The Blog

Relationship Politics: Body Language Of The McCain Marriage

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

A Cautionary Tale For Conscious Couples, A Learning Opportunity For Us All

Ever since we wrote our piece on the Obama marriage, people have been asking us to discuss the marriage of John and Cindy McCain. We found ourselves hesitating, because while their marriage has elements that could teach valuable lessons to us all, it is also a marriage between a recovering drug addict and a deeply traumatized veteran. Such a relationship is difficult to comment on. Even the most straightforward, non-judgmental comment could be perceived by some people as critical of two sub-groups considered off-limits from close observation. Doing some background research changed our mind, however, because Mrs. McCain has discussed her drug addiction in considerable detail out in public. In addition, John McCain claims to have no emotional residue from his time as a prisoner of war, and he also claims to have been unaware of his wife's drug addiction. We don't know whether these claims are an epic act of denial or just another whopper lie from a politician. Either way, they wave a red flag at all of us who hope to enjoy conscious loving in our relationships at home and authentic communication from our political leaders.

Click here to view a slideshow of The McCains' PDA Moments.

The Hug Moment: Body-Talk Of A Devitalized Relationship
After the last presidential debate we had many requests to give our interpretation of the awkward "hug moment" at the end. From a body language perspective, the moment revealed a great deal about the McCain marriage. If you have time, go back and look frame-by-frame at the end of the debate, when the presidential candidates hugged their spouses. Here is a sequence of still shots that capture to a degree some of the points we want to discuss.
Take note of the perfunctory hug, stiffness and lack of contact between the McCains, and compare those bits of body-talk with the way Michelle and Barack Obama greeted each other with smiles and a long hug. They were still hugging when John McCain tried awkwardly to connect with Mrs. Obama. The McCain hug looked as stiff as a puppet show, while the Obama hug looked as natural and graceful as a ballet.

A Heroic Lack Of Awareness
John McCain has managed to keep his mental health records concealed, so it's not possible to know whether he is telling the truth about having no mental or emotional scars from his time behind bars. As always, though, his body-talk tells the real story. The array of body language we've commented on in other posts is a sad tale of poorly concealed anger and deeply hidden fear.

John McCain claims not to have known of his wife's drug addiction, even at a time when she was supporting her habit by stealing drugs from a charity organization. If that's true--if he actually didn't know about his wife's addiction--he demonstrates a lack of awareness that is panoramic. How do you fail to notice that your partner is stoned for months at a time? In John McCain's case, there's a simple answer and a more complex one. The simple answer is that he is a fellow-addict, known for his deep affection for the gambling table, as well as ties to the gambling industry. His addiction is the adrenalin-charged game of craps, a passion that is rumored to have cost him money and rifts in his marriage (Cindy being the one with the deep pockets who always had to bail him out.) When two addicts are married, they make an unconscious contract between them: If you agree not to confront me on my addiction, I'll agree not to confront you on yours.

There's a deeper answer, though, to the question of how partners gradually become oblivious to the painfully obvious. It speaks to something every conscious couple needs to know. A few years ago a car passed us with a bumper sticker that had an intriguing question written on it, "What are you pretending not to know?" It's a question that all of us should ask of ourselves on a regular basis. It takes a heroic act of unconsciousness not to notice so profound a thing as drug addiction in one's partner. In our work with couples in devitalized marriages, however, we've found that we humans are highly skilled at sealing out awareness of deep unhappiness from within ourselves. Because we get so skilled at blocking the flow of awareness inside ourselves, we also get good at averting our eyes from the obvious signs of distress in our partners. Eventually, if we continue to look away from our own inner distress and the outer signs of distress in our partners, we gradually dam the flow of intimate contact with our partners as well as ourselves. Without the lifeblood hum of genuine intimacy, the relationship becomes a devitalized shell characterized by perfunctory hugs and chilly smiles in public, and much worse behind closed doors. Any experienced relationship therapist is familiar with the devitalized marriage; we've probably worked with more than 500 such relationships over the past 30 years. In order to be successful in re-vitalizing these relationships, it's essential to help them straighten out a terrible misunderstanding about what love is.

The misunderstanding is caused by a false belief about love. It's the twisted notion that loving someone means that you'll lie for him or her. This destructive idea is so widely held that it's considered a virtue by some. Here's a memorable quote from a relationship coaching session we did some years ago:

"Honey, don't you get it? I didn't tell you about my affair because I was trying to protect you! If I lied, it was because I love you and didn't want you to feel bad."

(Note for the record: the mate's anger was not soothed at hearing that her husband's lies about the affair were, in his view, an altruistic act. Her view was that his lying was a cowardly act to protect himself from getting caught.)

That's one version of the issue; another is when one partner gets the other to lie on his or her behalf. Every day, for example, many partners of alcoholics call their partners' bosses to spin a lie that covers the addict. "Jane has a cold and can't come in today," says Jane's partner to the boss. The truth is that Jane is too hung over to come in, but many bosses are less sympathetic to this excuse.

There are three major factors that determine the health of any relationship: Authenticity, responsibility and appreciation. The following discoveries apply to relationships at home, at work, and in the world at large:

•A relationship thrives only when people speak honestly to each other about the significant matters in the relationship.

•A relationship thrives only when people take responsibility, instead of blaming each other, for the issues that arise in the relationship.

•A relationship thrives only when people express abundant appreciation for each other.
The McCains earned the chilly distance in their relationship by a long history of ignoring these three simple rules of relationship. We as Americans must not ignore the impact of these rules on how we interact with our politicians. We think it's time to demand that our politicians observe the rules of healthy relationships.

For example, wouldn't it be great to hear politicians take responsibility, rather than blame their opponents, for problems? We'd love to hear John McCain say to us all, "My friends, I take responsibility for my part in the economic mess we're in. After all, I was one of the Keating Five! I helped Charles Keating pull off one of the biggest financial scams of all time. That scam cost the U.S. taxpayers billions, a heck of a lot more than all those airplanes I crashed. I urge my fellow Republicans to re-direct all the energy they spending in blaming Democrats to taking full responsibility for fixing this mess. I pledge to stop blaming and start focusing on positive solutions."

Wouldn't it have been great if Bill Clinton had handled the Lewinsky affair differently? When first questioned, he could just as easily have said, "Yes, I did indeed have sex with 'that woman'. I've been scared to tell my wife about it, because I don't want to face her anger and disappointment. I appreciate your bringing this issue up, because now it forces me to deal with it."

Wouldn't it have been better for the health of the country if Nixon had handled Watergate differently? We could have all learned something useful if he'd said, "Yes, some guys who work for me burglarized the DNC offices. It was without doubt the dumbest thing I've ever been part of in my life, and that, my friends, is saying something. I'm glad we got caught, because I'm using this situation to look into myself deeply. What I see there is a sleazy streak inside me that I've never wanted to confront before now. Since you elected me, you may want to look inside yourself and see if you have one of those sleazy streaks in you. If we all do that, maybe we can learn something from my act of stupidity."

We've seen real magic happen when those three rules of relationship are applied, both in our own lives and the lives of people with whom we've worked. We feel strongly that it's time to apply them to the world of politics. We launched a petition on that subject this year, a drive for authenticity in politics that thousands of people have signed.
(More detail on the initiative here:

If enough of us demand authenticity, responsibility and appreciation from our political leaders, maybe they'll stop clogging the airwaves and our national consciousness with lies and blame. The McCain campaign is the first one in our lifetimes to be based entirely on blame and fear. If enough of us mobilize, perhaps it will be the last.

Related Links: