Sex Esteem

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How Could Petraeus Betray Us? Infidelity Unmasked

Decoding the Latest Scandal and What It Teaches You about Spouses who Cheat

David and Holly Petraeus at West Point
Since the discovery of David Petraeus' affair with Paula Broadwell, I keep reading and hearing that  "it's beyond shocking" that the now former head of the CIA would have betrayed his wife since he was a gentleman and a consummate family man. People talk about his high standards of discipline, intelligence and leadership and are in awe that a man who was presented as so upstanding could be unfaithful to his wife.

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There are a few questions this story presents. One is whether he was unfaithful to the country and whether a private situation like infidelity warrants this much public attention. There was some speculation that he could have compromised sensitive private documents. There is also little known law called the Uniform Code of Military Justice that he broke which states that it is illegal and punishable by court martial and/or revocation of one's pension if a service person has an affair while in service. Although this law is not enforced very frequently it illustrates that military personal are held to a higher standard than non-military folks.

 

There are also the speculations that he quit his post as head of CIA because he was avoiding having to testify in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Bengahzi attacks thus avoiding the embarrassment and shame of discovery that Petraeus could have prevented the lives lost there.

But I don't think this is why he quit and I don't think this is why it's getting so much attention. I think there may be other personal secrets that he wants to prevent the public from knowing because it would hurt his family further. For example, this may not be the first time he's had an affair but in fact, the first time it was discovered. There are those spouses in the military who believe that their partners are more at risk for affairs due to the many months spent away from home, the stresses of the military and the alcohol abuse which is more prevalent in the military. Perhaps he had been able to keep previous affairs private or perhaps he had a non-monogamy agreement with his wife about which the public will never know. 

 

In addition, for a man like Petraeus who is an expert at keeping highly sensitive information secret, the exposure of the affair may have been just as, if not more embarrassing to him as the fact that he had been cheating. How good could he be with secrets if his own were leaked because of his lover's jealousy. Does it show him as a man who could not maintain control? I think he quit because he is a perfectionist who could not respect himself for the exposure of a common weakness. The revelation has robbed him of the respect and honor he feels should be expressed by the CIA Director in every area of his life.

 

However,  I think the media frenzy going on has a lot to do with the Greek tragedy-type narrative that features taboo sex, a powerful person brought down by his own flaw. That's all. Americans love the soap opera story line of affairs, and the schaudenfreude feeling of enjoyment watching someone else's train wreck, not theirs.

The tragic hero in this latest version (like John Edwards and Bill Clinton before him) is a successful general who had reached the pinnacle of success in his field yet was tempted by a woman with whom he was in close contact. As in those other stories the "other" woman was attractive and ostensibly lavished much praise and adoration on Petraeus which can be a huge erotic trigger for many men. It's not that this affair was so shocking but that in fact so expected.  The twist in this story is that his lover was also married and highlights the point that it is not just men who have affairs although that is more of what we hear about in the media.    

That is not to say I condone breaking a contract of monogamy. I just think it's unrealistic to hold some men or women to a higher standard of fidelity than the rest of us. In fact, this rendition of infidelity should be presented differently in the media. It should be another warning that each person who agrees to a monogamous relationship needs to be more conscious of the situations in which they put themselves.  The affair also brings to light the question of sexuality in long term marriages and whether partners begin to take one another for granted or avoid sexual contact for long periods of time without an agreement.  However, Americans have a very difficult time discussing their sexual needs or accepting sexual differences so the subject of sex very often becomes the white elephant in the room. 

 

In this case, when Petraeus was spending so much one on one time with a woman to whom he was sexually attracted he should have been more honest with himself that he was in hot water. This was his first warning sign to keep a formal physical distance. When he then discovered that he and Paula Broadwell had so much in common and that she showed such acute interest in his life it must have made him feel rejuvenated and more virile. At this point he would have become more aware of his body's signals, his imagination's erotic fantasies. If he had been more conscious of these warning signs he would have had to realize that he's human just like everyone else and made every effort to call off the agreement to be interviewed by her for the biography. Unfortunately, he ignored these signs and perhaps believed his own press. He believed he was Superman Gentleman, the superhero who could resist his own sexual urges for a seemingly willing and eager lover. Or he had become entitled enough to think that he could have an affair and believed he was intelligent enough to keep it hidden.   

 

Sari Cooper, L.C.S.W., is a licensed couples and sex therapist and writer in New York City.

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