Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Tiger Uses STERBs—Do You? aka What Tiger Woods and an 85 year-old widow have in common.

SEX, Tiger, and an 85 year old widow.

Tiger Uses STERBs—Do You?

What, you don't know what a STERB is?

Shame on you! That means you haven't read The Grief Recovery Handbook or When Children Grieve.

I suppose you're asking, "What the heck is a STERB?"

Glad you asked.

A STERB is a Short Term Energy Relieving Behavior.

A STERB is any action, activity, or behavior in which we participate, that creates the "illusion" that we're dealing with the emotions caused by the events and interactions that affect our lives.

Sound complicated? Let's simplify it. I've had an argument with my spouse. It ends unhappily with no resolution. I'm grieving about what happened. I go eat a half-gallon of Rocky Road ice cream. Have I dealt with the emotional impact of the disagreement? Obviously not.

At best, eating the ice cream will create a temporary illusion of well-being. It will distract me from the emotions about the event and my relationship with my spouse. And, if I do that often enough, I will have a new grief issue, my weight or health issues that relate to bad eating. Worse, any of the problems I have with my spouse still have not been addressed.

STERBs range from the misuse of food, drugs and alcohol, SEX, workaholism, escapism of all kinds, to a wide host of other activities.

I imagine you noticed that in that list, SEX is all caps, bold, and italicized. Can you hear me yet?

Everybody and his brother has conjectured about what Tiger did, and why he did it. What baffles me is how baffled people are about why the person who has everything—money, fame, the beautiful wife and family—would do what Tiger has apparently done.

What's baffling about it? It happens all the time. And has since time immemorial.

I don't know Tiger personally. I've never met him, and probably never will. [If anyone wants to give him my phone number, go ahead, it's 818-907-9600.] All I know about him is what any of us can read and hear, plus an extra smattering based on being a golfer myself living in Southern California where Tiger grew up, and knowing several people who've known Tiger and his family since he was a cub.

Here's what we do know about people, famous or not. Whether you live in a pressure cooker at the top of a heap as a pro athlete, movie or TV star, the head of a giant corporation, or the head of a nation; or whether you're a day laborer struggling to bring home enough shekels to put food on the table, when the internal pressure builds up, you may be propelled into STERB—like actions.

Gender Is NOT the Key!

Many of the articles I've read about the Tiger situation try to make maleness the key to the issue. But pressure mounts for everybody-gender notwithstanding. Does that mean that women under pressure might also seek sexual relationships outside their marriages or otherwise committed relationships? Yes!

Does having affairs outside marriage always mean that the marital relationship is bad? Maybe, but not necessarily!

The only thing we can guarantee, no matter who it is, male or female, rich or poor, famous or not, is that there is a buildup of emotional energy for any number of reasons. When that energy hits a limit, where it can't be contained, is when the STERBs kick in. It's what my friends in the psychology business would probably call "acting out."

Just to be clear-we do know that men and women are not the same, at least when it comes to which gender is most liable to use which STERB behaviors. It's obvious that men use SEX as s STERB more than women, and women are more likely to use food or Retail Therapy [shopping] as STERBs.

Gender proclivities notwithstanding, the next section shows how SEX can affect a very unlikely candidate.

Little Old Ladies, Too?

How powerful is SEX as a potential STERB? Here's one that'll rearrange your brain. Many years ago we got a call at the Grief Recovery Institute from an 85 year-old widow, whose husband of 64 years had died just a few weeks before she called.

She called because even though her heart was broken by the death of her husband, she found herself having sexual fantasies about the young UPS man who delivered packages to her home.

She felt as if those fantasies made her unfaithful to her spouse who'd recently died. Not to mention that she was surprised at having sexual feelings at all, since that part of her life had not been active for quite some time.

I was able to help her by explaining that the death of her husband was clearly producing a tremendous amount of emotional energy in her, and her body was trying to find a way to throw off some of that energy. Not really different from what we might call "venting" when someone needs to rail on about something that bothers them.

When I told her it was just about energy and had no meaning regarding her love of and fidelity to her husband who'd died, she was greatly relieved.

Not to worry, she didn't try to act on those fantasies, but her story illustrates that SEX can be a STERB even when it doesn't apply to a rich and famous and powerful young man with a beautiful wife and family.

Not Justifying, Defending, or Endorsing, Just a Little Explaining

No matter what other reasons or motivations propelled Tiger's actions, what he's done falls squarely under the heading of STERBs.

How can I say that without fear of contradiction?

Because whether he was simply unhappy in his marriage; or he's a spoiled narcissist who's been catered to since childhood; or it's a case of the temptations that face famous young men [and women], all of those things build up energy, and that energy needs to be dispelled.

Most people don't have the ability to deal directly with the underlying cause of the buildup of energy, so they do it indirectly by using STERBs. That's why they're called Short Term ENERGY RELIEVING Behaviors.

That explanation is not intended to justify, defend, or endorse what Tiger appears to have done, only to explain it from a different point of view than most of the conjectures you've read or heard.

Like I said, I don't know Tiger, I know nothing about the "real" him, and I don't have a clue as to the nature or condition of his relationship with his wife, and therefore I'm not entitled to an opinion or comment on any of that.

We can offer all the opinions and comments we want, but maybe we all need to aim the microscopes and microphones back at ourselves and see if we too are indulging in STERBs—our personal versions of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll—rather than dealing directly with the events that affect our lives.

More from Russell Friedman
More from Psychology Today