Is Petraeus Strung Out on Love?

General David Petraeus may be experiencing trauma.

Posted Nov 13, 2012


General David Petraeus—war hero and, until recently, director of the CIA—was discovered to have had an affair with a beautiful younger woman, his biographer, Paula Broadwell.  Her book's title, “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus," may in fact describe the experience Petraeus underwent.

As a result of this "indiscretion," the Obama administration requested, and received, Petraeus's resignation. Many observers all along the political spectrum wondered whether this was an overreaction.  Wasn't this a private affair, one that wouldn't impact Petraeus's work at the CIA?

On the contrary, Petraeus may have been going through the most severe trauma of his life -- including the effects of war that he had experienced in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Of course, there is the reaction he now faces from his wife of 38 years and the loss of his powerful position, as well as perhaps the admiration of colleagues and the public.  But, more critical than any of these, he confronts the experience of having pulled from underneath his feet the excitement, admiration, and obsession created by his involvement with Broadwell.

I was teaching at the Harvard Business School while writing Love and Addiction with Archie Brodsky (published in 1975).  One of my colleagues had seen an interview with me in the Boston Globe with columnist Ellen Goodman.  He cornered me in the faculty lounge and winked at me: “Right, love addiction!”  Then he walked off laughing.

Since that time, the discovery that love and sex are addictive has been an expanding universe in American psychiatry and psychology, now approaching warp speed.  As of this writing, these conditions weren’t officially included in the American Psychiatric Association’s new diagnostic manual, scheduled to appear in May of 2013.[i]  But they seem destined to be there sooner rather than later, as neuroscientists[ii], health writers,[iii] and film-makers[iv] discover the phenomena (the referenced sources are only a small reflection of their number!). 

But, come on – do sex and love really cause withdrawal?  One of my most popular posts at PT Blogs was “The 7 Hardest Addictions to Quit: Love is the Worst!” Yes, that’s right – worse than heroin, cocaine, or smoking.  Without repeating the arguments in my blogpost, let me reprint a comment from a reader:

My divorce has left me completely blindsided and affected every aspect of my life. It is something that I have struggled for years to get over and to this day cannot seem to move forward. It has literally destroyed so much of me and continues to take another piece day by day. I fear what the outcome will be in the end.

Or, from the New York Times:

In 12-step confessional style, this is what love addiction did to my life: I dropped out of college, quit my job, stopped talking to my family and friends. There was no booze to blame for my blackouts, vomiting and bed-wetting. No pills to explain the 15 hours a day I slept. No needles as excuse for my alarming weight loss.  I hit bottom one sleepless night, strung out on the bedroom floor, contemplating suicide. And then I spent four months — and a good chunk of my family's money — in treatment for love addiction.[v]

No, Petraeus had to be removed from his position because of the danger that he might become completely unhinged by the worst withdrawal known to humans. Let me turn finally to among the greatest philosophers of this experience, Leonard Cohen.  In his album, "Live in London," made in his mid-seventies, Cohen talks about last performing in London 12-15 years earlier, as a kid of 60.  He lists all the drugs he's taken -- Prozac, Ritalin, Wellbutrin, then he talks about his Buddhist experiences and beliefs.

Then he breaks into Ain't No Cure for Love, saying "it cannot easily be contradicted."

"I loved you for a long, long time, I know this love is real. It don't matter how it all went wrong, that don't change the way I feel. And I can't believe that time's gonna heal this wound I'm speaking of. There ain't no cure, there ain't no cure, there ain't no cure, there ain't no cure for love. 

I'm aching for you baby, I can't pretend I'm not. I need to see you naked in your body and your thought. I've got you like a habit and I'll never get enough. There ain't no cure, there ain't no cure, there ain't no cure for love.

All the rocket ships are climbing through the sky. The holy books are open wide, the doctors working day and night.  But they'll never ever find that cure for love. There ain't no drink, no drug, ah tell them, angels. There's nothing pure enough to be a cure for love.

I see you in the subway and I, I see you on the bus. I see you lying down with me, I see you waking up. I see your hand, I see your hair, your bracelets and your brush. And I call to you, I call to you, but I don't call soft enough. There ain't no cure, there ain't no cure, there ain't no cure for love." 


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[i] Stanton Peele, “Addiction in Society: Blinded by Biochemistry,” Psychology Today, September 1, 2010.

[ii] James Burkett and Larry Young, “The Behavioral, Anatomical and Pharmacological Parallels Between Social Attachment, Love and Addiction.” Psychopharmacology 224(1):1-26, 2012.

[iii] Lindsay Abrams, “‘Sex Addiction’ Redefined,” The Atlantic, October 19, 2012.

[iv] Pernille Gronkjaer  (director), “'Love Addict' Movie Explores Love Addiction, 'Fantasy Universe,'” Huffington Post, October 22, 2012.

[v] Rachel Yoder.  "Strung Out on Love and Checked in for Treatment,” New York Times, June 11, 2006.