Why do powerful figures, like David Petraeus, have extramarital affairs and risk everything?
We've been around the block. We've seen enough powerful figures drop trou at this point (John Edwards, anyone) that it should come as no surprise that a man as highly regarded as former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus would find himself smack in the middle of a cheating scandal — one that the media is more than delighted to sieze upon. Time and again, we see prominent figures with upstanding reputations, adorable kids, and devoted spouses stray despite all the inevitable consequences of getting caught. The thing we've yet to uncover, though, is why they risk everything in the first place.
We get the human nature thing.
A USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,025 people conducted in March of 2008 — right after the infamous Eliot Spitzer scandal broke — found that 54 percent of Americans know someone with an unfaithful spouse. We're no math whizzes, but it stands to reason that those numbers indicate that half of all relationships in the U.S. are affected by infidelity — and people talk about it. But with so much at stake and so many unions collapsing before them, how can men in the public eye cheat on their wives and honestly expect to get away with it?
Edwards, for one, wanted to explain. And so he did, on ABC's Nightline:
"This is what happened," he told a stone-faced Bob Woodruff. "I grew up as a small town boy in North Carolina. And I came from nothing, worked very hard, dreamed that I'd be able to do something hopeful and helpful to other people with my life. I became a lawyer. Through a lot of work and success, I gained some acclaim as a lawyer. People were telling me, 'Oh you're such a great person, such a great lawyer, such a talent. You're gonna go—there's no telling what you'll do.' And this was when I was 30, 31 years old. Then I went from being a senator— young senator—to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate, becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that, that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences."
To paraphrase: "I used to be poor. Then I got rich and important. Then I thought I was so awesome that not only did I deserve to sleep with another woman, I also thought I wouldn't get caught. So I did it." Interesting, for sure, and a much more thorough (albeit scripted) explanation than we've gotten from a politician before. But reading his sentiment — and seeing him deliver it on camera all earnest blinks and furrowed eyebrows — makes us want to call BS. Can we?
"To be a politician, you have to be a narcissist. Otherwise, you'd just be a normal person," says Michael Dempsey, a psychiatrist based in Chicago.
"You're always looking for that mirror in life that will reflect back to you how great and wonderful you are. But once that sense of connection is broken, you start to feel depressed. Most healthy people will say, 'Oh well, maybe next time,' but most unhealthy or grandiose people can't tolerate that and look for ways to boost their self-esteem." It just so happens that affairs, with their built-in fan clubs of one, are perfect for that.
So it made sense, then, that Edwards's liaison came in 2006, not long after his failed bid for vice president? "Yes," says Dempsey. "It really does."
Following the narcissism angle, it would also make sense that David Petraeus would embark on an affair with the very woman who was writing his biography: Paula Broadwell. By most accounts, All In is a glowing tribute to Petraeus, and many say it reflects Broadwell's awestricken admiration of the general. To engage in an intimate affair with a devotee would be in line with a narcissistic personality.
A recent study at the University of New Hampshire found that men are 7 percent more likely to cheat than women.
The researcher, an economist, suggests that that can be attributed to the fact that men have less to lose both biologically and economically. So when does a person like Edwards, who does have much to lose, think to himself, 'Wait a second, couldn't this hurt my family and, maybe more importantly, my career?' Perhaps he doesn't.
"I think it's almost inevitable when you think of yourself as so powerful. At some point, you get bored with regular old stuff. You have to talk to people all day who might not be as smart as you, and you're so tired from your busy schedule that you start to do things for the excitement of doing them," says Dempsey. "You're not necessarily thinking straight."
The wife of a campaign manager who lives just outside of Washington D.C. suggests that the political life creates somewhat of a cheater's perfect storm: "It's a lifestyle with a lot of glamour and excitement. There are always events filled with energy and cocktails," she says. "The hours are long with late nights and camaraderie. You're in and out of hotels so much that it creates temptation, easy opportunities, and cover stories for spouses." And while the same could be said of any demanding job, the woman thinks there's something else at play, too — and it does have to do with ego. "As people's profiles rise in this world," she suggests, "their sense of entitlement seems to grow, too."
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