Tiger's Dad Had It Right--and Wrong

Posted Jan 19, 2010

Have you noticed that practically no one-not even Hugh Hefner-has defended Tiger Woods' infidelities? In a culture that's become more permissive about sexual standards (when did you last hear the term "living in sin"?), polls show that Americans since the 1970s have become more conservative about extramarital sex. The sexual revolution taught us what our ancestors already knew: people get badly hurt when there is marital infidelity. But Tiger's father, if he were alive, might be saying something else, namely, "I told you so."

Not only did Earl Woods himself have trouble settling down and being faithful to one woman, he was also a perceptive observer of the culture. Here is what Karen Crouse of the New York Times wrote: "Woods's parenting role model was his father, Earl, who was committed to rearing him after having two sons and a daughter in a failed first marriage.... Perhaps Woods was destined to be like his father, only not in the way he had hoped. Over lunch on the veranda at the Masters one year, Earl Woods said, "I've told Tiger that marriage is unnecessary in a mobile society like ours."

At first I was revolted that a father would say this kind of thing to a son who was probably in love and contemplating marriage at the time. But now I'm glad that Earl Woods went public with a view that reflects a deeper problem than the weaknesses of celebrity athletes or the role modeling of their fathers. Marriage is based on stability and loyalty, but contemporary consumer culture is based on mobility and self-interest. In today's world, we go from job to job, brand name to brand name, neighborhood to neighborhood, and religious community to religious community. We are a nation of shoppers, ready to switch loyalties when our needs can be better met elsewhere. Earl Woods was a perceptive cultural observer who thought that his son would be limiting his options, his mobility, by settling on one woman for life. Turns out he was right. Today he would be telling Tiger not that he did wrong but instead that he was foolish for trying to fit a contemporary me-first lifestyle into the outdated institution of marriage.

Most people do not agree that marriage is outdated; indeed, gay people are storming the gates to get in. But today we have what I call "consumer marriage," the idea that marriage is a life style designed to me make happy without causing me too much work or grief. Easy to enter and easy to exit. We've moved from divorce mainly for what I call the "hard" reasons-abuse, chronic infidelity, addiction-to more of the "soft" reasons-lack of intimacy, growing apart, and even just not wanting to be married to this person any longer. As one woman in my marriage therapy practice said, "This isn't the deal I thought I was signing up for when I got married."

Infidelity is not the chief threat to marriage nowadays; it has always been with us and is almost universally condemned. Few of us are going to have coast to coast affairs like Tiger Woods, but we carry the cultural contradictions of today's marriage culture in our hearts and minds. The consumer culture says to keep our relationship options open because the work may get too hard and a more appealing partner may come along. Yet we know that we flourish best in life long unions based on commitment, love, and loyalty through hard times and good. Tiger's father was right about the problem-and dead wrong about the solution.