A cheating heart

Like millions of Americans, I’ve had a hard time looking away from the Gen. David Petraeus scandal that has dominated news coverage in the past week.

While the story raised a raft of issues, from national security to military culture, the one that keeps knocking around my head is infidelity.

That men, especially powerful men, would cheat is the oldest story in the book. In modern times, we have Bill Clinton, John Edwards and Elliot Spitzer as just a handful of ready examples. In their cases, it’s easy to assume there is some unique mechanism at work, something that comes with operating in the upper echelons of power. But I think their undoing is from forces much more pedestrian and universal, namely human frailty.

A 2009 Psychology Today article cites the General Social Survey, which has been conducted annually since 1972 by University of Chicago researchers, as the foremost authority on the prevalence of infidelity. It has consistently found that about 10 percent of spouses admit cheating, 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women (the article notes that the apparent gender gap may be specious owing to the fact that men likely admit cheating more readily than women).

Other studies have found a prevalence closer to 23 percent for men and 19 percent for women.

Why?

There’s few logical answers, but authorities generally agree errant spouses are seeking to fill a void. This could be inadequate intimacy at home, but also it could be more basic, such as the need for validation, proof that one can still be appealing as an object of desire or simply proof that one is worthy of special attention.

An uptick in cheating along spouses over 60 recorded via the General Social Survey would seem indicate 60 is the new 40 when it comes to the mid-life crisis, the period when men facing physical decline traditionally made rash decisions to recapture the thrills of their fading youth.

Whatever the reason, the stubborn prevalence of infidelity despite a radical shift in the social acceptability of divorce to me seems counterintuitive. When the barriers to getting out of an unhappy marriage are so low, why would someone insist on straying while still connubially entangled?

I suppose the operative word there is “entangled.” From children, to property, to friends, the un-enmeshing of two lives is never easy. That likely is why couples delay doing so until there is a pressing reason: such as an affair. And really, is it ever easy for a marriage to end, regardless of the reason?

The chances of a marriage surviving an infidelity appear connected to the factors that motivated it.

Least promising is the “exit affair,” when a spouse is seeking to provoke the final outcome, divorce mediator and therapist Emily Brown told the Wall Street Journal in a blog post on tackling the trauma of infidelity. However, “conflict-avoidance” affairs, which force unspoken tension and disputes out into the open, are more likely to be overcome, she said.

See full article at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122644110262918605.html

Ultimately, the best remedy for infidelity seems preemptive. There are many ways to light an empty space in one’s soul. The easy ones glow brightly for a fleeting moment then explode leaving an expanse of wreckage behind them. The hard ways start modestly but build strength, casting not only illumination but warm.

And an addendum for spouses feeling the seduction of a possible fling, most cheaters are really bad liars. When I saw Paula Broadwell, Petreaus’ paramour, interviewed about her biography of the general on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart back in January (months before the scandal broke), I could read it all over her face she was smitten with him. And the relationship she describes between them sounded discordant for a journalist and a source.

See the interview here: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-january-25-2012/paula-broadwell

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