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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Celebrity Love - Part 2

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Celebrity Love

This is the second and final installment on the topic of celebrity relationships based on an interview I recently completed for Cooper Lawrence's upcoming book, The Cult of Celebrity. The premise of these articles is worth repeating… celebrities face the same issues all couples do, but their circumstances and consequences tend to be more dramatic than for the rest of us. The bottom line is that celebrities are object lessons; they can teach us something important about our own relationships.


In a recent study you did you ranked star couples on their likelihood of splitting, Two couples that came in the mid risk range -- Britney Spears and Kevin Federline and Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey -- have subsequently broken up. Interestingly, those are the only two couples in the list who subjected their relationships to reality TV shows. When you looked at the variables that predisposed celebrities to break up did you take reality TV into consideration? What kind of extra pressures does reality TV place on relationships?

My past work did not take this into account. In fact, the impact of reality TV programming on celebrity relationships has not been adequately studied to my knowledge, although it should be. However, in a real sense, all major celebrities with effective PR agents “live” a daily reality TV show. That is, celebrities must compete with other celebrities and even laypeople in this age of YouTube. A big part of that exposure, as well as attempt to connect with fans and prolong marketability, is to invite fans and the media into one’s private life. It comes as no surprise that this adds extra and tremendous pressure on celebrity relationships – celebrities who already have little time, no extended periods of personal or relationship privacy and artificial images to live up to. Without privacy and psychological space, a couple has little chance to build a strong, loving and enduring couple identity. That is, the couple no longer has that relationship as a retreat or a sanctuary from business and other pressures.

On most reality TV relationship shows, viewers are exposed to problematic relationships, or the worst/most extreme aspects of relationships -- Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown's disturbing relationship is a prime example. Is there a risk that when we watch these shows, thinking they are "reality" (although they are in fact strategically edited), we will become more accepting of the behavior we see in those relationships, and lower our standards for our own relationships?

Strategic edits in reality shows or TV segments certainly can skew some people’s perception and understanding of how some celebrity couples actually interact. But this can be a pro or a con! For instance, it has the potential for people with low self-esteem and low self-worth to accept extreme and even abusive behaviors as normal within relationships. In other words, these people can subsequently lower their standards or use what they see to justify their existing beliefs about relationships. On the other hand, normal and healthy relationships involve conflict (sometimes severe conflict) and the successful resolution of that conflict. Conflict can bring two people closer together if they communicate and work together to find a solution that puts the couple’s needs above the individuals’ needs. With this in mind, TV viewers would be helped by seeing celebrities work through issues and conflicts successfully. However, this probably is not as marketable as extreme and disturbing interactions.

Robert B. Millman, professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School has identified what he calls "acquired situational narcissism" in celebrities. Do you think that narcissism makes celebrities more likely to show off who they're coupled with (via reality TV and publicity) and/or makes them vulnerable to having short-lived relationships?

I would argue that many major celebrities were ego-driven from the start. It seems to me that a strong need for attention and admiration has helped them reach their goals and aspirations. This ego drive, however, can be curse on relationships. Think about it… the rules are in opposition when it comes to celebrities forming enduring bonds: two people with strong egos, seeking unconditional love and acceptance from fans and the media and who are often in competition with each other for PR, status and earning power. It is not surprising that power issues almost always arise in celebrity relationships, but unfortunately are not resolved successfully. It makes you stop and ponder whether you put your own partner’s needs ahead of your own, or whether you expect your partner to be the one to always make the sacrifices for your happiness.

Related Links:
» Celebrity Love - Part 1
» Celebrity Worship Questions and Answers
» Dr. Jim on Tom Cruise and Kate Holmes

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