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Petraeus’ Scandal: Three Alternative Views

As lawyers say, exceptional cases make bad law. The director of the CIA having an affair in which, at best, he lacked the wherewithal to keep the secret secret (isn’t he supposed to excel at secrets?) and, at worst, disclosed sensitive information to his lover as pillow talk definitely constitutes an exceptional case in the annals of extramarital sex. 

This is also turning out to be a uniquely lurid nest of indiscretions among the top brass.

Nonetheless, there are alternative ways to react to this story, and lessons to be learned for the rest of us.

It’s not that promises don’t matter, but that we’re making the wrong promises. Many have marveled at Petraeus’ stupidity or obtuseness that he had an affair in the first place, with so much at stake.

You could just as easily conclude that the affair isn’t proof of his stupidity so much as of monogamy’s frailty. Even someone with everything to lose has an affair.

These scandals are always an opportunity to broaden the conversation about marital monogamy and expectations, rather than to deliver rote outrage about infidelity, or to hammer away with futile remorselessness about Petraeus’ moral perfidy and bad judgment.

But promises and vows in marriage matter, those who are personally upset about Petraeus explain.

I agree. That’s why it’s important to make promises and vows that you’ve thought about long and hard, and that you have every intention and ability to keep, rather than making promises by default.

If you have doubts as to whether you think absolute, lifelong marital monogamy is such a good promise to make, then it’s better to say so, because the promise matters. And if, later in the marriage, you feel the promise’s grip loosening on your conscience, best to have the difficult conversation and revisit it, rather than let things devolve into a blackmail-able or personally devastating thicket of lies. 

You could promise to give monogamy your best shot—and then not to lie if it doesn’t work. Maybe a pre-nuptial sexual Plan B sounds unromantic, but it’s better than a post-nuptial Plan Z of deceit and ruin.

You could promise to be monogamous for some time, and then revisit the matter. Or you could promise to be honest, even if you do have an affair. Or you could opt not to choose monogamy and to have an openly non-monogamous relationship.

“It never works!” skeptics will tell you. But apparently monogamy doesn’t “work” in a conspicuous number of cases, either.  

At the least, we’ve reached a point where couples shouldn’t just assume a vow of monogamy. They should be more deliberate and self-conscious in choosing it—or choosing another kind of promise.

We over-react to infidelity.  Two people having a consensual, sexual love affair isn’t the worst thing that can happen in the world. I could name thousands of worse things that people are doing to each other.

We over-react to infidelity despite the fact that anyone who’s reached middle age with their eyes wide open has probably come to a quiet realization that affairs of the heart, and marriage, are complex, and that it’s possible to desire and even love more than one person at a time.  Many of us have been on one or the other, or both, sides of infidelity by mid-life or old age.

Too much has gotten freighted on to the condemnation of infidelity. The wife who forgives is judged a patsy or too weak to kick her husband to the curb. She has no “self-respect.” The spouse who strays just becomes a villain.

We’re so accustomed to thinking in cartoons about sexual morality that healing, understanding, or the humane, messy business of forgiveness and empathy is hard to achieve.

Another assumption fueling the infidelity over-reaction is that affairs are about wounding the spouse and acting out. Affairs might indeed end up hurting the betrayed spouse (Holly Petraeus is apparently “beyond furious”), but that’s not necessarily why they begin. Like as not they begin because people find each other in the workplace, or socially. They share things in common, they spark each other’s desires. In some cases, one or both people’s devotion to their marriage, respect for the fidelity vow, or inconvenience and fear prevent consummation.

In other cases the crush might become a full-blown love affair.  It doesn’t begin with an urge to maim the marriage. It begins from human impulses to seek connections and intimacies.

One price we pay for having freedoms and personal responsibility is that sometimes people make mistakes.

Affairs are not public affairs. Maybe we just need to pull the blinds back down on other people’s sex lives.

The pervasive spirit of opposition research holds that any dirt is available to be dug, and relevant to know. I wish we’d revert to the pre-1970s tradition of letting some things happen behind closed doors.

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Granted, the Petraeus scandal may have more legitimate national security relevance, but in most cases the relevance of the affair to public affairs is indiscernible.  

One argument holds that private betrayals are probative of global character flaws. If he lied to his wife, he’d lie to us. Some even question whether this affair will taint Petraeus’ entire stellar career and tactical brilliance.

Of course it shouldn’t. Character contains multitudes. Don’t we see this every day with people we know, who have exemplary behavior in some ways, and not so in others? Petraeus’ mistake in one area doesn’t retroactively discredit his accomplishments in others. 


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