|Surprise! by Henri Rousseau, 1891|
The narcissist’s infidelity is an ambush more than a surprise. A term like "Gotcha!" might be a good description of the narcissist's aggressive and intentional infidelity. Surprise and "Gotcha" work together like a charm if putting an uppity woman in her place is the goal--her place being somewhere awfully close to the floor. If the narcissist plants a flag on your chest and declares victory, you might want to pay attention to his superior position, get up off the floor, and wrap the flag around his bloated head.
In relationships that are not stunted by pathological narcissism, infidelity can be a turning point for both the betrayer and the betrayed. Normal couples say an affair was a warning sign to confront marital problems or the relationship would never last. Both people picked up their share of the problems and worked together restoring trust and mutual responsibility, which ended up enhancing intimacy. Their Love story had a happy ending despite the fact that infidelity was traumatizing for both the ‘betrayed’ and the ‘betrayer’.
In my mind, infidelity is even more traumatizing for the children than the couple, because it jeopardizes their ability to implicitly trust an intimate partner in the future. Let’s never forget that there’s more than three in the two-timing crucible. What’s good for the goose & the gander is heartbreaking for the gosling, even life altering.
If infidelity hurts so many people, then why do men cheat on their wives? It’s like asking, “Why do men beat on their wives?” Only nowadays, we’ve made progress on the sexist idea that she made him beat her. I hope we’ve progressed to the point where we realize there’s one person responsible for raising a fist and that person is the only one to blame for his choice to raise a fist. However, when it comes to sex and infidelity---that’s where things really get sticky. Society is still inclined to blame a woman as the reason for her husband's philandering. Or at least insist she take half his responsibility for choosing to betray his wife and family. We continue offering excuses as to why a man messes around with another woman when they have a perfectly well equipped partner at home. A partner with perks. Like cinnamon rolls, and happy kids, and continuity, and extended relationships, and compassion enough to care for him when he’s feeble, and respectability, and a safe place for family to call ‘home’. We say to one another, "Well, he must not have been happy at home."
So everybody learns that if Dad isn’t happy, the whole family had best be focused on making Daddy happy, Or Else.
Contrary to assumptions that only dissatisfied, unhappy men cheat, Shirley Glass says happy men cheat, too. According Ruth Houston, an infidelity expert: “This information may surprise you, but research has proven time and time again that a man’s happiness, or the quality of his marriage have no bearing on whether or not he’ll have an extramarital affair.”
So much for the pop-psychology excuse as to why men have affairs.
Infidelity is such a curiosity, though! It’s a national obsession. Affairs makes headlines on the 6 o’clock news. News about wars and financial disasters and impending global destruction take a back seat to what celebrities are doing behind the mask of propriety. I wonder if the reason we’re always asking ‘why people have affairs’ is because we want to know ‘why not.’ Why not have affairs? Perhaps our obsession with other people’s sex lives is an attempt to question the idea that infidelity is common, not-so-bad-as-long-as-you-don’t-get-caught, and that maybe restraining narcissistic impulses isn't necessary because a dalliance now & then is a victimless crime? After all, it sure looks like everybody does it which means infidelity is 'normal.' Those fidel folks are the abnormal ones. Why don't they have affairs, too?
Maybe society is struggling to understand the compulsion to have risky affairs, while we're also deconstructing the patriarchal notion of male privilege. Women are challenging the age-old double standard of fidelity by breaking the silence surrounding male privilege. Now we hear true stories from the other side of the bed: the betrayed, the children, the family, the friends, and the wife who dares speak what used to be unspeakable. Women are less reluctant to speak up when they are socially validated instead of incriminated. Unfortunately (as happens in oppressive systems): “Female infidelity has increased 50% and is rapidly approaching the rate of male infidelity.” Looks like oppressed women are catching up to privileged men. Well, equality of the sexes shouldn't mean freedom to mimic the abuses of the privileged, but transition is never easy.
Johnny Appleseed can't resist the compulsion to plant orchards
Even academics fabricate excuses for men, purporting theories about a deeply embedded evolutionary drive to spread one’s genes as far and as wide as our…..legs; suggesting we are motivated to procreate because that's how our species has survived: Hook up, impregnate, hook up elsewhere, impregnate; keep mini-me’s populating the planet; it's our moral duty to make sure our genes survive. For some reason though, these arguments fail to mention the modern neo-cortex overriding instinctual impulses.
Even if a few men act like dogs, humans in the 21st century are very unlike chickens and cows and furry creatures that don’t have careers, kids needing stability, and 30-year mortgages for homes rather than corrals and chicken coops. Comparing us to rapidly copulating rabbits is an insult to our humanity and simply preposterous, really. What are the statistics for infidelity and viable offspring anyway? My naïve guess is that modern affairs serve the ego, not the genetic code. Maybe I could go along with the line of evolutionary thought if partners were only required to grunt at the sacred alter of commitment, “Do you take this man or this woman to be your lawfully wedded partner?”
Or if the man were still returning from the hunt with gutted rats for his stick-gathering woman to dangle over campfires. Wait, come to think of it, there may be a link between outdoorsy type personalities and their Neanderthal relatives. Maybe one of the questions we should ask a potential mate is: “Do You Like Sleeping in Caves?” If they prefer rocks to feather pillows, you might want to think twice before breeding.
I remember being a young girl in a tightly-knit rural community. We were about twenty years behind city folk’s shifting morality, though television was eroding our black-and-white standards a lot faster than it took instilling those values from one generation to the next. When my best friend’s father became dissatisfied with his wife, supposedly totally and utterly miserable, and so very sad and depressed in his marriage, he spread his blues genes elsewhere. People rolled their eyes and said, “That’s a man for ya.”
Then when Mr. GreenJean’s wife was caught sleeping with Farmer Dell, well---people started a bonfire in the center of town and collected biblical stones. Even a naïve kid like myself figured out that “Sticks and Stones may break my bones” but adultery would catch my hair on fire.
Not that the people in my community condoned male philandering, but they could understand it. What they couldn’t understand was why Mrs. GreenJeans slept with Farmer Dell when she had a perfectly nice stove, a 4-wheel drive pick-up, in-house plumbing, and all the accoutrements a woman needed to keep her busy. Like kids and an orchard full of apples to preserve, for example. There wasn’t any allowance nor excuse for an unhappy woman to seek happiness elsewhere, not like there was for an unhappy man.
Kids are exceptionally observant without realizing we’re being socialized. We don’t question our perceptions of normal adult behavior. What was normal to most of us was the idea that a man was incapable of controlling his urges and a woman was supposed to control not only hers, but her man’s lesser instincts, too. If he was a philanderer, she had failed. She was the cause. Gossiping people never asked “What’s wrong with that man?” or accused him of having a narcissistic personality disorder. Instead, they examined his wife’s deficits to explain his behavior, accusing her of having character defects---like being sexually inadequate, or scornful, or scolding, or too fat for fun.
Now I’m a grown woman and citified and my morals have become more relative than my parents believe is prudent. I have an open mind, a healing wounded heart, and the ability to be more objective about infidelity. The other thing I have that a lot of other people don’t, is direct experience with infidelity and a narcissistic spouse. So when Tiger Woods was outed as a philanderer and I saw a picture of the beauty he married…well, it was rather validating let me admit that fact right up front. She didn’t look sexually inadequate to me, and she was definitely not too fat for fun. The other difference is that Mrs. Tiger probably didn’t take her husband’s infidelity quite as personally as those of us with stretch marks and crow’s feet, our youthful beauty fading faster than a Brazilian rain forest. Mrs. Tiger probably didn’t enjoy being reduced to a cliché like the rest of her female sex, but she isn’t grieving the fact that she’ll likely spend the remainder of her life alone. When you look at her and you look at Tiger, there’s not a whole lot of blame to be placed on anyone but the man himself. And his narcissism perhaps. Narcissism being a dynamic of personality and not a clinical disorder like NPD.
Undoubtedly, Tiger grew up perceiving himself to be ‘special’, the rest of humanity being way below par by comparison. He was groomed from the age of two to see himself as exceptional, privileged, and entitled to have whatever he wanted with a righteous dose of vanity and inordinate self-preoccupation. It would be arduous work for any one to grow up in the adoring public eye without equating celebrity status as evidence of superiority.
Tiger is the golden child of a narcissistic culture that elevates him on a pedestal, isolating him from the rest of the world, essentially separating him from reality. His childhood leaves one to wonder how ‘real’ he feels himself to be. Is he an exception---meaning is he entitled to do whatever he pleases because the rules of life do not apply to celebrities of his stature? His upbringing must have been surreal, segregating him from a normal life and encouraging his narcissism to flourish, unchecked by the limitations of ordinariness. When the shit hits the proverbial fans however, when his behavior is not in sync with his image, he has an opportunity to ask himself, “Where have I gone wrong and how can I make amends to the people I have hurt?” Tangentially, his fans have an opportunity to real-ize him as a human being, not a God. He is no more than a mistake-making man with warts, urges, and failings---like the rest of his species.
The challenge of a child prodigy is to recognize their extraordinary skills without conceptualizing themselves as extraordinary people, thus extirpated from moral behavior and empathy for others. Moral laws alleviate one another's suffering through individual responsibility for our impact on partners, on family, and (by extension for celebrities in particular), their impact on the whole of society. When an icon tumbles from his lofty pedestal, he can reify his masculine archetype by doing what real men do: the Right Thing. That means taking responsibility for his failure to keep his word, going the extra mile to repair any damage he has caused, working hard to earn his stature, voluntarily sacrificing ego to higher values than the narcissistic cloddish self, and thus restoring his integrity aided by the cleansing grief of humility.
Tiger’s ability to transform arrogance into humility requires a steadfast desire to bear the humiliation of his failure rather than demand his family bear the burden for him. The inability to suffer one’s own 'sins' and mourn the demise of an omnipotent self is the hallmark of a narcissistic personality.
The truth of Tiger’s unchangeable narcissism will be in the outcome. I hope he will take the path least traveled and accept his moral duty to live up to the principles he represents. I hope he will not take the path most traveled and excuse himself from responsibility. I hope he has the character to resist socially conditioned temptations to blame his wife, or scapegoat his family in order to preserve his ego at all costs to others. If he chooses the road most traveled, he won’t get any slack from mobs of people who validate his entitlement to act without consideration for others.
Can he resist projecting responsibility, even towards his idolizing fans sustaining the isolation of his celebrity? Will he succumb to the clamor of the hollow men, justifying male entitlement as normal, even imitable? Does he realize envious fans need to keep him in his place: on a pedestal. Those hollow fans who sanction Tiger Wood's entitlement, absolve him from responsibility for a real man's life. After all, he’s a winner. And their winner can have or do anyone he wants.
The challenge for our celebrity-worshipping society is to never allow celebrity status to trump moral behavior. When we grant special privileges to the rich and famous, we set the stage for our children to normalize pathological behavior. By mimicking narcissistic behavior as normal, even glorified, we diminish the future quality of our children’s lives. If the celebrities we worship are not subject to the same rules governing a civilized society, then our children will idealize fame as the golden ticket to freedom: freedom to do what they please, when they please, to whom they please and whenever they feel like it. They will forfeit the ultimate freedom via mastery of lesser instincts and ‘feelings’ that frees the whole of society. If we do not hold stars accountable to what we know is unhealthy and dissatisfying, we encourage the proliferation of narcissism in an individualistic culture that thinks only of the self without regard for others, too special to suffer consequences for harmful behavior.
No matter how you look at it, Tiger Wood’s infidelity is the Tournament of His Life, a defining point in his maturation from a two-dimensional star to a complex human being. Taking responsibility for himself will be a defining point. Even he, a child prodigy, is not above the rules of decent behavior.
If he submits to the rules of a sport that must be obeyed or suffer disqualification, he can follow the rules of a moral life that must be adhered to, or suffer disqualification as a man. Real men bear accountability for their guilt, suffer remorse, repair the damage, and refuse to make excuses. Real men pick up the broken pieces of their pedestal and ask no one to carry the weighty burden for them. They bear the burden of their brokenness as evidence of their humanity.
Corrective life events
Tiger’s infidelity can be a ‘corrective life event’ that puts his life in order by creating a ‘real’ relationship with himself, embodying the values he represents: a good man, a trustworthy husband, a reliable father, an icon of strength worthy of emulation. Alternatively, the humiliation of infidelity can be a ‘corrosive life event’, ultimately destroying his true self, handicapped by the façade of his celebrity. At this crucial moment, the question to be considered is not how his family failed him. The question to ask is how he failed himself---as a man. A real man. One with warts and failings and mistakes to rectify.
The healing period post-infidelity is a precarious time of self discovery. At the core of Tiger Wood's character, when the false mask of superiority is lowered just enough to see a true self secreted behind the pretense, is his narcissism context dependent---or is it a state of being?
Only time will tell.
Elsa Ronningstam, Understanding and Diagnosing The Narcissistic Personality Amazon.com Link
Drew Pinsky, The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America Amazon.com Link
Shirley Glass. Author of Not JUST Friends shirleyglass.com
Ruth Houston, Happy Husbands Cheat on Their Wives, Too Article Link