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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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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.

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. 

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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