflected sense of self, read Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship, click here.

Dr. David Schnarch is a licensed clinical psychologist, a Certified Sex Therapist, and marriage and family therapist with over 30 years experience. He is the international best-selling author of Passionate Marriage, Resurrecting Sex, and Constructing the Sexual Crucible. His latest book is Intimacy & Desire. He and his wife, Dr. Ruth Morehouse, co-direct the Marriage & Family Health Center in Evergreen CO.