Why do powerful people—the kind with prestigious careers and long marriages and children and parents and homes and money in the bank—throw it all away on a stupid affair? I don’t understand when it happens to a movie star or a captain of industry. But it really blows me away when it happens to senior people in the military—officer or enlisted.
It happens way too often. In the most recent incident, former commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Col. James H. Johnson III pled guilty to bigamy, adultery and fraud and now faces up to 54 years in prison.
The West Point honor graduate allegedly moved an Iraqi woman into his quarters in Vicenza, Italy and enrolled her as his wife on DEERs. Click here for how his estranged American wife was the one who had the guts to turn him in.
What was he thinking? That’s a question our readers always ask when an event like this pops up. How does someone so accomplished fail at something a lot of us do well every day?
Call it Power Failure Syndrome. Psychologist Tony Ferretti and physician Peter Weiss describe Power Failure Syndrome as “the phenomenon when powerful people, who seemingly have it all, ultimately fail in relationships with their spouse, family and friends.”
In their book Change Your Life Not Your Wife: Marriage Saving Advice For Success Driven People, Ferretti and Weiss claim that Power Failure Syndrome happens because the same traits that propel people to the top in their careers cause turmoil in their personal lives. They paint a picture of an individual who is “intelligent and successful and charming to new acquaintances, but who is also highly competitive, driven to succeed, controlling and emotionally distant from family and friends.”
So does that mean if you are married to a successful person you better open an account in the Cayman Islands because an arrest warrant is on its way? Are you doomed?
“Definitely not,” said Ferretti when I called him to talk it over. “It’s a double edged sword. Some of those personality traits are incredibly positive.” We agreed that we wanted our surgeons to be perfectionists with a touch of OCD. We wanted our colonels and command sergeant majors to be driven and somewhat controlling—especially if those traits saved lives.
“The problem is that a lot of people don’t transition well from work to home,” explained Ferretti, whose private practice is populated with doctors and lawyers and CEOs and others whose lives are marked by power and success. Evidently, many people get used to having certain expectations met at their job that they expect to continue at home. “They are harder on their family members than they are on the people who work for them.”
If you are a power-driven person and you are starting to recognize problems in your relationships, Ferretti says that your first step is to decide that your marriage is a top priority. “A lot of people are not nurturing their marriages,” Ferretti says. “Marriage gets the scraps.” Power-driven people can turn their drive to positively changing their marriages. Start with telling your spouse that you realize there are certain aspects to your personality that have to change. Then work on taking the edge off.
If you are the spouse of a power-driven individual, Ferretti advises that you take the confrontation past the marriage itself. “I think one of the things would be to ask your spouse to take look at their other relationships with friends, siblings, kids, parents.” If your partner has problems with all relationships, not just the one he or she has with you, there is an opportunity for a broader understanding of the problem.
It isn’t too late. Although it might be tempting to throw away a relationship that has long struggled with this kind of issue, this does not usually fix anything. “I believe people can balance life. People can balance certain aspects of their personality. They can learn to value relationships,” said Ferretti. “I see people change at all ages. It is harder the older you get. But people can apply the same drive and intensity to saving their relationships.”
Should you seek professional help? Some people don’t want to bring a therapist into the mix. It can help to read a book like Change Your Life Not Your Wife with your spouse and do the exercises together. Then one or both partners might want to seek help and insight from a professional. “The one thing I wanted to give people is hope, said Ferretti. “My job is to save marriages, but also to save people.”