Ellen Weber Libby, Ph.D.

Ellen Weber Libby Ph.D.

The Favorite Child

Healing Isn't Always Pretty

Can powerful men like Tiger Woods, who have affairs, change?

Posted Mar 01, 2010

Children who grew up as the unchallenged favorite child often struggle, as adults, with issues of intimacy. They continue to look for the person who will love them as much as their parent did - an impossible task. Their personalities, influenced by their favored child status, can undermine their abilities to successfully mitigate their void. In their attempts to fill this emptiness, they are vulnerable to looking to extracurricular sex partners and give little consideration to the consequences of their actions. They grow up not understanding that rules apply to them and give little thought to the feelings of others.

Tiger Wood's recently publicized sexual exploits mirror that of many men, some famous and some not, who grew up as a favorite child. Having read The Favorite Child, a woman who had been divorced for three years recently communicated with me to express her relief in realizing that her "ex" would never understand the break up of their marriage. He had been his mother's favorite son and believed he could do what he wished without consequences; this man was not motivated to understand that there were consequences to his having had affairs.

Last week Woods offered his first public statement since his sexual exploits became public. Since then, journalists and commentators have been debating the sincerity of his comments, wondering if he wrote his own statement, questioning if he was adequately contrite, speculating if his marriage will last. These conjectures overlook more basic issues: Is he motivated to change and what does healing entails?

Acknowledging Truth
Personality characteristics cannot be altered unless the person in trouble is motivated to change. Usually this originates from an external event that shakes up the world of the favorite child. Some favorite children respond to the crisis by blaming the event on others and continue not to take responsibility for their actions. Others are sufficiently threatened that they begin the long, painful process of looking inward. The first step of this journey is to put language to what is true. As with material possessions such as homes that we can't sell without a title, we can't "give up" or modify personal traits unless we first own those traits that got us into trouble. In his statement, Woods listed his transgressions. Listing them once or twice, publically or privately, is that evidence that he owns his shortcomings? Probably not. But, his public declaration is a necessary beginning. Unless Woods verbally and publically gives language to his shortcomings, real change is impossible.

Getting Real
What is wrong with having affairs? Maybe nothing if it is agreed upon by both the husband and wife, but in most relationships this consensus does not exist. Jenny Sanford, in her book describing the break-up of her marriage, writes about her jealousy, that her husband Mark didn't have time for her but had time for his lover and her humiliation, that her husband told her one thing and did another. Jenny also references her husband's hypocrisy, that as parents they were teaching their sons about loyalty and commitment while Mark was behaving differently. For Mark Sanford to heal, he would have to be as real as his wife and grasp the impact of his behavior on those around him.
In Elin Wood's silence, we know less about her truths. We do know from Tiger's comments at his press conference that he acknowleges that he hurt people close to him, the most obvious being his wife. In berating the press for making her life and that of his children uncomfortable, he overlooks the basic fact that it was HIS behavior that caused discomfort for his family: if he had not behaved the way that he did, the press would not be hounding his loved ones.
To heal, Tiger Woods must be willing to challenge the fundamental attitude that he is entitled to whatever he wants and that there are no consequences for his actions. In my book, The Favorite Child, I describe the experience of growing up as the favorite child: that these children expect to get what they want without consequences because they fill a void for their important parent or make those parents feel good about themselves.
Woods, like other favorite children, was so self-absorbed that he probably had little awareness of what was required to please Elin in fundamental ways. The strength of Wood's recovery will be influenced by his willingness to challenge an attitude fundamental to his character: that his success, which may have bought him privilege in his relationship with his father, does not buy him entitlement in his marriage.

The Issues
Tiger Woods reiterated in his press conference that he was responsible for his actions, for his decision to have sex with women outside his marriage. While this truth and the repercussions of his behavior deserve thoughtfulness, the issues of healing are more profound. If Tiger Woods wants to change, he will have to grapple with the issues more basic to his character - intimacy and arrogance.
Can anyone ever love him as much as his father did? Probably not. And so he looks to admiring fans in a futile effort to fill this void. As long as he craves this love, his wife can never satisfy him. To change, Woods will have to tolerate the discomfort of not being adored the way his father adored him.
His "can do" attitude is double-edged. On the golf course, his performance mirrors his confidence. There are no limits to what he believes he can achieve, and often he does. What a gift to possess this winning attitude. Yet, off the golf course, it is this attitude that limits his ability to set appropriate boundaries for himself, making it hard for him to judge realistically right and wrong, to anticipate potential consequences of his actions.

The Outcome
The speculation regarding whether Woods' marriage will last, his return to golf, and the status of his endorsements focus on gossip, not his ultimate healing. His long- term mental health is more dependent on his ability to make conscious choices for which he assumes responsibility. He must learn to trust that those skills required for success are his and being loved in his adult world is not conditioned on his achievements. He has to accept that even if he isn't the favorite child, adored more than anyone else, that his life can be satisfying. Only then will he be better able to do achieve those goals he set out in his press conference: to be a better husband and father who is responsible for his actions.

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