- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
Anatomy of a Scandal
Anatomy of a Scandal provides an example of the turmoil caused by infidelity, and both good and bad ways of managing the fallout.
Welcome to the Realistic Romance series, where I analyze and assess popular relationships in television and film. In each post we will explore an on-screen couples and look at relevant psychological concepts to better understand the quality of their relationship, and determine if these partnerships are setting realistic expectations for a good relationship.
For each of these posts I will be discussing examples and plots, if you haven't seen the movie or show, you may want to watch it first and read this after.
Sophie, played by Sienna Miller, is the classic popular girl turned into wealthy wife. She is confident, social, and settled, at least until discovering her husband's affair. From her school years at Oxford we see Sophie bouncing from sporting events to social events, squeezing in the bare minimum of school work with thanks to Holly Berry for helping her with class reading. Sophie appears to be a sublimely happy wife and mother until her husband's indiscretion is unveiled. From then on, Sophie is troubled.
Sophie maintains composure and offers public support for her husband, as is expected, but away from prying eyes she is able to be more blunt about her unhappiness and suspicions. Not the shrinking violet we might expect in the face of such personal and social upheaval, Sophie finds her strength and her voice. She challenges her husband's lies and pieces together his history of sexual assault despite his adamant denials. At the end of season one, with great satisfaction to the viewer, she is the reason for his soon-to-be political demise.
Has there ever been anyone so annoyingly successful as James Whitehouse (played by Rupert Friend)? From his Oxford years we see him excelling at everything he tries, and indeed, his mother confirms that he has always been successful which (as she sees it) has made him the target of envy and attack. James has clearly led a privileged and charmed life, free of consequences or failures. He is a wealthy and charming politician with a lovely family, and the only problem in James's life is... James. He thinks the world, and all the people in it, is his to take. To be fair, he was raised to believe this, and for much of his life it has been true.
However, he is finally held accountable when his affair partner (and aide) Olivia Lytton accuses him of rape and takes him to court. Being the focus of criticism doesn't sit well with James. He is indignant, self-righteous, and dishonest. He explodes in the courtroom when pressed by the prosecutor Kate Woodcroft, who also happens to be a former victim of his. Later, James admits to Sophie that he lied about the events that occurred in the elevator to avoid seeming guilty, and doesn't appear to have any remorse about this.
Healing from Infidelity
From the very first episode we witness the painful experience of an affair coming to light. It is made even more painful by the publicity and pressure to act like a happy family, and worsened still by the fact that the affair partner is also pursuing a lawsuit against James claiming that he raped her.
Discovering an affair is disorienting, to say the least. The person who was cheated on will have many questions and they will need answers, along with patience as they take time processing the breach in trust. They will need to understand why the affair happened and then decide if they want to stay in the relationship. As you may have read in a previous blog post, infidelity doesn't happen out of nowhere. There are usually problems in a relationship that predate the cheating, such as important needs that aren't being met. Cheating is a symptom of marital issues, but it then becomes a cause of them. Usually, anyway.
There are potential positives to infidelity, though. Affairs make it impossible for the status quo to continue, which in many cases is a good thing. They unveil any underlying issues in a relationship and demand change if the relationship is to survive. Or, affairs signal the end of a relationship that wasn't working and can't be fixed. Either way, infidelity leads to change.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
If you've read my posts about whether your ex is a sociopath or a narcissist, you have some familiarity with how personality disorders can present in romantic relationships. The concept we're looking at here is Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD), which is the clinical diagnostic category that includes psychopaths and sociopaths.
People with APD meet certain criteria that include, to name a few from the DSM-5:
Impairments in personality functioning that include:
Self functioning impairments, such as one's identity and self-esteem dependent on personal gain or setting personal goals that are not prosocial.
Interpersonal functioning impairments, such as a lack of empathy for others even after hurting them or an inability to demonstrate authentic intimacy that is not exploitative.
Individuals with APD also demonstrate certain pathological traits in two areas:
Antagonism- being manipulative, deceitful, callous, and/or hostile
Disinhibition- being irresponsible, impulsive, and engaging in risk-taking
EVIDENCE FROM ANATOY OF A SCANDAL
The Impact of the Affair
While James does voluntarily tell Sophie about the infidelity, it is only because the story was breaking on a major media outlet which forced his hand. He did apologize, offer some explanation, and appear relatively patient as Sophie processed the news. However, he is often saved from doing actual repair work by the urgency of saving his career, and Sophie is compelled to set aside her own feelings or questions in order to support her husband.
The night of the disclosure Sophie is able to ask some important investigative questions (and a few detective ones) about the affair. She seeks clarity about why it happened, in addition to wanting some details of where and how often. James comes close to the truth, first claiming it was "just sex" to which Sophie correctly points out, "It's never just sex."
When pushed for an explanation, James admits he has been stressed at work and Olivia was there for him. She also gave him attention and made him feel important. But he is quick to downplay these things and reassure Sophie that their marriage has not been a source of unhappiness to him, and that this affair is due to his own poor judgment.
Now this, I think, is true.
I can imagine that their marriage was as good as it could possibly be. They had emotional intimacy, a satisfying sex life, shared meaning through raising their children, and a mutual social group. So why did he cheat?
Well, why did he cheat back in college at Oxford? They appeared to have a similarly strong relationship back then. There weren't career pressures to drive him to be unfaithful, which was one reason he cited for the Olivia tryst. Has he been secretly unhappy with Sophie this whole time?
No, I think that their relationship was as affair-proof as it could have been, except for one important factor. And that factor is James himself. Whereas most affairs happen because there are significant issues in the relationship, this affair appears to be entirely about James's personality. Which leads us to our next concept...
James' Personality Traits
It seems clear that James Whitehouse easily meets many of the criteria for APD. He has broken rules from a young age, even for things as unimportant as Monopoly. He covers up for his friend Tom Sutherland when he is involved in a classmate's death, getting rid of evidence and concealing his friend's involvement. James also doesn't appear to show genuine empathy or remorse for hurting Sophie. His upset feelings are mainly for himself, that he now has to deal with the fallout of his actions. He spends very little time helping Sophie process and heal, and instead remains entirely self-focused. James is also manipulative and deceitful, even admitting to lying under oath in court because it made him look better than the truth. And I think we can also make a strong case for him being disinhibited and impulsive, as is evidenced by his history of sexual assaults.
However, I don't think we can label him with APD.
James does not display empathy for other's feelings or remorse for his actions, true, but that's because he truly does not think he has done anything wrong. Raised in obscene privilege, he is unaware of his impact on others. This lack of empathy and awareness doesn't reflect an innate inability, but rather, a learned sense of entitlement and innocence. James is astounded by the idea that someone could not want to have sex with him, and he sees their protests as disingenuous murmurs that they hope he will ignore.
If we could strip James of his entitlement and privilege, and we could get him to see how he has hurt others, I believe he would feel terrible.
However, his defenses are so established at this point, it would take a lot of work for him to reach this level of honest insight. It's likely he'll avoid this work because true awareness of how he has hurt others would be so painful I'm not sure he could tolerate it.
In many ways, I blame society for the Jameses of the world. I don't think he has an underlying pathology like a true sociopath, but worse, he was capable of being a good person and these abilities were stifled by his upbringing. James was taught that being wealthy makes you better than other people, that success (academic, in games or sports, in your career) supersede kindness, that wrongdoing is justified and consequences are avoidable, and finally, that "Whitehouses always come out on top." A chilling family phrase given how Whitehouses behave.
THE OVERALL ASSESSMENT
The fake marriage they had seemed perfect. Before the truth came to light, Sophie and James were the couple that so many aspire to be. They were successful, supportive of each other, and were able to navigate annoyances (like James not showing up to a party) with understanding and humor. Their fake marriage would get an A, but underneath this facade, however, there was a relationship marred by a husband's dishonesty. James's lies and self-focused prevent him from having an authentic relationship with Sophie. And she, to her credit, acknowledges that she overlooked some truths along the way, to keep their marriage blissful, to avoid a confrontation that she likely knew wouldn't go well.
I give the relationship a D and I put that entirely on James. Sophie's attempts at communication and healing from the affair, were stellar. Her insistence on holding James accountable for past actions and trying to understand how he could have cheated show her commitment to working on the relationship. Her efforts are stymied by James, who tries to skip the conversations necessary for healing, lies whenever it's in his best interest, and cannot see anything aside from his own needs. It's impossible to be in a genuine, deep, honest relationship with someone as self-focused and entitled as James.
Sophie has at least seen the light and made the brave choice to leave. She is not only leaving her marriage, but also the life of ease and privilege that she has likely grown accustomed to. She is dividing her family, an accusation James will surely lob at her at every opportunity. But Sophie has seen that a marriage to James will include his self-deluded lies and a history of abuse that she cannot unsee.
I hope James would face some real consequences following Kate's disclosure to Sophie, and hopefully James would be forced to grapple with what kind of person he is. I fear that he would continue to shift blame to others (all these women who are out to get him! Even though he's done nothing wrong!) and pursue his own self-interest while acting the victim. Alas, as this is a mini series we will not get the chance to witness his full downfall. We can only imagine it was satisfying to see him brought to justice, finally, and hope that both Kate and Olivia were able to heal in some way.
Want More Like This?
If you have a favorite on-screen that you'd like to be a focus of this series, let me know! I'll be writing on all couples, from the obviously healthy to the clearly destructive, and everything in between.