Infidelity – The Petraeus Affair

In Media, Political, Social on November 15, 2012 at 12:14 pm

The best of men are only men at their very best ~ John Charles Ryle

English pastor [1816-1900]

The Director of the CIA David Petraeus, resigned on account of an affair that was exposed by an FBI investigation, with his biographer Paula Broadwell.  The cheating heart and wandering eye story is an old one, posing a grave threat to marital relationships and causing reputational damage.  What’s the point in covering this story, when there are tons of publications, both seedy and reputable that covered it with great gusto?

Different cultures treat infidelity differently.  The impact on marriage and careers differ.  The social acceptance or ridicule of non-monogamy differ in different cultures.  The religious, moral and cultural restraints to non-monogamy vary.

Here is a look at the how and why purely from an American cultural context.  It will be really exciting to translate some of this to an Indian context.  I will leave that for next time, when I am more knowledgeable of that difference.  I am simply transcribing and paraphrasing from the audio of Tom Ashbrook’s OnPoint radio podcast referenced below.  Absolutely nothing original on my part.  I find the conversations with David Buss and Pepper Schwartz insightful and explain in great detail the core of the infidelity issue.  David is an evolutionary psychologist at UT Austin and Pepper is a professor of sociology and is a sexologist at UW, Seattle.  In brief here are the questions they are addressing:

  1. why do we have affairs?
  2. what is the price we pay if we get caught?
  3. what is his fault?  what is her fault?  what is their fault?
  4. how do you avoid infidelity?

Why do we have affairs?

Infidelity appears to be a fairly common but is a deadly malaise in our society.  The shocking revelation in the Petraeus scandal is not infidelity itself, but the fact that a four star general succumbed to it.  Statistically speaking close to 30 to 50% of couples who are in a committed relationship step out of bounds of their commitment.  About 75% of males and 65% women say that they will have an affair if they have the promise of not getting caught or the consequence of their action is zero.  Apparently the cultural upbringings, the religious restraints and the fear to commit a moral transgression anchors us strongly in a monogamous relationship.  As one caller stated it well:

There is something much greater than “what she does not know will not hurt her”.  There is the “what I know will hurt me” that stops me short of going astray.

This alludes to the variety of restraints and deterrents quoted above.   However, we are a mildly non-monogamous animal and under the right circumstances we seem to yield to the temptations of the wandering eye.  Women appear to be sexually attracted to high-status men, according to David Buss the evolutionary psychologist.  He says it is a human universal theme.  Here is the kicker though:

 High-status men are not only attracted to younger and physically attractive women but have evolved psychological mechanism to think that they are entitled to sexual access to other women.

David says, the desire for variety exist in both men and women but more so in high-status men.  The desire probably exists in all men, but who acts on it is different and I am not sure if all high-status men act in this bestial way.  Jimmy Carter famously said – I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.  The huge difference is that he did not commit adultery, he just kept it bottled up.  He never acted on his desires.

Men commit adultery because they can.  Historically, if women expressed their sexual freedom then they would have to pay for it with their lives.  History it appears, sets another set of restraints for women that it does not for men!  That history is reversed now.  Statistically speaking, young women are as non-monogamous as young men.  The gender based difference in infidelity rates are narrowing.  Their genes have not changed but opportunity, privacy and most importantly their independent access to money and career have.  This is certainly the case in any developed nation with near-zero gender bias in education and career,  all other things being equal.

It is increasingly tough to participate in a life long monogamous relationship with the destruction of religious and moral bindings and a prevalent sex-saturated culture around us.

Price we pay

Infidelity wreaks havoc on marriages.  After an affair is exposed about 50% recover from it and the remaining 50% go through bitter divorce.  It qualifies as the number one reason behind divorces in the United State.  Although the evolutionary psychologist requests that we broaden the scope of our empathy and show some of it to folks leading lives of quite desperations and having their desires unfulfilled, I am of the opinion that such a widening might be plain misinterpreted as a sufficient condition for violating marital promise of monogamy.  The comments section is rife with painful afterlives of sons and daughters feeling the repercussions of their parents’ misdemeanors decades later.  That bitterness is reflected in one of the comments:

A good friend advised me in some of my darkest moments that “we drink the poison of bitterness, thinking that it will poison someone other than ourselves.”

Back to Petraeus, the CIA has some quirky egregious rules that were instrumental in his resignation, the first one applies here:

  1. Petraeus’ resignation has protected him from blackmail by his mistress
  2. Investigating foreigners engaged in relationships with CIA employees
  3. Intelligence officers found to be gay lost their clearances or even their jobs

Since the passage of the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, the agencies’ security units have had the legal authority to enforce such proscriptions.

His faults, her faults and their faults

Petraeus was not involved with a “babe” as one might refer to a greenhorn intern, but a colleague he could consider his peer.  A women of accomplishment and status.  A woman who was probably as much of an agent in her own behalf as much as he was.  He is probably thinking while having this magical elixir that he has paid his dues, to both country and family, that this is his moment and he deserves it.  In this highly adrenalized state of not just sexual passion but emotional passion, they are both is this stylized bubble of intimacy that blows the rest of the competition away.

The benefits, the rewards and the pleasures, are immediate, there is an instant gratification.  The reputational damage and the destruction on the marriage come much later and are uncertain.  Benefits are immediate and certain, the costs come much later and are uncertain.  Some cases of infidelity go unnoticed and are never exposed, the cost in this case is zero.  The risk of getting caught is higher, the longer the affair proceeds.  However, when people are in a state of sexual arousal, they discount the future.  Their decision making gets altered.

Men get into this situation because it is profoundly exciting and they want it.  Women get into it because love is lurking just below the surface of sexual arousal.  They were attracted to the man for other reasons, but the longer it goes on, the oxytosin and dopamine hormones that are designed to get them to commit, love and show attachment fuse the bonds.  They get wrapped in these harmones and they are off.  This is something that does not happen to the man who is transgressing.  So he tends to be an agile prowler.

The motivation for the affair is different for men and women.  For men the desire for sexual variety, the novelty, the sexual motivation per se is the key driving force for the affair.  For women it’s different.  They not only fall in love but over time they are dissatisfied with their current marriages.  For men who have affairs and men who do not have affairs, there is no statistical difference in their marital dissatisfaction.  For women it’s different.  A prediction here would be Paula Broadwell was generally unhappy with her current marriage and partner and thats not the case with General Petraeus.

The gender gap in infidelity rates are fast closing.  As women gain access to their own independent resources, enter the workplace and occupy positions of power,  they are in a position to act on their desires.  They have the same opportunities as men and they have similar desires for variety.  This may be true in the US but I cannot say the same is true in India.

Women are not arm candy anymore. They are mirrors for men and pose a particular appeal to the narcissist male.  The more confident the man is, he thinks he deserves her, he has a history of accomplishment, why stop in this sinful category?  He thinks he can handle it and hence wants it.  This is also true for women.  Men in turn become mirrors to the woman looking with pride at her own self.  They are the narcissist women.

Narcissim is self-love. 85% do not believe in non-monogomy, but the statistics around what they do is completely different.  We keep our moral judgement and behavior separate.  Approximately 70% of both men and women feel a desire for a partner outside of their marriage, but the issue is will they act on that desire?  Narcissism is a good predictor of if they would act on their desires.  Narcissistic men and women will act out their desires much more than folks who are not.  And those who stay within the bounds of monogamy, are deterred due to fear of reputational damage and the fear of destroying their marriage.

75% guys, 65% of women say they will have an affair if there is a guarantee that there will be no consequences.  But if there are consequences, they do understand compassions, understand loyalty and are loathe to exact the pain and anguish infidelity may cause their partners.  Grand passion allows them to bypass that moral obligation, but it is there, even if some people want to push it away.

Feeling the same rush for the things you care for is what brings the cheating couple together.  the colleagueship poses to be the great risk for marriage in our modern times:  Getting to like each others mind.  Feeling that you are both part of the same system.  The same rush of enthusiasm for the things you care about.  The six minute mile in the case of Paula.  When you get into admiring everyday colleagueship, desire turns into something deeper.  Desire, sex and love all fuse together into an exotic and powerful form of attachment.

Privacy, opportunity, status and peer relationship have come together to give rise to a new historic formulation for infidelity.  

The peer helps you believe that you and I are uber-people together.  We are both A-types.  We deserve each other.  We commune with each other at all these levels, including lust and desire .  The lust for power that women had through men, is now given way for the man to see a reflection of himself in this woman:

My relationship with this woman is not based on her domestic ability of 30+ years, I see a new power creature and it is exciting.

how to avoid it?

Pepper Shwartz, the sexologist has some tips to bring back the spice into your marriage and stem the wandering eye syndrome.  She warns us that she sees a lot of married couples who think that their healthy relationship no longer depends on sex, leaving the door wide open for the wandering eye syndrome:

  1. do not put your relationship on automatic pilot
  2.  be sexually and emotionally engaged with each other
  3. have dates, however hackneyed that may sound
  4. be lovers, do not turn into parents or efficient work units all the time
  5.  make sure the romance, the intimacy and the connection does not go away.

What about those that are trying to recover from a bout of the affair?  Pepper has this advice:

  1. get a third party involved
  2. get into therapy to find out why it happened
  3.  learn how to forgive
  4.  find out the key that opened the door and then make sure you lock it
  5. couples who have gone through it and have come out better and stronger knew how to be better lovers

And yes, she is convinced that Petraeus and Holly will survive this difficult situation.

David Buss, professor of psychology at University of Texas- Austin, known for his evolutionary psychology research on human sex differences and human relationships. Author of “The Evolution of Desire” and “The Dangerous Passion.” His latest book, co-authored with Cindy Meston, is: “Why Women Have Sex.”

Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology and sexologist teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle. National Love & Relationship Expert & Ambassador for AARP and writes the column The Naked Truth. Author of “Love Between Equals” and “The Gender of Sexuality.” Co-author, with Philip Blumstein, of “American Couples: Money-Work-Sex”


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James Bond – sexist pig Captain Nemo The Hijras of India


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