The Petraeus Affair


Don't let your relationship become rigid and resistant to change.

The New York Times reported Sunday, November 11, 2012 (page 18), on the emerging news story about the surprising resignation of General David Petraues, the Director of the CIA. The story, though still cloudy, was revealed after he admitted to having an affair with his biographer. The article stated that when he began his job at the CIA, he and his wife moved in to a home in Virginia and it was “”the closest thing to a normal life together that they had in years.” The article stated further, “after years in war zones, Mr. Petraues told friends, he was amazed to eat dinner most nights with his wife and to discover weekends again. He told friends “on the day his daughter  was married last month, he went for a 34-mile bike ride.”
In my many years of working with couples, I have encountered similar circumstances that motivated couples to seek counseling. This story reminded me how important it is for us to not become complacent about our relationships. Today, our lives are more complex. We are distracted by media, internet and information overload. They add to our stress in the workplace. In many families, both partners work having to balance these demands with those at home. To cope with this, we develop a coping style, which if successful, becomes regular, consistent and habitual. The intimacy and security of the couple relationship often takes a hit.
Relationships change over time. The circumstances that attract us initially change significantly once we become intimate, live together, marry, have children, raise children and launch them to find ourselves alone again. Each stage presents many challenges that affect the intimacy, satisfaction and security in our relationships. It’s important for us to watch out for those times when the habits of our lives have become rigid, resisting change.
In the case of General Petraues, he and his wife, Holly, with their two grown children were seen as a model of how to make a military marriage work with long separations and overseas deployments.  Mrs. Petraues was a remarkable figure herself, creating a career as an advocate for the financial education of military families and joining the Obama administration’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
It’s easy to imagine the separate lives these two had that helped them maintain the strength and security of their relationship raising their children over the years. They are admirable given how hard they worked to achieve this. Yet I, as a psychologist who specializes in working with couples, appreciate the toll it can take on their relationship.
I have learned that each of us has developed our own tolerance for closeness and intimacy. We often find partners that complement this tolerance and meet our needs for intimacy. However, intimacy can be fragile and subject to the stresses we experience day to day, week to week and year to year. Over time, we can develop confidence and satisfaction even though these pressures challenge our intimacy and closeness. It is easy for us to get into comfortable habits that maintain stability and security. However, such habits can become rigid and nonconscious. When that happens, we are in danger of being vulnerable  to outside influences such as one of us having an affair, working longer hours, making outside activities more important, having less time for each other and having more conflict and unhappiness.
The change in the regularity of the Petraues couple, the normal life and dinner together most nights are flags that are reminiscent of changes that profoundly influence the quality and security of their relationship even though they seem positive. That combined with their daughter’s upcoming marriage and its effect on their relationship could have been triggers for great challenges to their relationship and potentially serious problems.
In my work, I remind couples how important it is to nurture their relationship. Schedule time including playful and mindful activities that acknowledge how much we mean to each. Recognize that openness and empathic understanding are keys to maintaining closeness. Pay attention to how we talk and respond to each other. Howard Markman and colleagues have stated that, “one zinger is worth 20 good deeds.” Criticism builds walls between us over time.
Most importantly, take time to cool down after a conflict, then come together collaboratively to understand each other’s feelings. We can’t avoid conflict but the more we understand, respect and accept each other’s feelings, the quicker we can recover, recognizing how important we are to each other.


This article was originally published at Center for Relationship Enhancement Ginsberg Associates . Reprinted with permission from the author.