How much news space can the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes split possibly take up? Why do we care so much? What are we looking for? As columnists pretend they saw it coming, scientists claim to have predicted it by formula, and so-called women’s magazines call in the divorce experts to see where the chips will fall, we appear to be glued to the incoming reports. In theory we shouldn’t know anything about them. And yet we believe we do. What do we see when we look in the TomKat mirror?
Narcissism is reportedly on the rise. Not surprisingly, celebrities appear to be more narcissistic than us hardworking low-profile bears. Being narcissistic means that you have more trouble than most being empathic, or seeing things from another’s perspective in a compassionate way. It means you have significant gaps in your self esteem that you’re not consciously aware of, and that you’re very preoccupied with yourself.
It also means that you are likely to be dogmatic about getting your own way. This does not mean that you love yourself. Quite the opposite. It means that you have so little real love for yourself that your life becomes a kind of performance. You don’t know who you really are, and we don’t either.
Men are more likely than women to exhibit narcissistic tendencies. You’re also more likely to suffer from unhealthy levels of narcissism if you’ve accumulated a lot of facebook friends or Twitter followers. No surprises there.
All this may sound obviously unappealing, but most of us at one time or another have been held emotionally hostage by a narcissist. Be it a boss, friend or lover, many of us have felt trapped in relationship with the self-obsessed.
Of all the things that fascinate us about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, perhaps the most consistent thread is the question of Katie’s apparent evil enchantment at the hands of an alleged fundamentalist control freak.
Recent tweeted comments included references to leg hold traps, closeted homosexuality and hostage taking. Nothing new in the world of TomKat comedy fodder, but what’s driving our projections?
The running theme of these jibes is our desire to see a villain unmasked. What we have always hated about Tom Cruise is the sense that he is not only full of himself but also empty. We decided Katie was deceived by a pretender and we wanted to see her finally get real. We imposed a dark, Bluebeard theme on their story.
We were appalled at what we saw as her blind obedience and surrender, something we no longer accept as part of a desirable marriage. Somewhere we know that narcissism is the death of love and that obedience and surrender are the flashing lights of warning that love has been replaced by its fairytale opposite; the devil’s bargain.
Feminists and others have long been concerned about the obeying part of the marriage vows, not to mention the whole idea of marriage itself, even though Elizabeth Gilbert thinks it’s now a good thing after some research and time with a nicer man than her first husband. We recently worried that Kate Middleton would agree not only to love and honour prince William but to obey him as well.
And we’re worried about obedience with good reason. Obedience and love are not relatives who can be in the same room together. Obedience is always off in another room planning to ruin the party with tyranny and oppression and non-consensual sex.
And obedience is all about not looking beyond the mask. It’s about giving in to the demands of a narcissist to become a mirrored reflection of their idealised false self. We want our villains unmasked and we want our victims to wake from their fairytale slumbers. I think we wanted Katie to wake up because we’re not so sure we’re awake ourselves.
If it’s true that narcissism is on the rise, then the grim fairytale of the marriage of Tom and Katie is gripping stuff. If in fact celebrities are more likely to divorce than civilians, (likely, but a matter of some debate due to a lack of hard research evidence), and if this is in some way related to their relative narcissism, then we are all increasingly in danger of putting the wedding first and genuine love second; we’re in danger of living a Disney version of the fairytale of marriage.
Marriage is certainly a part of many real fairytales, but the lesson is never about the wedding, the spectacle or the glamour. In every fairytale there is a choice to be made, between one life and another, and marriage is often the way that choice is psychically represented.
It is also the way the heroine or hero of our story finds the missing parts of themselves and puts them back together. That’s really the happily ever after. It’s not that you get the prince or the princess, but that you get back those bits of yourself that were lost and causing you to lead a lonely life in the forest, or the tower, or asleep.What you were really missing was yourself.
If this sounds romantic, I suppose it is. It’s romantic because it sounds kind of easy when of course it’s not. Remember that in a fairytale there is always a long and terrible journey, full of danger or monsters or places where it’s easier just to go to sleep.
Those dangers are always there, and when we ignore them, when we fall for narcissistic romance and the show of the perfect couple, we begin to lose those precious bits of ourselves all over again. We become trapped and there is always a long and frightening journey required to free ourselves.
So the intensity of the focus on this latest celebrity split is just a continuation of a cultural fairytale we’ve created. Young naïve woman marries older man who is not what he seems. She becomes trapped in his castle quite soon in the story, as other young women have before her.
We want her to find the key that opens the door. We want her to be free. We want her to grow up. If only we could do the same ourselves, their fictionalised story would hold no interest for us.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.
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