Deconstructing (Electronic) Infidelity

What l’affaire Petraeus tells us about sex, intimacy and "cheating."

Posted Nov 13, 2012

Their infidelity was no surprise

What’s the most surprising thing about the recently revealed affair between hyper-achieving West Point and Harvard graduate, Petraeus biographer and wife and mother of two Paula Broadwell and her four-star general subject? Perhaps the fact that anyone is surprised by it at all.

Sure, this story has twists and turns galore—for example, not only does it involve Broadwell, the “other woman,” but then there’s Jill Kelly, the other other woman. Having cried foul about emails she received from Broadwell telling her to “stay away from her man,” (according to the New York Post) she blew the whistle on Broadwell. But it turns out this Tampa-based “unpaid and unofficial military social liaison” and possible victim of cyber harassment had blown the whistle on herself as well—the inquiry eventually revealed that she was possibly embroiled in an email relationship with General Petraeus’s four-star replacement in the Afghani field of operations—General John Allen. Don’t forget about the FBI agent initially assigned to l’affair Broadwell/Kelly—he ended up sending shirtless photos of himself to Kelly.

But aside from such credulity-stretching narrative elements (one fiction writer told me, “If I pitched a story like this to my agent or editor, they would tell me ‘It’s totally improbable. Come up with something people can believe.’”), many a sex therapist, couples therapist or sex researcher will nod their heads in recognition, seeing only the sameness, the recycling of all the typical elements of human sexual behavior in this “extraordinary” story. Protracted physical separation from a spouse or partner; thrill-seeking; narcissism and a sense of being above censure; the intoxication of being desired by someone in power or someone with power; the thrill of being admired—all are factors that experts on the topic tell us can increase the likelihood of “cheating” on a spouse or life partner.

There is one (relatively) new and unexpected element in this Peyton Place-esque tale of love and betrayal, and it is technology. For another main character in l’affaire Petraeus is certainly email. One gets a sense that the heady exchanges that took place wouldn’t have been the same, exactly, in person or on the phone. The emails had the power of the love letters exchanged by Abelard and Heloise, perhaps—but they were likely all the more fraught and intoxicating because of their immediacy. Manhattan-based psychoanalyst Rachel Blakeman observes that email and texting are changing not just the way people express themselves, but are actually impacting the way we form and maintain relationships. Petraeus and Broadwell emailed with each other after in-person meetings and trysts, of course. And Allen and Kelly knew one another socially. But even glancing encounters can be heightened into intimacy (or faux-intimacy) owing to the immediacy of email and the erotic charge of words. Blakeman explains:

“In a busy and often disconnected global culture, many men and women meet their desire for intimacy through email relationships. The difficulty is that email correspondence is fertile ground for fantasy, making it difficult to know how much of the closeness experienced is actually to the writer -- the man or woman engaged in the correspondence. Patients have had their hearts broken by men or women they've never met or people about whom they know little, but who nevertheless come to represent the perfect person to meet all of their needs. It is especially easy to make these assumptions and misassumptions and projections via email.”

From l’affaire Petraeus we learn not only that infidelity can shock us yet be utterly unsurprising, but also that email is a powerful, seductive and frequently cruel mistress.

More Posts