This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
One more time…
Once again, thin veneers of public pose have cracked exposing very private lives. So common as to be utterly prosaic, another powerful politician has been caught in an extramarital tryst with a political groupie, a less dominant woman aroused by power.
Considered historically, this represents nothing more than a contemporary variant of the proverbial “upstairs-downstairs” archetype. We are privy yet again to the now-tarnished man behind the well-managed, public persona, and while John Edwards is not exactly everyman, he’s certainly as conflicted.
Behind the mask
Life makes emotional demands on everyone. No one exits unscathed, even John Edwards who can afford to pay someone else to clean up his messes and handle burdens the rest of us manage with calloused hands. As Shakespeare ruefully declared, life exacts its pound of flesh.
Like the majority of men similarly exposed, John Edwards will most likely survive relatively intact, though certainly will be contrite and embarrassed for a while. He and his wife will most likely reestablish some degree of marital détente. His legal career will continue unimpeded.
Right at this moment, hundreds of politicians up and down the lines of power are sweating bullets of relief that their own secrets remain inviolate. At least until next time. While these men generally regain their public or professional stature after proffering quick, superficially sincere apologies, most often, the women never regain their equilibrium after such a public tumble. The wad of gum stuck on their soles seems to remain for life.
And what about her?
What becomes of these paramours? Are they destined for Dancing with the Stars and other pitiful reality shows? Monica Lewinsky has all but disappeared from the field.
In a month, no one will even remember Rielle Hunter’s name. Why does a woman involve herself with a powerful but unavailable man, a man with whom she enjoys no social, professional or legal parity, a man with whom she has no foreseeable future?
While it’s temptingly easy to bound quickly to morality issues or wallow in salacious swill, more substantive concerns are implicated that deserve objective consideration.
We’ve all known women emotionally destroyed by alliances with unavailable men. Despite the admonishments of friends, she holds fast, smiling blandly when they exclaim, “He’s never going to leave his wife! What are you doing?” Usually her response is vague and circumstantial; she doesn’t really know why she’s putting herself at risk.
The answers are in locked away in the unconscious mind
Psychoanalytic ideas can explain how and why people behave in self-injurious ways by examining the machinery of the mind and its inner landscape to comprehend more fully how and why these women are driven by unconscious emotional needs.
When strong feelings remain concealed outside of conscious awareness, they are acted out repeatedly instead; without the benefit of language, they have no other way to be expressed. Before children are capable of telling you how angry they are with words, they tell you by hitting and screaming.
Language links conscious thought with unconscious experience
Language is the tool permitting us to access unconscious aspects of mind, because it bridges and links the two domains. Language confers shape and form to feelings that otherwise remain vague and shadowy.
It’s important to consider some of the common denominators observed among these women. They are often significantly younger and less accomplished than the men with whom they ally themselves and confuse sexual attention with respect.
For a brief time, they rise from their more deferential positions as interns, assistants or employees to loftier elevations, temporarily gaining access to formerly unattainable spheres of influence.
In an attempt to satisfy emotional hunger, they feed off the power these men exude. The fantasy of seducing and being chosen by a powerful man bestows a certain degree of emotional legitimacy on a woman who feels insufficient. Because they have not actually attained anything themselves, “success” represents a shallow Pyrrhic victory; they’ve won the battle but lost the war.
From a socio-political perspective, this configuration reflects the stereotypical 1950’s marriage whereby the woman assumed her husbands identity and functioned as an extension thereof, kept in perpetual kittenhood, never fully developing herself.
The childhood origins of maladaptive and healthy behavior
Psychoanalysis examines the origins of maladaptive and healthy behavior in infancy and childhood, so I will begin there. Because I do not know these people personally, my commentary is based upon facts of psychological interest; I am more concerned with concepts of mind than specific details about individuals. Personal minutiae are best left private.
What does a woman seek in this type of relationship? The same thing a child seeks when aligning herself with a powerful parent: a sense of personal safety, strength and power. Children are totally dependent and know it.
We’ve all seen little ones on their tricycles, peddling wildly down the sidewalk, filled with exuberant abandon. Rarely alone, most often there is a parent hopping along right behind them with one foot on the back fender pushing them forward. Unless, of course, the child is like my godson who, at four years old, was visited by an impulse to take his well-oiled machine out for a pre-dawn expedition and was pinched by a cop who happened to be driving by. I guess the pajamas gave him away.
The childhood origins of competency and confidence
Speeding along, the child borrows emotional strength from her parent, experiencing a new sense of agency. This is very heady stuff for a child. Basking in a bit of healthy and age-appropriate omnipotence, the child begins to imagine that she might be capable of doing anything. She begins to trust and believe in herself and will be more likely to try new things in the future.
Now imagine the opposite outcome. What happens to the child who is left to struggle alone or whose parents simply don’t recognize when she needs help? This child eventually becomes frustrated and gives up despondently, feeling like a failure. She will be less likely to try out her strengths in other areas. “Oh, I could never do that,” is now imprinted in this child’s mind. “I’m too weak” becomes her unconscious motto, believed long after the incidental origins recede from awareness.
The once and always inner child
No matter our actual age, we’re all lonely children in the face of unresolved or unarticulated emotional needs, the residual experiences occurring too early in life to have been imprinted as clear memories.
These feelings of self-doubt become notched in the child’s emotional template, like a scratch on an old record, foreshadowing future reactions to new and challenging situations. Unless we experience success as young children, we cannot duplicate the experience ourselves later in life.
We’ve all known capable and talented people who begin projects only to quit abruptly when challenged or frustrated. This isn’t about laziness. It is about emotional lack. These people don’t experience themselves as capable and so give up. What originates in a child’s external environment finds its way into the child’s core identity. The seeds of who we will become are sown in infancy and childhood.
What about the really competent women who find themselves in unrewarding relationships, you ask. Psychoanalysis can explain that paradox, also.
Because none of us experienced perfectly attuned parents, we all have psychological pockets of vulnerabilities, less developed parts of ourselves that sometimes trip us up. Even a highly functional, professional woman can stumble into a pocket of messy feelings.
Skidding unexpectedly into a vulnerable pocket feels like being dropped down a black hole. Powerful men are sometimes the most vulnerable; grandiose aspirations belie emotional neediness.
Bill Clinton grew up without a father, far removed from well-heeled preppies he envied, like John F. Kennedy, who was a pampered, yet physically fragile man forced to accommodate the demands of a dangerously powerful father.
In this recent episode, the power differential between Ms. Hunter and John Edwards was gaping. If she lacked confidence or felt emotionally weak, she expediently secured the temporary illusion of safety and power by forging a sexual liaison with this potent and charismatic man.
The illusion of strength
“Taking in” a sexual partner’s physical and emotional strength parallels that of eating actual food. Ms. Hunter sought to repair uncomfortable feelings and beliefs about herself by manipulating external variables, cloaking herself in another’s alleged power.
Prostitutes siphon power from more powerful men by extracting dollars and cents, though this fix is equally transient. Money dissipates just as quickly as the illusion of power. Genuine power must come from within.
We might conceptualize that Ms. Hunter and Ms. Lewinsky experienced themselves as having little viable agency and so “borrowed” emotional strength from powerful men like John Edwards and Bill Clinton, much as a child borrows similarly from a parent.
Self-examination and reflection facilitate lasting change
Of course these psycho-sexual mergers are only temporary fixes, forestalling the psychological work required to feel complete. Change occurs from the inside out. Self-exploration precedes life alteration, and language is the tool.
We all require the containing emotional strength of others repeatedly throughout our lives, seeking it out when confronting life’s difficulties, and this is quite normal.
In fact, it suggests that infancy and childhood needs were met consistently and sufficiently to have instilled a sense of trust and hope, the belief that someone will be present to provide comfort when it is needed. In these instances, we rely on trust and permit ourselves to be shielded, to receive care from others without fear of abandonment, neglect or cruelty.
Conversely, we may also find ourselves in the “parental” position, containing the distress of others. We surround mourners, loaning them our strength. The food we offer provides as much emotional sustenance as physiological nourishment.
It’s all give and take
Throughout our lives, we take turns receiving and providing strength, depending upon the need. Husbands and wives share this oscillating function throughout a long marriage. Friends offer it freely to one another; teachers provide it for students and clergy for congregants and parishioners. Psychoanalysts provide it for patients, repairing decades-old wounds by introducing new relational experiences that countermand threadbare, flawed psychological assumptions.
Public shaming is a cheap, tawdry tactic intended to earn ratings points; it rarely illuminates anything meaningful. Limitless access to the private lives of others constitutes voyeurism not journalism.
In fact, what we have truly witnessed yet again is much more profound. Unresolved, unconscious, childhood issues have been exposed like bloody entrails.
This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975