General Petraeus should not have resigned. In fact, I wish the president had said, “Sorry General, I do not accept. Now, get back to work.”
I’m not going to pretend I understand the goings-on of the FBI and the CIA, and the more I read about the Petraeus scandal, the more I realize that a lot of the hubbub has to do with the pecking order of who knew what when and how. That’s a whole different issue and has more to do with the handling of delicate information than it does the affair itself.
Now, of course, there are real concerns about why resignation might be in order for someone in his position–compromising national security among them. But at this point, the FBI has found only personal drama, and no security issues connected with the affair (says CBS news).
Let’s Look at What’s Really Bothering You
So let’s take the security issues off the table for now and get to the part that makes headlines, namely that a man of power had an extramarital affair with his young, beautiful biographer. It’s hardly surprising, and yet we seem to be endlessly scandalized by it when it happens. What’s on trial right now (even if Petraeus is not and likely won’t be), is his affair. This is yet more evidence that our reaction to cheating in our culture remains way over the top. While the idea of cheating can be overly romanticised by videos found on websites similar to Nu Bay com, losing your job and ending your career over a sexual affair is ridiculous and incongruous and shouldn’t happen. Period.
We love to be scandalized by the falls from grace–by politicians, war heroes, celebrities. We can’t believe this could happen to them in a way, because who’s more brilliant, more beautiful, more impervious than they are? We’re shocked that a smart, family man or woman would dare take such a risk, or that someone with a rock solid marriage would ever need to seek sex outside the marriage. We think they “should know better.” Wha? Anyone over the age of 12 probably “knows” better. These two people made a choice that, now that they’re outed, they have to say was a mistake, something they just shouldn’t have done. And if there was ever a way for us to know, and there isn’t, what really went on between them, I’d say that wasn’t a mistake at all–the mistake was in letting it get out.
When are we going to stop being scandalized, and instead realize that this happens–to lots and lots of people. Not because society is going down the toilet or because something has changed, but because in fact NOTHING has.
The fact is that human behavior hasn’t changed, and won’t anytime soon. People have been having affairs for as long as anyone can remember. What’s changed or is changing is our response to it, and it is, slowly. At one time you would be (and in some cultures still will be) stoned to death by your own neighbors for such a crime. Today, barring the chance that a jealous lover takes matters into his or her own hands, chances are you won’t be killed for your affair. And if the threat of death didn’t deter people in darker times, the threat of divorce or embarrassment won’t either, and doesn’t.
It doesn’t matter where you went to school, or how much you earn, or how beautiful you or your spouse is. How smart or sophisticated or loving you are. Of course, your affair will get a lot more national attention if you’re a four-star general, but accountants and school teachers and policemen have found themselves in this same predicament. I don’t think they’re bad people because of it. The thing is, we like to THINK that General Petraeus has a stronger moral character or is better than us and can’t possibly fall prey to this. And the panic arises when we realize that if that guy or that woman can’t resist that temptation, than how can any of us? Indeed. That is the question.
This isn’t to say that everyone cheats, or that everyone should. The numbers are pretty high, though (by some accounts, 60% of men and 40% of women cheat). But it also doesn’t mean that having an extramarital affair should spell the end of your marriage, your career, or your life.
The Question of Monogamy
Why this hang up over sex? While we’re drawn to monogamy, and still hold it up as the ideal and the only way to love (which I don’t agree with either), we’re not all that great at it. Some say we’re not even actually built for it (check out Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan). We continue to hold ourselves and others to a standard that few of us can adhere to. And punish ourselves harshly for it.
The very idea that you should lose your job, your career (especially in Petraeus’s case, who isn’t exactly a replaceable employee) over a sexual affair is ludicrous to me. You think, well, he might have put us in danger. Perhaps. And yet, we may be in far more danger because he’s no longer at his post.
Think I’m cynical? Hardly. I don’t see cynicism as the answer or the best response, either. Assuming that everyone will cheat and the world is going to hell in a handbasket is not the goal or the panacea. In fact, I believe we should have a far less cynical and more realistic, sex-positive approach to the role of sex in our lives and relationships. We still cling to this false and fantasy-driven idea that this can’t or shouldn’t happen–that you can’t love someone, you can’t want and maintain a decades-long relationship, and yet want or seek out sex elsewhere. And yet, we can–and do. But it shouldn’t spell the end of everything if that happens.
The Thing Everyone Says (Especially Women)
Then comes the quaint complaint of the simpler minded: “If you’re going to cheat, why not just get a divorce first?”
I’ll tell you why: Because in many cases, people have no desire to end their marriages. They love their spouses. In fact, many of the people who have affairs outside the marriage are in fact quite happy in most areas of their relationship. They don’t want to end their marriage. And why should they? Why is it more ok in our culture to upend and tear asunder a rich and valuable, years-long life together than it is to want or god forbid act on the desire to have sex someone else? This is not ok.
We put far, far too much stake in the idea of sexual exclusivity than serves us or our relationships. Yes, you can love your spouse and want to keep what you have and still be drawn to and want sex with someone else. Eric Anderson, PhD, author of The Monogamy Gap, says that the reason why men cheat (his study focused on men specifically) is simple: It’s a rational response to an irrational situation. We hold the bar far too high, and then wonder why we come up short. Again and again.
Does this mean I endorse any and all cheating? That I’m all, Sure, yeah, go ahead, what the hell? Of course not. It’s a serious and risky choice to make, and one I’m convinced no one wants to hear about, namely the spouse. We don’t want it flaunted in our faces, and we don’t want to feel rejected or embarrassed by it. But that doesn’t mean that when this happens, and it does happen, it has to spell the end of a relationship–and certainly not the end of your life.