- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
Why does Tanya from "The White Lotus" Always End Up Alone?
How insecurity and money can unintentionally push people away.
I will discuss examples and plots from seasons 1 & 2 of The White Lotus in this post. If you haven't seen it, you may want to watch it first and read this after.
In both seasons of the popular HBO show The White Lotus, a group of wealthy strangers arrives by boat at a luxurious resort chain of the same name. In season one, the resort is in Hawaii; in the current season, the vacationers are in Sicily. Strangers interact during their time at the resort, as we slowly discover the complexities of their personalities and relationships. Both seasons also feature a murder, and viewers are left guessing who dies and how they are killed until the very last episode.
Who is Tanya?
Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) is a wealthy and emotionally fragile woman. In season one, she discloses that her late parents were abusive. So, in addition to the half-billion dollars they left to her, they also gave her plenty of psychological damage. In the first season, Tanya grieves the recent death of her mother and sprinkles her ashes into the sea, but letting go of the emotional pain proves much more complicated.
In season two, Tanya arrives at the Sicilian White Lotus with her assistant, even though the trip was intended to be a romantic getaway. Her husband Greg (Jon Gries) is nonplussed to see the assistant, Portia, (Haley Lu Richardson) in tow. This frustration he feels toward her only continues and amplifies with each episode. We learn that Greg's suggested terminal illness has been effectively treated thanks to Tanya securing him the best doctors possible and he now has a long life to live with her, something she identifies as a possible regret of his.
The impact of a parent with borderline personality disorder
According to Tanya, her mother had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This disorder is characterized by low self-esteem, a distorted or inconsistent sense of self, difficulty sustaining close relationships, emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, anger, and often, self-harm.
People with BPD struggle to maintain healthy relationships. They seek intense closeness but end up pushing people away out of fear of rejection. They can be highly reactive and easily triggered due to early traumas that left scars. They can feel worthless. They may need constant closeness and reassurance in their relationships. For a parent with BPD, something like a child becoming independent would be upsetting and could lead to accusations, blame, and angry outbursts.
The child of a mother with BDP, Tanya likely experienced being pulled in very close to her mother, with little room to be her own person, only to be pushed away without warning. In season one, she recalls painful childhood memories, such as walking in on her mother with several men in her bed, and describes her mother as "cruel" and "manipulative." Tanya's mother was likely withholding and overbearing at the same time. Because of this inconsistent and confusing parenting, Tanya has low self-esteem, deep attachment wounds and needs, and underdeveloped skills for sustaining close relationships.
As a result, Tanya has learned that people do not consistently love her, and she likely believes herself to be unlovable. But despite feeling this way, she seeks closeness with people. She even describes herself as needy. However, she is also highly sensitive to rejection and quick to react when she senses someone is pulling away.
The disconnection between Tanya and Greg
It's painful to see Tanya reach out for attention or love from Greg only to be rebuffed. She proposes sex, and he gets up to clean up, clearly not interested in being intimate with her but willing to participate begrudgingly. She sighs to herself about how thoughtful he is, failing to see that his comment came from annoyance and not affection. Tanya repeatedly tries to connect with Greg—proving the number of macaroons she ate, making plans for their first full day in Italy—but he pushes her away as much as he can.
The tension builds into a fight in a Sicilian restaurant after Greg tells Tanya he must leave for a few days to deal with work issues. She tells him to quit his job, to which he scoffs and reminds her that, because of the prenup, he needs to maintain his job in case their marriage does not last. Tanya reassures him that their marriage won't end, and Greg reveals a harsh but accurate assessment of Tanya's relational history:
"You change your mind about everything constantly. You drop your friends, you fire people on a dime...you just discard people."
This is probably true. Tanya probably leaves people when she senses possible judgment or rejection and leaves them before they can leave her. Based on Greg's observations, it's possible that Tanya has developed some traits of BPD or may even meet criteria for the diagnosis.
"You hate me, don't you? ... You know what, I'm paying attention. I'm paying attention, and I can tell you don't like me," Tanya responds.
We could easily write this off as Tanya being too sensitive. After all, Greg only said he'd be gone a few days and that it's very important for his work. Why is she jumping to this conclusion?
This time, though, she might be right.
Whereas Tanya may misinterpret other people's healthy boundaries, complaints, or requests as outright rejections, her interactions with Greg support her concern that he is unhappy with her. He has avoided 1-to-1 time with her. He has disparaged and shamed her about her eating habits and body size. He has judged her suggestions for how to spend her dream day in Italy. He has communicated, in as many ways as he can, that he dislikes her.
The complication of her money
Tanya is outrageously wealthy. Although she cannot sustain healthy relationships, she can use her money to secure consistent ones (until she ends them). We see her use her money to buy friendship in season one, and the transactional relationships continue in Sicily. She uses her money to help Greg return to good health and has her assistant come to Italy (and then hide until Tanya needs her). Tanya fears being alone and uses her financial resources to ensure that doesn't happen.
No one likes feeling underappreciated or obligated to another person, but that's often how people in Tanya's life feel.
If Tanya didn't have her money to keep people, they would walk away.
Although her fortune allows her to retain relationships, it is only a workaround for the more challenging, more time-consuming, but more productive work of learning to manage her fears of rejection and develop secure attachments to important people in her life.
Tanya knows this, too. In season one, she acknowledges that she has used her money to buy friendships. She ultimately pulls out of a business agreement to avoid doing this again, greatly hurting the woman she had tentatively promised to fund. However, she slips back into old habits in season two, treating her assistant Portia like a servant whose only purpose is to meet Tanya's needs.
Tanya also knows that Greg might only be with her for her money. With a bank account of this size, she's wise to always be wary of any romantic partner's true intentions, and Greg has proven himself to not like her for who she is.
The assessment: Jury's out
Tanya will have work to do, no matter which partner she picks. She has a painful legacy of hurt from her mother, and establishing a safe and secure attachment to a romantic partner will be challenging.
To do so, she needs to be with someone who will be patient, direct, calm, and loving. She needs a partner who can willingly do this relational, emotional work with her. She needs someone who does not need or want her money so that she can be confident their relationship is based on love instead of wealth.
Greg is not that person. At least, he hasn't been that person yet. They haven't been married long, and he already seems irrevocably annoyed with her, not to mention resentful of the prenup.
If he doesn't become more empathic, invested, and kind to Tanya, he may further deepen her attachment insecurities and convince her of the painful idea that she is innately not lovable.