Tiger Woods scandal: If you wed the wealthy, watch out

Celebrity marriages such as Tiger Woods’ are rife with temptation, counselors say

By Linda Shrieves
Orlando Sentinel, December 6, 2009

Contrary to what you might think, it’s not easy being married to one of the world’s wealthiest men, psychologists and marriage counselors say. And it’s really tough when he’s one of the world’s best athletes.

Just ask the parade of women embarrassed to learn that their high-profile husbands cheated on them – from Kobe Bryant’s wife to Hillary Clinton. And now, Tiger Woods’ admitted “transgressions” have catapulted his wife, Elin, to the top of that list.

“The wives of the rich and famous really are in a different position from the rest of us – at least if you expect the men to be monogamous,” said Cathie Helfand, who with her husband, Israel, has counseled well-known clients at their Vermont marriage retreat. “If you’re married to a rich and famous man and you want to hold on to him, treat him as if he’s desired.”

There are perils and pitfalls for any marriage, but for the rich, famous and powerful, the temptations and opportunities for trysts are even greater. They can travel, they can spend a lot of money lavishing trips and gifts on a lover – and, if their marriage doesn’t work out, they won’t face financial ruin.

“Wealthy people crave stimulus,” Israel Helfand said. “They are adrenaline junkies. The pursuit of happiness, for them, is more interesting than happiness.”

Chased by beautiful men and women, they start to believe what their handlers are saying about them: that they are the greatest athletes, attorneys or politicians.

“They begin to believe all the hype about themselves – and they become like a 5-year-old,” Israel Helfand said. “They think they are the center of the universe.”

Among pro athletes, the problem is even worse, says Los Angeles marriage therapist Holly Hein, because many are stuck in a sort of perpetual adolescence: getting paid to play games.

“When you get in sports, you get into it in adolescence,” Hein said. “How much experience do you have in other things? You haven’t really grown up, and you’re stuck in that realm.”

Among the tightknit circle of professional athletes, she suspects that cheating has become a part of the culture. “They all encourage one another. …It’s a very adolescent reaction.”

Not so different?

In some ways, the Woodses and other famous couples are like the rest of us.

Most marriages go through stressful periods, the Helfands said. Couples sometimes struggle about seven years after they meet – commonly called the “seven-year itch” – and when the kids move out of the house. Yet many couples, such as the Woodses, wrestle with marital problems when their children are toddlers.

“That trashes most marriages for a while,” Cathie Helfand said. “Women go through a stage where their body is not their own.”

Adds her husband: “For a man, all of a sudden, it feels like my kids own my wife’s body. So what am I going to do? A lot of men go back to work, or they spend hours surfing on the Internet.”

Infidelity is more common among men who make a lot of money, said Brad Wilcox, a sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. A 2001 study found that it was 50 percent more common among men earning $75,000 or more, he said.

For those who’ve had affairs, the results often aren’t pretty.

“When you look at predictors of divorce, infidelity is one of the strongest predictors,” Wilcox said. “Couples who know their spouse has been unfaithful are 300 percent more likely to divorce than couples who don’t know.”

The exception, Wilcox said, is among the well-to-do.

“The wives of rich men,” he said, “are very forgiving.”

Athletes and groupies

Once the domain of rock bands, a groupie culture has invaded the professional-sports world. Now, when athletes are playing on the road – whether it’s an NBA team in another city for a road game or pro golfers at a tournament – the bars and lobbies of hotels where they’re staying are filled with young women angling for a chance to meet the athletes.

As a former pro tennis player and coach, Dr. John F. Murray witnessed the groupie culture firsthand.

And athletes, he said, are vulnerable.

“They’re in different cities, so they have short-term flings,” Murray said.

Murray said he doesn’t think most athletes look at out-of-town trips as opportunities for trysts. “It’s not that they’re wanting to stray. They’re presented with an inordinate amount of opportunities. And you can often make mistakes.”

Experts say the Woodses’ marriage can be saved if they receive counseling and want to work things out. News reports have said the couple is already undergoing intensive marriage therapy at their Windermere home. To make it work, however, both husband and wife must talk about what is missing in their marriage, the Helfands said.

“The majority of marriages, after infidelity, can be saved and be improved,” Israel Helfand said. And surviving infidelity can be a good thing, “because it really shakes the system.”