03/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Eliot Spitzer: Why?

Q: Very simple: Eliot Spitzer?

A: Now, what knowledge could I impart that, to the discredit of my profession, has not already been imparted by every "relationship expert," every "male ego expert," and, amazingly enough, every "infidelity expert"? (I swear.) Obviously there are political, financial, legal and, of course, personal consequences to what happened to Spitzer that are in some ways more important than all the behavioral stuff discussed on TV. But I'm a shrink. With your permission, I'm going to try to superficially psychoanalyze Eliot Spitzer.

1) Yes. There's a possible addiction. Yes, there is arrogance. Yes, he pushed the limits. Yes, he is self-destructive. Yes, he thinks rules don't apply to him. Yes, he likes sex. Yes, he is obviously quite adept at compartmentalization and, yes, he compartmentalized so well that he was able to seal off what he had to know about the Mann act, the responsibility of banks to report the suspicious movement of funds and other laws relating to prostitution. He was the functional equivalent of the pickpockets who circulated at the public hanging of pickpockets -and picked the pockets of onlookers. Tells you something about human nature.

For Spitzer, it clearly was more fun to be the bandit than the sheriff, as he called himself. It was more fun to plan the requisite schemes for illegal and scandalous behavior -- moving that money around, booking hotel rooms, etc. -- than running down the bad guys or, maybe, doing the grunt work of a big state governor.

The only two psychological explanations I haven't heard are these: Reaction formation and obsessive-compulsive behavior. People have described the behavior related to these terms but not the terms themselves. Let me give you the labels.

Reaction Formation is when an individual's behavior or actions are the exact opposite of what he feels at his core (or possibly unconscious) level. In Spitzer's case, it means that the corruption fighter in his core was -- or needed to be -- corrupt. The more corrupt he was, or felt he was, the more he had to fight corruption in others -- and fight it with a tenacity and ruthlessness that was fueled in fact, by his own failings. Classically, he even denounced and went after prostitution rings -- kind of like a priest railing against sin and then taking a boy to bed. The outward purity and rigidity is a defense mechanism that helps him to feel better about his inner needs.

Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior (as opposed to a full-fledged obsessive-compulsive disorder) is the attempt to control internal chaos or obsessive thoughts. In Spitzer's case, he might have been trying to control his apparent sexual needs -- and, maybe more importantly, his need to push the limits into dangerous territory. By focusing on control or perfectionism, the individual offsets or distracts from the unconscious danger. So, by behaving in a strict, ordered, manner (always wearing white shirts, for instance), the Governor appeared to be the opposite of what, internally, he really was.

2) Why are we so interested in Spitzer's downfall? Is this scandal just about him or is just a piece of it about us, too? Of course, it's a juicy sex scandal. Of course, it's about a powerful political figure from a powerful state who could have been a presidential contender. All these things are true. But our intense interest in the tragedy of Eliot Spitzer reflects our own fear of losing control -- that the levees we've built to control our own dangerous impulses may, somehow, be breached. Après that, as we all know, comes le deluge.

Spitzer appeared so in control of a perfect life that when we see his structure break down we take it as both a warning and a lesson: make sure it doesn't happen to us. We look at Spitzer as we do an accident on the side of the road ---slow down, thank God it's not us, and then speed up again.

3) But, to me, the most interesting aspect of the Spitzer saga is not the sexual one or even his internal contradictions. It is what it reveals about his true personality. Does he have any moral compass at all? What role does love or family play in his life? How does he relate to others? And how does all of this information help his wife and daughters?

For some reason, despite many clues to the contrary, Spitzer was mostly seen as the hard-charging, moralistic, crusader for good government. He won a landslide victory in New York because the voters believed that both he and his marriage were nearly perfect - certainly incorruptible. But alongside that portrait were troubling signs that something was seriously amiss. He was too rigid. He could explode with anger. He seemed crazed in his attempts to destroy others, and he could be cruel, bending others to his will. His clean and rigid exterior (those white shirts again, that neat tab collar) made us ignore hints that the man was troubled. It was easier to buy the image.

Like Bill Clinton, Spitzer kept pushing the limits and each time he was forgiven, understood (misunderstood) as over-zealous, too intent -- too much of a good thing. So he felt safe to continue, to push the limit time and time again.

So, Spitzer family, listen up! The sexual stuff is painful, but it may have the least lasting consequence. Look first at his potential cruelty and thoughtlessness. That is more important. If he was cruel before, if he has casually inflicted pain on others and now, of course, on his family, consider whether this cruelty is a part of his core personality. This has to be taken into account as you all determine your future. (In fact, I would be interested to know if his sexual needs involved cruelty as well.)

So for Spitzer's wife, she has to also determine what her needs are. Hillary Clinton faced a similar situation and decided that what she had with her husband -- a shared passion for public life, a family, shared ambitions -- took precedence over more conventional or expected considerations -fidelity, for instance. She was determined to use her position to get where she wanted to go. How can you, Spitzer family, use your relationship with your husband/father to reach your own goals. Use him.

It is always difficult for a family to face reality. Usually, the husband-father turn out not to be the knight in shining armor. He isn't an exciting, extraordinary man or daddy. He is a regular guy who is perhaps even more flawed than average. Can you learn to love and to hate simultaneously? Can you be compassionate and angry at the same time? Decide for yourself, not only who he is but who you are and what you need and want. That will give you the strength to both handle him and to make the decisions you need to make for yourself.