Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, John Edwards, John Ensign - four more favorite sons who thought they could get away with having extra-marital sex. While many people may have negative judgments regarding extra-marital sex, ultimately it was their lying, not their sexual activities, that led to their downfall. Lying is wrong, illegal in some circumstances and erodes the trust necessary for society to function successfully.

The behaviors of Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn, Edwards, Ensign all mirror the potential dark side of people who grew up as favorite children. Favorite children are likely to believe that rules of right and wrong don't apply to them, only to others. Favorite children are vulnerable to believing they can have what they want, when they want it, and without fearing potential consequences. These childhood experiences begin to mold the personalities of children growing up as the favorite, many of whom are likely to become leaders. The fall of these politicians illuminates the potential risks of growing up adored and entitled.

In his resignation speech from the Senate floor, Ensign (R-N) captured the possible danger of such expectations, "When one takes a position of leadership, there is a very real danger of getting caught up in the hype surrounding that status. Oftentimes, the more power and prestige a person achieves, the more arrogant a person can become. As easy as it was for me to view this in other people, unfortunately, I was blind to how arrogant and self-centered I had become." Like other favorite children, Ensign forgot (or never knew) that the rules apply to him.

The former senator described himself as having entered politics naive. Most likely he did not know that his personality, probably influenced by favorite child status within his family, primed him for his career. Favorite children grow up feeling entitled, mastering the art of getting what they want, when they want it. Seldom do the important parents refuse these children what they want as long as these children gratify the parents. Consequently, these children grow up without having had to learn about boundaries, about accepting "No" for an answer. These favorite children hone the skills of power that serves them over a lifetime.

Additionally, children growing up as their parents' favorite develop the interpersonal skills necessary for political achievement. The quid pro quo between favorite children and their important parents teach these children how to ingratiate themselves to important people. Learning how to court people's favor is central to a successful career in politics: to raise campaign funds, to get elected, to win important committee assignments, to negotiate legislation to favorable outcome. Ensign commented that he began his political career idealistic. "I simply wanted to make a difference in this great country." This is probably true. He probably had the skills to do so but unfortunately he was unaware of the potential risks of having grown up as the favorite child. It is these risks that were his undoing.

Schwarzenegger, like John Edwards and Al Gore, was able to keep his marriage together while in office. But without the heat of the spotlight, these marriages died. Why? Three possibilities are an insatiable need to be adored, the loss of structure, competent wives.

Like favorite children, these men probably grew up expecting to be important, adored and catered to and, as adults, they unknowingly may have sought out relationships that duplicated their early relationships. A career in politics is likely to have temporarily satisfied them: the press devouring their every word seeking an inside scope; bevies of people surrounding them, functionaries tending to their needs and tying their future to the politician they served; businessmen courting their favors.

Out of office, the quid pro quo is upset, as these men no longer have the power to satisfy the many constituents seeking favors. They are challenged, having to learn to live with the void of not being as important as they were first to their important parent, and later to the political groupies surrounding them. As a former president said to me during his transition from the White House to his retirement home, "It is hard to go from being consulted on matters of international significance to being consulted by my wife on the color of the sofa in my study."

When leaving office, some former officials can adequately appreciate themselves as others appreciated them while they were in office. But, other retired politicians cannot. Their insatiable need to be adored cries out. These men often look to their wives, those people with whom they have the most intimate relationship, to satisfy their need.
No one person, even the most devoted spouse, can fill their void, a potential bottomless pit. This unrealistic expectation can generate marital discord, potentially contributing to the undoing of a marriage that may be especially vulnerable during difficult times.

The transition from political to civilian life is stressful for all family members. Throughout the official's tenure, his needs, demands, and schedule were central to family life. Now, out of office, the structure, which had steered family life, unravels. Usually it is the wife who bears the brunt of implementing the required changes: of arranging a new residence, enrolling children in new schools, organizing family life without a definite or known source of income. In a secure marriage, the pressure created by these demands can be daunting. In a less secure marriage, the pressure can be lethal.

Jennie Sanford reflects in her memoir, Staying True, that when first contemplating leaving her husband Governor Mark Sanford because of his infidelity and deceit, she could not imagine how her life would be driven without Mark's political drive. "What my future (would hold) was something I, the woman who always thought years ahead, now couldn't imagine. Could I imagine a life without Mark, the man whose ambitions had been the center of all that we had done as a family for twenty years? Without him, what was our direction (that of the family)?"

Jennie chose to divorce Mark. The struggles she confronted in structuring a life for herself and her children, out of the political spotlight, were similar to those of wives who had little say in their husbands' retirement from public office.

During changing times, the absence of known routine can aggravate the stress experienced in a marriage and family. The tension created by leaving office may have depleted these wives reservoir of good will - an attitude necessary for resolving the difficult issues of marital discord.

As described in a recent Newsweek article, "The Good Wife" of our times is expected to be bright and accomplished, in addition to reflecting the traditional expectations of being a devoted wife and full- time mother who is smiling and gracious. These modern women often put on hold their careers to foster that of their husbands. Their sacrifices are significant.

While no woman has to remain in a marriage where she is treated poorly, these "Good Wives" have viable options. Like Jennie Sanford, the wives of the men recently retired from political office - Maria Shriver, Elizabeth Edwards, and Tipper Gore - each are independent, competent women. They do not have to attach their future or wellbeing to their husbands. When their self-respect or other needs dictate leaving their marriages, they have the personal resources to do so.

In summary, men who succeed in politics are likely to have grown up expecting to be adored in exchange for the gratification they offer people important to them. These expectations may be reenacted in their marriages with their wives catering to them as did their important parent when they were children. The wives of modern politicians often puts on hold their dreams or aspirations, or merges theirs' with their husbands. When their husband's leave office, this arrangement may no longer work under the pressure of transitioning out of public office. If the marital relationship is aggravated by their husbands' expectations that their wives adore them as did the political groupies who catered to them, expectations impossible to be met. These politicians, once favorite sons of families and political parties, are vulnerable to self-destructing. Many of them do.

About the Author

Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

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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