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Did Power Cause Petraeus to Cheat on His Wife?

By November 13, 2012

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Let's get one thing straight: there's no excuse for cheating on your wife. You may argue that "my needs were not being met," "I was being taken for granted and not appreciated," or "she's let herself go and I don't find her attractive anymore," but going elsewhere never solves the problem back home. So don't expect sympathy or understanding because you won't get any.

It doesn't matter whether you're married to Elin Nordegren Woods or Holly Petraeus. There's no excuse for cheating on your wife.

But there is precedence.

And this is why -- although we're all sickened by the story of a powerful man cheating on his wife -- it comes as no surprise that it has happened once again. The only shock is that the man behind the headlines is (now former) CIA head Gen. David Petraeus, long regarded as a model of restraint, discipline and integrity.

What made him stray? Can we blame it on power? It's not an excuse, but it is a mitigating factor.

Historically speaking, for centuries unfettered sexual conquest was the privilege men seized upon when they came into power.

Historian Laura Betzig traces this power/sex connection as far back as 6,000 years, and cites numerous examples throughout the ages. In ancient China, a man's power and status was reflected in the number of women he kept; middle class men might have 3-4 concubines while great princes kept hundreds. According to Betzig, "The point of politics is sex."

More recently, the Washington Post labeled this flaw "a leader's sexual hubris" and asked experts to opine on why so many leaders confuse power with sexual charisma.

Gen. Petraeus no longer lives in a world in which to the victor goes the spoils, which in the past would have included women. But like most contemporary men, he turned his back on his wife of 38 years and chose a younger model. His conquest was his biographer Paula Broadwell, a woman who could keep up with him and his five-mile runs and who displayed her formidable guns during an interview with Jon Stewart. (The segment, which included a push-up contest during which Broadwell crushed Stewart, in restrospect feels creepy-crawly feel and tawdry, and Petraeus's mistress comes across less as a serious biographer and more as a flounce-adorned dominatrix.)

This is not to say that Paula Broadwell is entirely to blame. After all, it takes two to tango. But she fits the stereotype of the woman you'd expect a man to cheat with: sexy, younger, provocative, challenging. The one quality she possesses that runs counter to the power/sex dynamic as played out through the centuries is this: she seems as physically powerful as Petraeus, and if there was conquest involved the capitulation and surrender appear to have been mutual.

So what does that leave us with? Sadly, the same old story. Blame it on history, blame it on biology, blame it on opportunity and availability. But we have the cheating man fallen from glory, the scorned wife furious and humiliated, the public enjoying it even we gasp at the thought that such a respected man has erred.

In the end, it doesn't matter what she looked like, what he did for a living, or what the reasons were. There's no excuse for cheating on your wife that can justify the act and make everything all right. How many times do we have to see this repeated before our eyes before we learn the lesson?

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November 13, 2012 at 6:24 pm
(1) Robbee says:

I can see why he cheated. Look at his wife and Paula Broadwell. I’d be doing the same thing if I was in his shoes.

November 14, 2012 at 7:29 am
(2) Glean Price says:

Holly was a good wife and mother by all accounts. He should have remained faithful. What will she do t this point?

November 14, 2012 at 12:39 pm
(3) Phil Anderer says:

One would have thought that 2 top ranking military men would have been better at hiding their extra-marital manoeuvres and had the good sense to not cheat so close to home, especially when it is so easy to meet strangers on websites such as Undercover Lovers and Ashley Mdison nowadays.

November 14, 2012 at 1:19 pm
(4) AnneCaroline says:

Maybe I’m projecting, but a part of me wonders whether Paula Broadwell’s participation was totally consensual. She and he had identical credentials ~ were equally brilliant and well-educated. Yet, he got the stripes.

Her route to power was as his biographer rather than as his equal.

Gen. Patraeus is the stereotypical sexually abusive boss ~ not nearly as attractive or sexy as Ms. Broadwell. Did she have to pay a toll for the access she was granted to write her dissertation? Did he seize the moment to finally get the beautiful, brilliant, and sexy girl?

Did she con herself into feeling attracted to him in order to feel less like a prostitute? Barbara Walters infamously told herself the sex was consensual when she submitted to the sexual demands of political leaders to get an interview.

The reason I ask this question is because of Ms. Broadwell’s jealous reaction to a perceived rival after he dumped her. It doesn’t fit with a woman who is otherwise in total control of her life. I don’t think she would have behaved the way she did if the relationship had, in fact, been consensual.

I’m not minimizing their infidelity or lack of judgment. This just doesn’t feel like an affair of equals any more than Pres. Clinton’s seduction of Monica Lewinsky or JFK’s seduction of interns. Yes, they were less mature and more naive, but powerful men still treat the women who work for them like conquests ~ a perk like the corner office.

November 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm
(5) Cecile says:

Cheating has nothing to do with looks, the General probably loves his devoted wife and sees her as beautiful too. Don’t get love and sex confused. The General is a human being and the media is exploiting this fiasco. Who looked finer than ever this past year.. Bill Clinton, he was uber fine, goodlooking, and exuded intellegence beyond measure . He helped Obama win the election and beleive me I would not want to be in a room alone with him. I would not trust myself. Who also looked beautiful, fine, and intelligent, that exuded power ? Hilary of course. We Americans are more concerned with our lower order functions and have an appetitie for nonintellectual soap opera fiascos. Racism and sexism are still rampant turn on Fox News and check out the daily spin. Secede from the Nation . I wish you would! And Donald Trump nobody but nobody except paid excorts would have you. Why don’t you take whats left of you money ( since you lost) and but n island . Then you Rush, Perry and the rest of your succession promoters will have someplace to go. If you guys are gonna allow blacks on the island don’t forget to pick up Herman the minstrel man Cain. UGH! Enough Already!!

November 24, 2012 at 10:43 pm
(6) Robyn says:

Great article Linda, I just finished reading a book on the psychology of the unconscious. It described an experiment where some men were subliminally feed words that had connotations that related to power and some men weren’t. The two groups of men were then shown pictures (or met I don’t remember) several women. The men who had been exposed to the power words found the women much more attractive than the men who were not exposed to the power words. The scientist determined that men’s subconscious are conditioned to associate power with sexual attraction. Not an excuse, just a comment! Interesting.

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