A Mistress Speaks: 'The Broadwell-Petraeus Affair Was Inevitable'

Why Paula Broadwell didn't intend to cheat—and neither did I.

david petraeus paula broadwell

I once had a conversation with a man in Vermont. We met at a business conference and decided to get drinks afterward. He worked for a partnering organization, lived and worked nearby, and—oh yeah—happened to be married. Still, I quickly fell in love. 

When the news arrived last Friday that the beloved General David Petraeus had cheated on his wife of 37 years with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, I almost ignored it as a non-event. The headlines and nightly news went wild, and SNL crafted a humorous joke about the title of his book, All In. I think you get it. Even before my own feelings developed for a married man, I had always been fascinated by the idea of marriage, monogamy, and affairs. In a different world, I would perhaps be shocked myself. But having lived it, I think the answer to why this happens is much simpler than we wish to believe.


To start this conversation, I have to address a few myths about the mistress-and-married-man relationship. In most cases, a woman who becomes a mistress is not looking to be with a married man. It usually just happens. The second myth is that it's about the sex or fancy perks—like all-expense paid dinners and gifts. While those certainly are reasons a woman might be intrigued, it's not a reason a woman would subject herself to an ongoing, emotionally intense affair that—in Broadwell's case—could cost her a career and marriage.

Instead, imagine this scenario. You're on assignment to interview your male boss or an influential man in power for work. Perhaps you have some theories about him already—he's closed-off, tough, superhuman, mean, successful. Then you unravel him layer by layer until you reach his vulnerable side, a side he's exposed only to you. Now you're in.  You know his secrets. You are now, perhaps, part of his secrets. 


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On most first dates, there are layers of walls to get through that are inundated with superficial questions about hometowns, ethnic food and countries visited. From here, we are supposed to decide if we want to see that person a second time. With a married man, the small talk is erased. What do you see for yourself? Do you believe in love? What are some mistakes you've made? What are you scared of? Can I see you again tomorrow night? These are conversations that skip through the walls of pride, ego and rejection, right into a wall that guards only one thing—commitment. It's a relationship that says, "you can say anything you want to me and not worry if I will like you." It's a relationship that says, "you can say or do what you want, and your secret is safe too."

I'm not sure how to make a woman who has never been in this position quite understand the power of a relationship like the one with a married man. It's easy to say it is wrong or to just say no, as if this were a fifth-grade peer pressure sort of thing. But to turn away from the intimacy and lust with a man who bares his soul is equivalent to not taking a taste of a melting chocolate cake right in front of your eyes. Nearly impossible.

It was impossible for me, at least. My relationship with this married man lasted nearly four years—through his divorce and into a beautiful, private relationship that led to a marriage proposal and talk about having kids. I said no, and we only recently parted ways. (You can read about the early days of our relationship here.)


The most beautiful part of being the mistress is that you only get the best of someone without any of the work. You get the passionate sex, the nice meals, the trips and the soul without washing his dishes or paying the bills. You get the most wonderfully deep conversations without the arguments or family visits. You get him stripped down on his knees—who he is when no one is looking—and he gets you just the same. It's a relationship where you can truly live in the moment with no outside world or expectations to get in the way. 

Because this man and I frequently worked together, we had to remain PC in work situations. Whenever we went out, I was always paranoid we would run into co-workers or friends. I've seen Paula Broadwell photographed with Petraeus for the press, or promoting his biography on The Daily Show, pre-scandal, and wonder how she held it together. We might imagine a mistress to be mischievous or conniving, but in reality we are always on alert, wondering when we will be found out. 

If you ever find yourself in the making of a relationship like this, be warned. There is no turning back. There is no will power that can make it stop. An affair that is as dangerous as one with a married man who opens up his world to you is all but out of your control, hence—despite the risks, the guilt, the overwhelming emotions—we find ourselves overcome, or quite literally, "All In."