The marital difficulties between Sandra Bullock and Jesse James were well publicised and as is the media’s custom, legal and mental health experts from around the country were  tapped to comment on their tragic situation. We know all-too-well that one price of fame is the vast publicity—often negative—afforded the trials and tribulations of the rich and famous. Why the big fuss? This stuff sells, plain and simple. Why does it sell? One reason is because it helps us plain folk feel a bit more comfortable with our decision to side-step fame for a life of “ordinary unhappiness,” as Freud put it. Even those Pepsi and Mountain Dew commercials that make most of us all feel as if we’re standing still don’t seem nearly as depressing compared to what Sandra and Jessie were  going through. So, keep those questions coming: Will Sandra actually follow through with her plans for divorce? Did she have an iron-clad pre-nuptial agreement—if that’s even possible anymore? What about her relationship with his children? How will she fare as a single mom now that she’s adopted a new baby boy? How many women has Jesse had? Is he really a sex addict or is he hopping on Tiger’s band wagon? Inquiring minds want to know.

But the biggest question of all seems to be: How in the world did such a nice girl like Bullock—America’s sweetheart—pick such a dastardly guy like James? She, the girl next door, and he the tattooed “motorcycle boy.” Recently, a psychologist on television offered that Bullock was “attracted to bad boys.” I heard the same explanation from a fellow mental health expert on the radio. Now I tend not to comment on people I don’t know personally, but we do have some pretty darn good relational theories to choose from, and since I’ve been specializing in the practice of couple’s therapy (this includes seeing my share of celebrities) for over 30 years, I thought I might weigh in on how this “type” of match “might” have developed and deteriorated. Here goes:

When I first heard the comment that Bullock was attracted to “bad boys,” I thought to myself: “way too simple.” First, this assumes that Bullock is a “good girl.” How do we know? Second, this explanation supports what I believe to be a relationship myth—that opposites attract. On the surface, opposites may attract. For example, if you’re a high strung person you might seek out a calming partner to help control your anxiety. Another example might be the not-so-uncommon match between a shy, quiet person and an outspoken one. The assertive partner may serve to express uncomfortable feelings for both mates. Fine, but this to me is surface attraction. On a deeper, usually unconscious level, I believe that we choose to enter long-term relationships with people who share with us one major internalized conflict which I refer to as the master conflict. Whether a couple fight about sex, money, in-law problems, or work related issues, this dominant conflict seems to be pulling the strings—the puppet master if-you-will.

Just what exactly is a master conflict? The master conflict is an unconscious, internal struggle—like having two politicians inside of you arguing a point and you can’t seem to decide which one to believe. Even when one side seems to be the obvious choice—which may not be that often-the other side is scoring enough points to confuse you—to make it difficult for you to make a decision. Psychoanalyst Robert Waelder once wrote: “people usually accept the inevitable and that the greatest strain seems to come from the need to make decisions.” I believe that most of us possess several internalized conflicts, but the master conflict rules. It causes us to continuously vacillate back and forth from one side to the other in an effort to control it. Here’s one example I use in my new book Magnetic Partners (Free Press): If you happen to have a master conflict about being successful, part of you will need to be “big,” but the other side of you will desire to be small. This may manifest in a mini-war in which one side of you strives for success while the other side of you knocks yourself down. Conversely, when you’re too far down, the other side of you will strive to lift you up. I refer to this as the Success vs. Sabotage (Big vs. Small) master conflict. Choosing someone with the same master conflict—which we do with uncanny radar—helps us to maintain the conflict. With regards to a conflict about success, if either partner becomes too big they will both have a hand in reducing that partner or knocking him or her down to size—but not too small a size. Choosing your twin-in-conflict thus serves as a failsafe in case one partner gets out of line. The anxiety of change and the depression that usually comes from the loss of the way things were are both avoided to a certain extent and the couple can focus on the in-laws or something else that diverts their attention from the underlying conflict.

Struggling with a master conflict has been likened to being on a see-saw in constant motion. Even when you feel you’ve reached a balance point, life may throw you off. You may, for example, receive a large promotion, or you may get laid off (more likely nowadays). Either way, the see-saw is tilted too far in one direction and all hell can break loose. There’s more to the theory, but I think you get my general drift. Anyway, in Magnetic Partners I list nineteen master conflicts (I know there’s more out there) that, if out-of-control, tend to torture couples

Okay, how can this theory help to explain what Sandra and Jesse are going through? Here’s one possibility: What if Sandra and Jesse’s master conflict was out-of-control in a big way. Think about it. Don’t you find that people seem to know exactly when to blast one another? One man I saw insisted on telling his wife he was leaving her when she was lying in a hospital bed about to enter surgery. This situation with Bullock broke at the height of her power—she had just won the Oscar—the academy giveth and Jesse tooketh away. Is this coincidental? Just maybe this couple suffered from an unruly Power vs. Powerlessness master conflict and that Jesse might have balanced Sandra’s star power with a little of his own—cruel and probably unconsciously—but definitely potent. Given this theory, Sandra isn’t so different than Jesse after all in that she may have the same conflict he does. If she were in conflict about her power she may have unconsciously chosen a man who would eventually reduce her. This alone could explain her attraction beyond the “bad boy” theory. On the other hand, James might have initially chosen Bullock to bolster his power but by humiliating the both of them, he drastically reduced both their personal and professional power quotients.

If I’m on to something, the key to a better future for both Bullock and James would be for them to get a grip on their problematic master conflict—the one that attracted them to each other and in the end—drove them apart. Whether they stay together or not, locating this conflict and its origin might prevent both from further pain and humiliation. Even if a sex addiction is present, this doesn’t negate the fact that a master conflict might still be at play. More on how to deal with these pesky master conflicts later.

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Dr. Stephen J. Betchen is a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, as well as a critically acclaimed author and regular contributor to the popular Ladies’ Home Journal column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” He currently serves as Clinical Assistant Professor at Thomas Jefferson University. For more than 25 years, Dr. Betchen has helped couples repair their relationships and reach new levels of happiness, whether they’re battling about in-laws, sex, parenting, infidelity, money, careers—or anything in between. (Case in point: He once treated folks who were at odds over the wife’s weight and the husband’s constant criticisms!) Dr. Betchen’s approach to couples therapy is refreshingly simple: He offers no gimmicks, slogans or quick fixes to nagging problems. Instead, Dr. Betchen believes that individuals change only when they discover what’s really driving their behavior—and that relationships change only when couples develop empathy for their partners and understand what really drew them together. (Turns out that physical attraction is just part of it.) Dr. Betchen provides in-depth analysis of couples’ attitudes and behavior, enabling them to see themselves and each other in a new light. And from there, he delivers real-world advice that teaches couples how to change themselves—and their relationship. Dr. Betchen is the author of numerous professional articles on relationships and makes frequent media appearances. His expert opinions often appear in national publications, including Family Circle and Men’s Health. In addition to Magnetic Partners, Dr. Betchen is the author of Intrusive Partners-Elusive Mates.