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Petraeus affair: Why do the powerful cheat?

Nov. 13, 2012 - 10:24AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 13, 2012 - 10:24AM  |  
This Aug. 17 photo shows then-CIA Director David Petraeus, left, and his wife, Holly, during a ceremony at Fort Campbell, Ky.
This Aug. 17 photo shows then-CIA Director David Petraeus, left, and his wife, Holly, during a ceremony at Fort Campbell, Ky. (Mark Humphrey / AP)
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Gen. David Petraeus joins a long list of leaders whose careers were derailed by extramarital affairs.

David Petraeus is not your run-of-the-mill husband with a wandering eye. He's not just another philandering politician or celebrity cheater, like so many others whose indiscretions have come to light in recent years.

He's a retired Army general who designed and led the military surge in Iraq and was top commander in Afghanistan. He had been deployed much of his career until he was named CIA director last year. His abrupt resignation amid news of his extramarital affair with a married Army Reserve officer brings a new wrinkle into an old story of why yet another powerful man risks so much for a woman.

Yes, Petraeus joins the list of wayward sons: Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer — just to name a few.

Petraeus is another, said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University who studies such behavior.

Risk takers "tend to believe they control their destiny or fate," Farley said. "The risk-taking personality has a bold quality. It's at the heart of great leadership, and sometimes it overrides what many Americans would call common sense."

Add in a dose of entitlement, suggests Mira Kirshenbaum, clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute in Boston who has written books about infidelity.

"Power and success give people a sense of invulnerability," she said. "A lot of guys like Petraeus have worked awfully hard, and yes, they have a lot to show for it, but day-to-day mostly what they face is more hard work. Where's the big reward? An affair can seem like a long-deserved perk."

But different in the Petraeus scandal are the greater questions his affair raises, including national security and the potential for blackmail.

Petraeus' resignation letter, which cites "very poor judgment," is particularly troubling to Dan Crum, a former CIA polygraph examiner and now consultant in Fairfax, Va.

"When he said he showed poor judgment, it minimizes the affair and characterizes it more as a one-time poor decision than an extended period of decisions to maintain and continue the affair," he said. "It's almost like a ‘How dare you?' response. It's part of that almost arrogance — ‘Who are you to question me? I'm the one giving the orders here.' "

Crum said the fact that there was an email trail "demonstrates a level of arrogance and a feeling that you're above the law."

"Anybody with even the most minimal training in covering things up or keeping things secret would never have emails that can directly link back to you. Anybody who has a concern over being caught is going to take more caution in maintaining the secret."

But John Caughlin, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who focuses his research on disclosure and secrecy, said there's a flip side to that argument.

"There is a sense that if somebody goes out of their way to take extreme measures to guard information — in some ways that indicates a sense of shame," Caughlin said. "He probably knew it was wrong, but maybe not that wrong."

New research by sociologist Andrew London, a senior fellow at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University in New York, has found increased risk for extramarital sex among veterans. One study online now in the Journal of Family Issues used 1992 data from 2,308 ever-married people to find that more than 32 percent of veterans reported extramarital sex — about twice the rate among ever-married non-veterans.

A follow-up that includes data from 2010 finds "elevated odds for extramarital sex were higher among both male and female veterans," he said. London, the lead author, also finds that those who served in the military four years or longer had a particularly high risk.

"We argue there could be things that predate military service — like being a risk taker — that might lead someone into the military but also increase his likelihood of taking a risk while married and having an extramarital affair," he said.

Cregg Chandler of Sumter, S.C., has seen it firsthand. He retired in 2007 after 29 years in the Air Force, including the last nine as a chaplain at bases in the U.S. as well as overseas in Korea and Spain. He said infidelity appears to have escalated in recent years. That's why he wrote "A Separation Survival Guide for Military Couples," out earlier this year. He said military life often brings stress, isolation and frustration, which can lead to infidelity.

Military separations, which are recurring and often long-term, create loneliness without the family support system.

"They have a saying in the military: ‘What happens TDY (temporary duty assignment) stays TDY.' I'm not saying it's an overall mentality, but they have that saying."

Contributing: Nanci Hellmich

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