Playing Emotional Games
Like a million other viewers, I've been watching the OWN series The O'Neals this fall on Oprah's network. I'm always a bit skeptical of reality shows as far as whether what we're seeing is all that there is to see. I've interviewed dozens of reality stars over the past five years and one thing I know is that what we're shown in our living rooms is what the producers of the series want us to see. Editing takes out a lot of what went on that sometimes sheds light on the true nature of the relationships we're seeing. So whenever I comment on a reality series I'm always the first one to point out that there may be more going on than what I know.
In the case of Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, what we're seeing is, in my opinion, the efforts of two very similar people to repair a relationship that was non-existent for over twenty years. I am very struck by the love that they have for each other but I'm also concerned about the way they're approaching the therapy which they hope will get them back to a healthy father-daughter state. Ryan seems to want to put the past in the past and just move forward. Tatum wants to revisit the past and let the emotions she felt then, which she's undoubtedly kept alive in her heart all these years, dictate her actions now. Both approaches are destructive to a great extent.
None of us can say we had the ideal situation with our parents. Unless you were a member of the Cleaver household, you had problems with your parents while you were growing up and also after you became an adult as well. Dealing with your mom and dad when you're all adults can sometimes be more difficult than it was when you were a child. Because then they were in charge and you lived in their home and you had to follow their rules or suffer some kind of consequence for not doing so. Once you're grown up you're dealing with two other adults who have the right to live their life the way they wish, just like you have the same right. And that can create clashes of a sometimes volatile nature.
What I've been seeing on The O'Neals is the same formula. Tatum was undeniably jealous of the relationship that her dad found with Farrah Fawcett. Up until then she had been the center of his attention. Even when he was dating Diana Ross Tatum was always the more important and she enjoyed pulling those strings. She still wants to yank them, and she's succeeding at times. Ryan was not in the wrong when it came to falling in love with Farrah, as he certainly had the right to want a companion who he could love in the romantic sense, and he seems very comfortable with this knowledge. He also knows that the animosity Tatum felt for Farrah is at the root of a lot of the problems he's having with his daughter now. And Tatum isn't entirely comfortable with him knowing this either.
Tatum is alleging that there were several instances of physical abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father. She's even writing about this in a new book called Found. She has memories of these events that are still very fresh in her mind. So there has to be something to them. She can't be making all of them up. Ryan, on the other hand, remembers things differently and he denies having been physically abusive toward her and her brother. I think he perhaps has a different idea of what it means to be abusive than she does. So he can't accept that what she is referring to as abuse was actually that. Ryan wants to have a loving relationship with her again and he wants to let all that happened before just fade away, but Tatum can't do it as simply as he would like. She just can't let it lie without making her peace with it, and she sees confronting him as the route to getting beyond whatever happened way back when.
As someone who had a strained relationship with a parent as a child, I can understand where Tatum is coming from. The pain you feel from the trauma of having been treated in a manner less than what you know you deserved is something that you take with you into adulthood. The memories can be as painful as the reality was and the manner in which you choose to deal with the pain is essential to your ability to let the past be the past. Some people are never capable of making a peace within themselves that will allow them to forgive and move on. You see, that peace you have to make for yourself has nothing to do with the person you feel ambivalent toward. It's all about you and until you can find the road that leads away from the pain it is always going to stay with you. Always.
Tatum's adult life has been marred by a marriage that ultimately failed and an addiction to alcohol and drugs that almost destroyed her. In her mind, a lot of what she's had to deal with since becoming an adult is directly related to her childhood with her father. While she was going through a painful divorce from tennis star John McEnroe, and then plunging headlong into the throes of substance abuse, which robbed her of the custody of her children for a time, she sees her father as having lived a life of contentment with Farrah Fawcett. Yet she seems to be oblivious to the fact that Ryan went through a long separation from Farrah, and that he dealt with his youngest son's drug addiction and problems with the law, and that after he and Farrah were reunited he faced leukemia and then he had to go through watching Farrah be consumed by cancer herself. She lost that battle on August 25th, 2009, leaving Ryan alone, hurt, and grieving.
I am baffled by Tatum's inability to empathize with her father on this subject. Whenever he brings up Farrah she tunes out. You can see it in her expressions. She doesn't want to give credence to what her dad had with Farrah. She seems to want her needs, her life, and her problems to come first. Ryan acknowledges this as the series has gone along, but he refuses to give her that validation because he sees his life as being as important as hers. And to a great extent he's right.
So they're locked in a battle of wills that stems from their similar personalities conflicting on the details that they each consider important. Tatum wants the grief Ryan feels for Farrah to be extended to the lost relationship they suffered, and Ryan wants Tatum to acknowledge that while she was living her life in New York he was living one of his own in California with the woman he loved. They seem to be incapable of meeting each other half way on these emotional demands they're making on each other.
In my observation, Ryan needs to understand that Tatum can't let go of the past until he can accept more responsibility for what drove them apart. He is going to have to come into the present that she is experiencing and be able to validate her feelings even if just for that. He shouldn't let himself be the scapegoat for her recovery from her life up until now but he must be able to acknowledge that what she's feeling is real to her. And then begin repairing their relationship from that point on.
Tatum, conversely, will be charged with taking into account that her father's life is his reality, just as her life is hers. She is going to need to accept that her recollections are different from his. She is also going to have to learn a tough life lesson that Betty White so eloquently said: "Remember to keep the other person's well being in mind when you feel an attack of soul purging truth coming on." When she can do that she will understand why writing a memoir like Found can do more to increase the animosity between her father and herself than it will ever do to bring them together again.
Life is all about learning to compromise yourself with the people you allow into it. As we get older we begin to see things in different ways and we hopefully become better people from the learning experiences the years have been teaching us. The world doesn't revolve around each and every one of us. Not even those who love us the most can live for us and us alone. And for people who've brought painful pasts with them into the present this can be a difficult fact to accept.
I have high hopes for Ryan and Tatum O'Neal. I believe they have it inside them to come together, let the past be dealt with and then put in its proper place, and move on from this point forward. No healing will ever take place unless they can overcome the demons that plague their relationship. It's going to take a compromising on both sides for this to happen.
I wish them the best.