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If Anger Still Burns, Has Passion Died?

The public spat between Tatum O'Neal and John McEnroe may betray unresolved emotions.

July 02, 2002|GINA PICCALO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been nearly a decade since their six-year marriage ended, but like so many divorced couples, John McEnroe and Tatum O'Neal continue to be emotionally entangled. The pair have been exchanging venomous barbs with the ferocity of the recently separated. McEnroe fired first last month. His new memoir, "You Cannot Be Serious" takes swipes at O'Neal's failures as a mother to their three children, her emotional volatility, her battles with drugs and her unsuccessful attempts to rekindle her acting career.

O'Neal fired back mightily last week. She called McEnroe "a sociopath" in a British tabloid. In an interview with Barbara Walters, she claimed he used steroids and that they made the tennis champ emotionally and physically abusive. O'Neal, on the cover of this week's People, tells the magazine that just before the marriage ended, McEnroe pushed her down the stairs while screaming obscenities. McEnroe continued the volley from Wimbledon, where he was working as TV sports commentator, calling O'Neal's accusations "ridiculous."

When celebrities go public with their personal dramas, they offer the rest of us an exaggerated glimpse of ourselves. And, undoubtedly, their failures remind us that money and fame aren't synonymous with happiness. Perhaps that's why the O'Neal-McEnroe exchange has attracted so much coverage during the last two weeks. Even the games at Wimbledon were overshadowed by the public spat as reporters covering the game sought sound bites from McEnroe.

"The celebrity culture is very addictive and very attractive," said Nancy Snow, a UCLA sociologist. "Part of it is that they live differently than us, but part of the appeal is that we do like to see them fall off those pedestals."

This week, McEnroe and O'Neal took their place in the endless line of celebrities who have aired their dirty laundry in a global forum. But their problems aren't much different than those that plague any divorced couple with children, psychologists say.

Intense hostility that survives the end of a relationship may never be extinguished, especially if the relationship was tumultuous and involves the co-parenting of children, say psychologists. After divorce, there may be a lot of unresolved emotions that can reignite at the slightest provocation or life change--a child's offhand remark about an ex-spouse, for instance, a remarriage or a career change.

Constance Ahrons, author of "The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart," has spent 20 years studying 89 divorced couples with children. She said 20% of the couples were "still fuming" two decades after their split.

McEnroe and O'Neal met at a party in the Hollywood Hills in 1984 and immediately began an intense love affair. "Maybe my fiery spirit reminded her of her father's own famous temper," McEnroe writes. "For my part, I liked her confidence, her total ease in the midst of this star-studded evening. She wasn't even 21 yet, but she had the poise of an experienced woman."

They had a child, then married in 1986 when O'Neal was 22 and McEnroe was 27. From the beginning, according to both, their relationship involved a lot of drinking and drug use that progressed through their marriage. "It seemed that there was never enough calm in the house," McEnroe writes. They divorced in 1993.

Ultimately, O'Neal's heroin addiction in 1995 caused her to lose custody of her three children. Two years later, McEnroe remarried rocker Patty Smyth and had two children with her. He dedicated his book to Smyth, "my soul mate."

"Oftentimes, these divorces were not mutually decided upon," Ahrons said. "Oftentimes, there was infidelity ... economic issues [and] these people keep having some relationship with each other because of children.... They just never let go. They're 'angry habituated.' "

Susan Forward, author of "Obsessive Love" and "Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them," said most people at some point in their lives meet "that one magic person who sort of nests inside you and you can't ever get rid of them emotionally."

The opposite of love is not hate, said Forward, it's indifference. "Attacking and blaming is still a passion and still indicates that they haven't totally let go."

For O'Neal, that "magic person" may be McEnroe. She told People that she broke off her 2000 engagement to Miramax executive Steve Hutensky to be closer to her father, Ryan O'Neal, after he was diagnosed with cancer. "Steve's a great guy," she said. "... But I'm still fighting this first marriage."

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