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This post by PAIRS President & CEO Seth Eisenberg originally appeared in his blog, Redefining Relationships.

Eleven years ago, a national reporter called with questions about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, looking for insight into how one of the most popular, powerful men in the world could have risked so much by becoming involved with a 22-year-old White House intern.

Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren
Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren share a precious moment.
I thought about that conversation recently as much of the world gathered around televisions and tabloids to perform another collective colonoscopy, this time on the marriage of Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren.

Professional experience with thousands of men and women in marriage education classes over the past 15 years, personal memories from my earliest years of my mother’s frequently vented anger over the infidelities she regularly alleged led to the end of her 17-year marriage to a powerful Capitol Hill lawyer, insights from my own psychological exploration, and earlier work in the political arena that included close contact with some of the world’s most influential leaders leaves me surprised that so many people are surprised when such accomplished people make awful decisions about sex in particular.

While few beyond Tiger Woods and his wife likely will (or should) ever know the full truth to the claims now widely circulated in both the tabloid and popular press, it’s all too understandable how public icons can be led horribly astray, apparently blinding themselves in the process to the eventual price they’ll almost certainly pay. From my perspective, for those who are most accomplished and recognized, it’s often much more about a hunger for validation than a yearning for sex.

It’s important to realize that most people do not rise to the top of their professions. Those who do, whether eventually becoming a leader of the free world, record breaking athlete, world renowned performer, or captain of industry are commonly driven by an insatiable need for validation in a personal search for answers to questions such as, “Am I good enough? Am I loveable?

Thousands upon thousands of hours are invested in the quest for affirming answers, in many cases leading to contributions, accomplishments, and successes that forever touch the world. Yet hidden in the shadows of those successes is often a very different side visible only to the closest of intimates.

For those seeking external validation for personal insecurities, the affirmations and glory – no matter how significant – are likely fleeting at best.

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell writes that mastery requires an enormous investment of time developing exceptional competency. Few of those who reach the top of their professions, he writes, arrive by accident or luck alone. While timing and luck may be factors, both come after a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice, exploration, and experience.

Ten thousand hours.

Few mothers and fathers actively involved in raising their children have 10,000 hours to devote to developing such extraordinary abilities; few husbands or wives regularly invested in nurturing their relationships and families have 10,000 hours either. It takes people almost fanatically focused on achieving a particular goal, commonly fueled by insecurities from their own earliest life experiences. Understanding that helps explain how those same people can make such horrible decisions in other areas of their lives.

Frequently those most well-known in their communities – locally, nationally or globally — are least able to privately access supportive services that could bring the awareness, understanding and skills that could help them avoid the decisions that lead to public humiliation, loss of enormous resources, and, most of all, the pain caused to themselves and those they love.

Marriage education
founded on emotional literacy is an important solution. Classes are educational, not counseling or therapy. The skills help graduates succeed both within their families and professions. And the understandings include profound insights into the importance of creating couple relationships built on regularly meeting each other’s needs for bonding (emotional openness and physical closeness), recognizing the logic of love and emotions, learning behaviors that make it safe to confide, knowing that being “good enough” and “loveable” comes from being born – not from our accomplishments, and practical tools for navigating differences that may be particularly acute in relationships in which one or both partners are significantly focused on achieving remarkable individual goals.

Graduates discover opportunities to create and sustain relationships that are an ongoing source of love, pleasure, happiness and fulfillment – powerful protection against the temptations to seek validation through risky behaviors for which the price can far outweigh the incredibly temporary illusion of reward.

As adults, actively seeking out educational opportunities to learn skills to strengthen our cherished relationships is one of the most important investments in our lives and families. As parents, raising our sons and daughters to know through our active involvement in their lives that they are loved and valued for being born offers our children the greatest opportunity to grow up knowing in the depths of their souls that they are good enough and lovable and avoiding the temptation to spend much of their lives dangerously seeking fleeting validation from others.

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