There are many moments during “The Kardashians” this season that emphasize the family’s unrelatability – cashmere-lined jets, Sports Illustrated covers, Panchakarma cleanses and sprawling new mansions. But the season’s final episode showed us in part why the Kardashians’ appeal endures, documenting the fallout from Tristan Thompson’s last public episode of infidelity and the ways in which the sisters wrestle with betrayal, trust and healing. It was a depiction of universal challenges in striving for healthy relationships.
Khloé spoke about trauma, saying she felt publicly and privately humiliated by Thompson’s chronic deceptions, but also numb and desensitized. Kim spoke about growth, presumably referencing the end of her marriage to Kanye West, declaring during a family meeting that she’s gotten to a place where “if you bring bad energy into my life, a boundary goes up.” Khloé and Kim connected on motherhood , expressing the lengths each went to preserve their relationship for their children. At the end of the episode, Scott and Khloé discuss whether they can avoid carrying old wounds into new relationships, with Khloé replying, “I think we totally can find people we can trust,” but past experiences mean they’ll probably love “differently.”
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“They are operating in a completely different economic sphere, a celebrity sphere, all these kinds of things that are far separated from regular people. However, I don’t think that by any means makes it either unrelatable, irrelevant, potentially uninteresting or not instructive,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “I don’t think we’d have kept watching this whole time if everything they did was completely separate from our experience. It would’ve become meaningless.”
USA TODAY spoke with three mental health experts, Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly,” Rachel Sussman, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert in New York City, and Dr. Ramani Durvasula, an expert on narcissism, about lessons on healthy versus unhealthy relationships in Thursday’s finale.
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‘Repeated infidelity…takes a heavy toll’
The final episode of “The Kardashians” is dominated by the family’s reaction to the revelation that Thompson fathered another child while still in a relationship with Khloé, who disclosed earlier in the season that she and Thompson were working to rebuild trust. Cameras capture audio of Khloé distraught before Kim waves them off.
“Repeated infidelity – whether it is physical or emotional – takes a heavy toll on mental health,” Manly said. “Given that we need to be able to trust our partners fully in order to feel safe and loved, a partner who does not act faithful and loyal will create a pernicious sense of unsafety in the relationship. … Particularly given that the world at large often feels unsafe and unsettling, it is especially important that we feel safe within our romantic partnerships.”
After her initial display of emotion, Khloé largely appears stoic, saying at one point that she’s “emotionally exhausted.”
“I’ve done this so many times now,” she says. “There are no more tears left to cry.”
Durvasula said repeated infidelity can foster a sense of self-blame, self-doubt, anxiety, rumination, regret, confusion, depression, irritability, distraction and difficulty sleeping or eating.
“It pulls a person out of their lives,” she said.
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Sussman said based on work in her clinical practice, she believes a relationship can recover from a single episode of infidelity. Multiple infidelities, however, can indicate a deep-rooted psychological problem. A person who is cheating chronically needs immediate help, she said, and that may include rehab.
“Even then it’s complicated whether (the relationship) can go forward,” she said.
Boundaries are essential for healthy relationships
During a family meeting to discuss Thompson, Kim says she’s learned the importance of setting boundaries, which mental health experts say are essential for any healthy relationship.
“When we do not have healthy boundaries, those who prefer to have their own needs met – regardless of what is healthy for others – will often simply proceed in ways that feel easiest for them,” Manly said.
As difficult as it can be to set healthy boundaries, Manly said, it is the only way that safe and trusting relationships are formed in the long run.
Sussman said setting boundaries can look like saying, “No, we’re not spending all of our time together,” or “No, you can’t talk to me this way,” or “No, it’s not OK that you expect that of me.”
Sussman says infidelity is “the ultimate boundary violation.”
Giving second chances isn’t weak, but it can be risky
“Second Chances” is a prominent theme in the episode. Kourtney says during the family meeting that they “are people who would actually get Tristan help.” Khloé says she’s a proponent of giving people multiple chances to better themselves.
Durvasula said offering second chances isn’t weak, but it can be risky.
“The more toxic a person is, the greater the number of times they have committed the same mistakes and betrayals, the more likely they are to do it again,” she said. “Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.”
Experts say it is possible to offer people second chances in healthy ways, but the offending person needs to be committed to change and the person desiring change needs realistic expectations.
“Once we are very clear on our needs, it’s important to express the needs and boundaries in a direct and calm way,” Manly said. “This sets the stage for others to have clarity on precisely what is expected. After that, it is the other person’s choice to either honor the request or ignore it.”
In the episode, Kim and Khloé discuss how they worked hard on their relationships to keep their families together. Mental health experts say staying together for the benefit of the children is only healthy as long as the parents remain healthy role models.
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After repeated betrayals, working to heal
During the episode, Khloé stresses that one of the most difficult things about Thompson’s infidelity is the accompanying public reaction and judgment.
The Kardashians have become part of the fabric of American culture, and in sharing their lives have invited scrutiny and critique. They have been accused multiple times of cultural appropriation, of promoting unrealistic beauty standards, of being deeply out of touch. Everyone has an opinion on what Khloé deserves and has tolerated.
Thompson said those opinions may be the price celebrities pay for the wealth and status they’ve achieved, but Durvasula says the judgment and vitriol directed at Khloé for decisions she makes in her romantic relationship are largely unwarranted.
“Each of us has to hit our rock bottom in a relationship at our own pace, and we don’t get to judge that for someone else,” she said. “It is never the fault of the cheat-ee that the cheater cheated. The cheater could have ended the relationship before having sex with someone else, could have said no to sex. Cheating is a choice.”
Near the end of the episode, Khloé tells Scott she is hopeful she’ll be able to trust another partner again.
“Given that we turn to our partners for safety, love, and acceptance, it is extraordinarily painful to find that a partner has betrayed your trust,” Manly said. “In order to not carry unprocessed wounds from a betrayal into a new relationship, it is extremely important to do the self-work necessary to heal.”