Melissa Ritter, Ph.D.

CIA Director David Petraeus abruptly resigned November 9th citing his “extremely poor judgment” for “engaging in an extramarital affair.” He described his behavior as “unacceptable…as a husband and…leader…” (Petraeus resignation letter). I was stunned. I kept waiting to hear the more: that he had sexually harassed a subordinate, that he had compromised national security, that he had installed his lover as a government employee. But no. It appears, thus far, that the retired General has been fervently involved with a woman other than his wife and, well, that’s it.

 The affair was discovered when Jill Kelley, a friend of the Petreaus’, filed a complaint with the FBI about being harassed by Petraeus’ jealous girlfriend, Paula Broadwell. This does suggest inflamed, perhaps dangerous, passion. A possible love triangle. Excellent material for a bodice-ripper, but deserving of front-page billing?

Of course, the story is just breaking, so there may be more. Further investigation may reveal actual security lapses. But, so far, it appears to be a purely domestic matter, with only those directly involved—Petreaus, his wife and family, Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley—having access to what “really” transpired, and any entitlement to feelings of injury, indignation, disappointment, and the like.

This is only the most recent example of the shaming of a public figure for what our society deems unacceptable sexual activity. Just think of the extended shaming of Bill Clinton! Tabloid headlines like “C.I.A.: Caught In the Act” (Daily News) salaciously revel in detailing character failing presumed so pervasive it requires otherwise intelligent and talented people to forgo their careers. Never mind the immense value they might offer in their professional lives.

Is there a reason public figures should not be allowed private lives, as long as they do not break the law or jeopardize others? I cannot think of one.

Our society, as represented by mass media, government officials, and religious leaders is, often enough, consumed with the idea that each of us must conform to a narrowly defined idea of how our sexual, romantic and family lives should unfold. Most of us struggle, mightily, to live up to expectation. And suffer when we “fail.”

We all know, or have heard about, the man who is attached to his long-time partner as a companion, perhaps someone with whom he has children, but falls in love with someone else, or seeks sexual excitement with others. A familiar story in which the focal character is typically met with scorn. We have all overheard, or participated in, the water-cooler whispers of “how could he?” and “what was he thinking?”

This, despite the fact, that there is much controversy about how possible, or even preferable, it is for any of us to do romantic relationships the way we’re “supposed” to. Helen Fisher, PhD, a prominent anthropologist, offers evidence that our brains are hard-wired to seek sex and romance with other than our primary partner (Helen Fisher). And that love’s potency is linked to neurochemical activity.

Fisher's research suggests that our brain allows—indeed, might well be engineered toward—simultaneous sexual/romantic engagement and long-term attachment, with two, and sometimes more, different partners.

There is a persistent effort to force people to hew a narrow course of “acceptable” behavior in the domain of sex and romance, labeling those who stray as “immoral,” “weak,” and the dubious “psychologically unstable.” For who other than someone with so-called mental health issues would risk their families and careers for the gratification of desire?

Desire and love are powerful internal experiences, sometimes felt as virtually irresistible. They are the source of ecstatic pleasure and abject misery. Music (love songs!), dance, theater, visual art…all celebrate, as well as lament, the intensity with which they can overcome. And while they may be labeled affliction, they are, in fact, just one part of what it is to be human.

There are, in theory, an infinite number of ways to construct one’s sexual and romantic life. As a culture, we profess allegiance to monogamy, typically heterosexual, though more recently we’ve broadened our views to include homosexual couplings as well. With some reluctance. But common benchmarks of domestic stability remain the picket fence, SUV in the driveway, and ‘til death do us part.

Clinical work with gay men has taught me much about possible alternatives. In my experience, it is more common for gay men to permit desire for more than one person, than for heterosexual people to do so. There are various ways of incorporating this openness into the construction of a partnered relationship: allowing each member of the couple to have sexual relationships with others, inviting one or more other people into the relationship on either a short or long term basis, or proceeding as serially monogamous, while remaining friends with former partners.

These are all creative and workable solutions, for some. For others, monogamy is essential for the relationship to feel safe and stable. And people may change how they feel about these issues as they age, or as they find new loves. The point is there is no “right” way to do it. People are complicated. And how we choose to love is no one’s business but our own.

Melissa Ritter, Ph.D. is Supervisor of Psychotherapy and Faculty at the William Alanson White Institute in New York City. She is co-Editor of the blog Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action, and Associate Editor for Contemporary Psychoanalysis. She is also the founder of the William Alanson White Institute LGBT Study Group. Dr. Ritter works with adolescents, adults and couples in private practice.

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