Standing in a grocery line last week, I couldn’t ignore the magazine headlines with stories about celebrities and their recent relationship breakups. Since relationships are my favorite subject and career, I decided that as long as we as a culture are fascinated with what happens to celebrities, especially with romance, we might as well try to learn something from them. Although in some ways they are rather extraordinary, bigger than life and not like us, in many ways they are exactly like us. The major differences between them and us would be wealth, fame, and exceptional good looks in some cases. We can sit in front of our televisions and computers and talk about how crazy they are and delude ourselves into believing that we would never do what they do, but the truth is we do it all the time, albeit on a smaller scale. After all, they are as human as we are.
So what do our relationships have in common with celebrities when you remove the glam?
Here are a few examples of the fatal flaws of their relationships that we can probably relate to and hopefully learn from:
Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes –By now, most people have seen the famous moment when Tom appeared on Oprah’s couch very early in this relationship expressing his undying love for Katie. As a marriage counselor it seemed to me that so many things were wrong with their beginning that it was doomed. I did not expect that they would make it through 2 years and was very surprised that it lasted 6.
Why was I so skeptical? Many relationships could survive one of these factors, but when there are several major issues compounding the problems, the odds of any couple making it will certainly decrease.
Among the major issues were their ages, Tom’s history with relationships and their religious differences. When they met, Tom was 42 and Katie 26, which is a significant gap in developmental stages of life.
Thinking from the perspective of both a mother with a daughter this age and as a therapist, my observation and concern was that at 26, Katie may have been caught up in what appeared to be Tom’s power and control over her. Combining this with the heat of chemistry, his adoring public expressions of love and the normal infatuation of their beginning, Tom would be very hard for her to resist.
Tom had been divorced twice and had two children. The divorces gave him two things: an advantage of having had experience and possibly some insight into his own patterns and mistakes and secondly, a history of making mistakes. Step children can be a blessing or one of the worst stressors a couple has to deal with. Katie and Tom had a child right away and that fact can be an asset or may increase the tensions with step children in remarriage.
Although both Tom and Katie were raised Catholic, Tom had become committed to and a public leader in the practice of Scientology. Many reports suggested that he would like Katie to join him. Religious differences can be very challenging to any couple; however, when one party is as adamant about their beliefs as Tom, pressure and conflicts are inevitable.
When Tom and Katie got pregnant and had a child before marrying, it likely added stress and responsibility to a very new relationship and took the focus away from their growth as a couple. In addition to the joy of having a child, this may have added family tension for Katie. She seemed very close to her family, but reports indicated that her parents disapproved of their daughter having children before marriage and questioned the short courtship in this relationship. Tom and Katie’s mutual love and commitment to their child might have magnified the already challenging religious issue and that tension could last a life time, long after a divorce.
Family disapproval, regardless of the reason, often creates a sense of isolation that occurs in relationships where power and control are a factor. Instead of listening to our families and working through those issues, we may take the path of least conflict; leaning into the relationship and defending a controlling partner. This intensifies the new relationship and alienates the family of the vulnerable partner in the relationship. Whether caused by an age advantage, greater fame, wealth, education, success or simply a much stronger, more aggressive personality in one partner, an imbalance of power and the resulting isolation can become a fatal flaw to any marriage. Relationships need air to breathe and a strong support system for the challenges that life presents. Without openness and support from family and friends the things that are wrong with a relationship become worse and the access to help decreases. On the positive side, if we have the support and approval of our families it is a real benefit during hard times.
If we remove the fame factor from their example, there are many elements of the Tom and Katie story that I have encountered in my work over years of meeting couples who are sadly at the end of their road together.
One common flaw these couples report is letting infatuation and chemistry drive the relationship. Endorphins and the hormone oxytocin are powerful forces when sexual chemistry is strong. This intense feeling convinces the couple that this must be the right one. I recall Tom Cruise saying to Oprah about Katie, “I’ve never felt like this before!” This seemed to imply, “I must have this woman right now!”
Another version of this fatal flaw is “He/she is so different from my past partners.” Different doesn’t mean good in all cases. We all know people who jump or rebound from one bad relationship to another because they appear different in the beginning. The secret to avoiding this mistake is to know yourself, your pattern and tendencies and what is truly good for you. What we want and what is good for us isn’t always the same and sometimes it takes a little therapy to figure that out.
I’m a fan of chemistry in a relationship, but it has nothing to do with the quality or longevity of relationships in the future. So many celebrities have had short but intense relationships where, my guess is, chemistry and possibly loneliness and frustration with being single overrode the frontal cortex and pushed the relationship forward as a runaway train.
Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett had a public “What was she thinking?” moment when they eloped after knowing each other for only 3 weeks. That one lasted only 21 months; possibly because they didn’t know each other at all and it took that long to realize that it wouldn’t work.
Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphrey can teach us a few things as well. Their marriage lasted 72 days. When the clock is ticking and one feels the pressure to get married, he/she may jump into a commitment because it is the right time rather than because it is wise. In addition to succumbing to chemistry and quick turnaround, Kim seems to have wanted a “WEDDING”. For most regular folks, the reasons for wanting an over the top wedding might be things like a need for attention from family and friends, playing out a lifetime fantasy, or being a princess for a day. One of the major problems with a fantasy wedding is that a very big wedding may be followed by a very dysfunctional and short marriage. Huge complicated weddings may even damage or create distance in a new, uncertain or fragile relationship. A spectacular wedding creates the illusion of fairy tale love. A successful relationship is based on knowing each other and oneself very well and planning a marriage together before planning a wedding.
Long separations seem to be another potential fatal flaw in celebrity relationships due to being on tour or making a movie, etc. I have never understood how actors can share numerous romantic roles with other actors and not jeopardize their marriage or commitment. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston might still be together if not for Brad’s film role in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. The need for clear boundaries, honesty and as much time together as possible would be necessary to prevent betrayals and mistakes from happening.
For most of us, long separations would be due to travel for work or family responsibilities. In my experience, with a few exceptions, long distance or long separations seem to weaken the bond and decrease the necessary inter-dependence of a healthy committed relationship couple.
I must include a few other very serious fatal flaws often exhibited by celebrity and non- celebrity couples. It would be a mistake to commit to someone while ignoring a history of violent or aggressive behavior, addiction, history of failed relationships with no real insight about what happened, mental illness (depression or bi-polar disorder), or past infidelity.
So next time you read a People Magazine article about J.Lo or Brittany, use it as an opportunity to learn from the fatal flaws of others. Although we may admire and wish for the lives of the rich and famous, we don’t have to make the same mistakes. Fatal flaws are not that hard to see and the consequences are avoidable if you can pause and look at your own pattern and make a healthier choice.
A final note to readers:
These are my overall thoughts on a topic. At no point have I treated or had personal contact with any of the celebrities mentioned in the above post. Therefore, my opinions and assumptions are based on generalized media coverage. I have tried to stick to facts wherever possible in service of providing PT readers with insights about their own relationships.
Ann Smith is the Executive Director of Breakthrough at Caron. Leave a comment here or connect with her on Twitter, @CaronBT or Facebook.