The Favorite Child

A Psychologist Explores Family Dynamics

A TIGER TRAPPED

The real reason powerful men cheat.

Tiger Woods's tattered image continues as fodder for late night talk show hosts, newspaper columnists and bloggers (like me), reminiscent of the energy surrounding the unfolding of Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky in 1998. The questions asked now mirror those surrounding Clinton: Why did these men - brilliant in their own ways and married to exceptional women - jeapordize so much for flings? How will their behaviors effect their personal and professional lives? Why do their wives stay with them?

People writing and talking on the subject offer insight based on their own bias: those with backgrounds in leadership speak to the intoxication of power while marriage therapists speak to voids in intimate relationships. Even pet trainers offer observations, comparing these famous men to irresponsible children whose parents don't hold them accountable for walking and feeding the family pooch. Underlying and unifying all these truths are the principles of the favorite child complex.

The favorite child complex are those conscious and unconscious behaviors, enacted by all family members, in reaction to a favored relationship between one parent and one child. Evolving from this preferential relationship, the child is likely to grow-up feeling powerful and confident, and is vulvnerable to feeling entitled to having what is desired. The child is not held accountable for questionable behaviors. This is the reward for meeting the significant needs, often unidentified, of the important parent.

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For example, Bill Clinton's father died before his birth and his mother needed an anchor. Bill grew up fulfilling this function. Clinton reflected, as an adult, that he never had a childhood, that he always acted like a grown up. This sense of himself--that he was an adult -- cultivated a powerful personality, filled with confidence that served well his political life. His mother, treating him more as an emotional partner than as her child, overlooked his misbehaviors, permitting Clinton to mature without accountability for unacceptable behaviors. In exchange for filling an important role in his mother's life, Clinton expected to get what he wanted, and usually he did.

The essentials of Tiger Woods' story parallels that of Clinton's. As Clinton's importance to his mother was inappropately skewed, so was Woods importance to his father Earl. Before Tiger was born, his father decided that if he had another son, his name would be "Tiger," the nickname he had given to a South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel who had saved his life twice in one day, first from a sniper shot and then a bamboo viper. As a newborn, Tiger Woods was annointed by Earl with the responsibility of honoring the legacy of "Tiger" Nguyen Phong.

Earl Woods committed himself to molding Tiger to be the person he wanted him to be. John Strege, who wrote the definitive biography on Tiger Woods, quoted Earl as saying, "I got hooked on golf (about six months before Tiger's birth). I realized what I had been missing my whole life. I decided if I had another son, I'd introduce him to golf early on."

From infancy, Earl swung clubs in front of Tiger, even cutting a club to infant size. By time his son was nine months old, Earl reported Tiger's swing showed natural ability and he got balls into the net with incredible consistency. Earl commented to Strege, "It is so special.... I used to ask ‘Why me?' What did I do to deserve a kid like this? It was an awesome responsibility....It is not easy when you have a gifted child." What Earl talked about was the pressures he felt in raising Tiger, not what was in the best interests of his child. This further suggests the pressure on Tiger that he make his father feel good, often a requirement demanded of the favorite child.

Tiger Woods grew up as his father's favorite son as Bill Clinton grew up as his mother's favorite son. Neither Tiger's mother nor Bill's step-father effectively monitored their spouses inappropriate attachments to their sons. In fact, it is likely that marriages of the senior Woods and Clintons were unsatisfactory and that Mr. Woods and Mrs. Clinton looked respectively to Tiger and Bill to fill their emptiness. As boys, both Tiger and Bill were probably intoxicated by the power they felt in sensing that they were more intimate with their important parent than their parent was with their spouse.

In their own marriages, Tiger and Bill probably lived with emotional voids, mirroring the marriages of the parents to whom they were close. Additionally, because no one could adore them as their powerful parent had, their voids grew larger. Attempting to fill their voids artifically, each man looked out of his marriage to women who were enamored with their prestige and status. Since Woods and Clinton grew up feeling entitled, neither imagined consequences for their behavior.

So why are their wives staying with them? Maybe both Hillary Clinton and Elin Nordegren Woods have growing confidence in their abilities to hold their husbands accountable for their unacceptable behaviors, accountability previously unknown to these men. In holding these favorite sons accountable, the ground rules of these marriages change and the possibility exists that the relationships between Bill and Hillary Clinton and Tiger and Elin Nordegren Woods can grow stronger.

Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, a clinical psychologist, is a psychotherapist in Washington, DC, and is the author of The Favorite Child (January 2010.)

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