Infidelity and the Power of the Other Person

The Siren and the Spook

By Frank Bruni (edited)

There were remarks galore about her unusually toned arms and the way she dressed to show them off. I even spotted a comment about how much of her armpits one of her outfits revealed, as if underarm exhibitionism were some sort of sexual sorcery, some aphrodisiac, the key to it all.

Irresistible Temptress?

What else could explain his transgression? Why else would a man of such outward discipline and outsize achievement risk so much? The temptress must have been devious. The temptation must have been epic.

That was the tired tone of some of the initial coverage of, and reaction to, the affair between David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, which had many people claiming surprise where there wasn’t cause for any, reverting to clichés that should be retired and indulging in a sexism we like to think we’ve moved past.

Broadwell has just 13 percent body fat, according to a recent measurement. Did you know that? Did you need to? It came up nonetheless. And like so much else about her — her long-ago coronation as homecoming queen, her six-minute mile — it was presented not merely as a matter of accomplishment, but as something a bit titillating, perhaps a part of the trap she laid.

Real Issues in the Petraeus Affair

There are bigger issues here. There are questions of real consequence, such as why the F.B.I. got so thoroughly involved in what has been vaguely described as a case of e-mail harassment, whether the bureau waited too long to tell lawmakers and White House officials about the investigation, and how much classified information Broadwell, by dint of her relationship with Petraeus, was privy to. The answers matter.

Her “expressive green eyes” (The Daily Beast) and “tight shirts” and “form-fitting clothes” (The Washington Post) don’t. And the anecdotes and chatter that implicitly or explicitly wonder at the spidery wiles she must have used to throw the mighty man off his path are laughably ignorant of history, which suggests that mighty men are all too ready to tumble, loins first. Wiles factor less into the equation than proximity.

Sure, the spotlight these men have attracted and the altitude they’ve reached should, theoretically, give them greater pause. But they’ve either become accustomed to or outright sought a kind of adulation in the public arena that probably isn’t mirrored in their marriages. A spouse is unlikely to provide it. A spouse knows you too well for that, and gives you something deeper, truer and so much less electric.

Power, Reverence, and Infidelity

It has to be more than mere coincidence that Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern; Newt Gingrich with a Congressional aide (now his wife); John Edwards with a woman who followed him around with a camera, creating hagiographic mini-documentaries about his presidential campaign; and Petraeus with a woman who made him the subject of a biography so worshipful that its main riddle, joked Jon Stewart, was whether Petraeus was “awesome or incredibly awesome.”

These mighty men didn’t just choose mistresses, by all appearances. They chose fonts of gushing reverence. That’s at least as deliberate and damnable as any signals the alleged temptresses put out.

Petraeus’s choice suggests an additional measure of vanity. Broadwell exercises compulsively, as he does. She’s fascinated by all matters military, as he is. “Petraeus once joked I was his avatar,” she told The Charlotte Observer a while back. So by his own assessment, he was having an affair with a version of himself.

Imbalance of Apportioned Fault

And yet it’s the women in these situations who are often subjected to a more vigorous public shaming — and assigned greater responsibility.

The Web site Business Insider posted an interview with an unnamed former colleague of Petraeus’s who knew Broadwell and characterized her as “a shameless self-promoting prom queen.” The colleague all but exonerated Petraeus by saying: “You’re a 60-year-old man and an attractive woman almost half your age makes herself available to you — that would be a test for anyone.”

The headline of The Washington Post story that weighed in on Broadwell’s wardrobe asserted that he “let his guard down,” a phrase that portrays him as passive, possibly even a victim. The story notes that his former aides considered him “the consummate gentleman and family man.”

It goes on to say that Broadwell was “willing to take full advantage of her special access” to him.

An article in Slate asked “how could he — this acclaimed leader and figure of rectitude — allow such a thing to a happen?” The italics are mine, because the verb is a telling one. “She went a bit ga-ga for the general,” the article later observes, adding: “She may have made herself irresistible.”

Such adamant women, such pregnable men. We’ve been stuck on this since Eve, Adam and the Garden of Eden. And it’s true: Eve shouldn’t have been so pushy with the apple.

But Adam could have had a V8.

Original Article: New York Times


My Thoughts

At Infidelity Help we hear quite understandable venom towards the affair partner. We correctly hold them accountable for their part in the affair that devastated our relationships, (often) our family, our security, and our self-esteem, though we recognize that their part is the lesser portion of where blame and responsibility for the affair lies.

To clarify, we do make a distinction between the unwitting affair partner who has been deceived into believing that their new flame is single and the affair partner who is fully aware of their beau’s marital status, and engages in the affair anyway (in my experience, a knowing and fully complicit affair partner is more commonplace).

However, despite this, there are many who still struggle with directing their wrath and disdain to the true culprit - their partner/spouse. All too often the full power of our resentment and rage is almost entirely directed towards the affair partner, when really it should be directed towards our partner/spouse.

No one is inescapably compelled to cheat, no matter what ‘wiles’ (real or perceived) are part of the affair partner’s ‘seduction toolbox’. Our partners choose to cheat, and they are often the ones to go looking for someone to cheat with. Yes, there are cases of our spouses being pursued by someone, but that pursuit does not shift responsibility for the affair entirely to the affair partner and away from our partner  - they are not some hapless victim in their own infidelity.

Perhaps the reason why many continue a vehement rhetoric primarily (or solely) against the affair partner is a result of their love for their partner and an unwillingness to fully accept this failing in them? Perhaps it is because it is difficult to villainize the mother/father of our children? Perhaps it is a reaction to our sense of our lives being invaded by an outsider?

Whatever it is, we need to recognize that if we characterize the affair partner as a whore, then we should characterize our partner/spouse even more harshly - they’re engaging in the same activities, but they were the only one who made vows and promises of fidelity to us.

I will say, whether it is our reaction, press reaction, the affair partner’s behavior, or the cheater’s behavior, these things do tend to run miserably to a pattern.



As a quick PS, I found the sentence in Mr Bruni’s article, “They chose fonts of gushing reverence” particularly interesting. It is something I have heard in many, many cases: The affair partner flattering and massaging the ego of the cheater seems to be a common theme and often part of the reason for the infidelity continuing, under the hackneyed guise of,”She(he) really understands me” or “We’re two halves of the same person” (having an affair with a perceived version of themselves indeed!).

I wonder how willing the cheater would be to laud their affair partner’s ‘understanding’ of them, if that understanding was about their character flaws. Perhaps it even goes beyond gushing about our partner/spouses real traits? Perhaps it goes as far as gushing about the traits that they wish they had? Either way, vanity and self-glorification can be much easier pills to swallow than the truth about the darker parts of ourselves.

And on that note, I am off to have a V8!


“I'm not a teacher, only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead - ahead of myself as well as you.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

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