Posted by: Beverly Dale | March 30, 2010

Tiger Woods and our cultural obsession with apologies

As a culture we are obsessed with apologies, especially about sexual misconduct of those in positions of power (usually men). Because the public disclosure of marital infidelity violates our cultural romantic narrative, tabloid articles, public discussions, and TV talk shows all discuss whether the wife should forgive the errant husband.

There has been considerable debate about whether multimillionaire golfer Tiger Woods was at all sincere in his apologies for his multiple marital infidelities. The Washington Times columnist Janice Shaw Crouse said Woods was “bowed by the weight of his transgressions” that made his apology sincere, while the Politics Daily columnist Francis Tobin was skeptical and “didn’t buy it.”

The New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey took another tactic by buying into the sexual addiction version: “Woods seemed to be saying he was powerless.” And this, according to the columnist, is an appropriate response that infers Wood’s progress toward “recovery.” Never mind that “sexual addiction” is not universally accepted by most psychologists as a disease.

But giving infidelity a medical name somehow removes the culpability of the transgressor, shifts attention away from meaningful discussion of relationships, and obscures cultural obstacles to fidelity. So, besides being titillated by all sexual stories, what does all this hubbub tell us about ourselves?

Framing this as the latest “breaking story” is evidence that we simply don’t believe the astounding everyday statistics of marital infidelity. In order to keep our cultural romantic narrative alive we focus on the misdeeds or character flaws, rather than the mental and moral framework of the errant spouse, the lack of honest communication in the relationship. Furthermore, it prevents an examination of how we, as a culture, thrill to romance, then romanticize marriage, idealize sexually exclusive monogamy, and refuse to address the concrete reality that the way we practice marriage leads too often to boredom and superficiality, if not dishonesty and infidelity.

By refusing to teach realistically about love and what committed relationships require and by remaining sexually ignorant and uptight, couples will continue to self-destruct, hurting one another again and again.

The issue is not about apologies. The issue is repentance.  Saying one is sorry can be more about being sorry one got caught, rather than truly regretting the behavior. Repentance means to turn and go in the opposite direction, a rethinking and a reorientation to past behaviors.

As a culture, we need to repent. Unless we go in the opposite direction and examine the cultural (and usually religious) fantasies about marital relationships and with it our views of sexuality, we will keep setting up the highest divorce and remarriage rates in the world. (See Andrew Cherlin’s book The Marriage Go Round.)

We  need to repent as a culture for misnaming the high of infatuation (or “New Relationship Energy”) as love, idolizing an unrealistic and fanciful view of marriage, assuming naively that monogamy is natural and/or easy, and for relying on oxytocin, the bonding hormone released during sex, to keep our relationships going for decades.

Intimacy deserves more serious consideration than the fairy tales we give it in this country. But we will never have the important heart to heart conversations that engage at the soul level if we are unwilling to talk about our bodies, our intimacy and sensual and sexual needs, and our spiritual yearnings, before marriage, during marriage or with or without marriage. Saying you’re sorry after the fact doesn’t solve any problems. To the contrary, it just keeps them coming on.

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