When first hearing about the General Petraeus scandal, I wasn’t very interested in writing about it. I mean, “Powerful man cheats on wife with attractive young woman who admires him” is about as dog bites man-ey as a story can get. This is something that has always happened and will always continue to happen. Frequently. (In fact, some would argue that the main reason why men seek power is so they’ll have sexual access to a larger population of women — basically, power didn’t make him have sex with other women as much as his want to have sex with other women made him want to be more powerful — but that’s another discussion for another day)
After reading that Paula Broadwell was basically a female Petraeus clone — and after seeing pictures of Petraeus’s wife who, bless her heart, kind of looks like Benjamin FranklinÂ¹ — the question isn’t “Why did he cheat?” but instead “Really? You didn’t think this was going to happen? Really?”
“So,” I can imagine you asking, “if this is such a non-story, why did you decide to write about it?” Good question! In a couple of the articles I’ve read about this, the authors were trying to piece together when this affair most likely began. It’s generally assumed that it started after she spent time with him in Afghanistan, but no one has really been able to pinpoint exactly when. I decided to write about this because, well, anyone who points to Afghanistan as the beginning of their affair is looking at it all wrong. There’s no need to check emails or text messages or phone calls to find an exact date. The answer is in plain sight.
Paula Broadwell, the woman with whom he had this affair, writes in her fawning biography of Petraeus that they first met when she was in graduate school at Harvard and he came to give a talk about counterinsurgency strategy. She approached him afterward and expressed interest in the subject; they exchanged cards. Soon, she decided to write a Ph.D. dissertation on his leadership style and, when he took command in Afghanistan, asked if she could come observe him in action. He agreed.
This affair began the moment Petraeus decided to allow this young and attractive woman — a young and attractive woman who was infatuated with him, remember — to shadow him. Maybe they hadn’t actually had sex yet, but when he signed off on accepting her offer, he might as well as put his signature on her clitoris.
Now, I’m certain that, when first meeting Broadwell, Petraeus wasn’t thinking to himself “I wanna f*ck her while she’s screaming out random quotes from the book she’s going to write about me.” Actually, lemme rephrase that. He probably did think that — trust me when I say that you (women) really do not want to be privy to the surprisingly creative depths of the sexually deprived thoughts and fantasies that go through our heads when meeting an attractive woman — but thinking that and actually putting things in motion so that it will happen are two different things. Basically, I don’t think “I’m going to cheat on my wife with her” was the first thought that came to mind when meeting her.
The mistake Petraeus — an extremely smart and extremely calculating man — made was the same that most other men who’ve ever stepped out on their significant others also made. Regardless of how smart you are and how strong your will may be, you cannot outsmart or outwill nature. You just can’t expect to spend that much time — running together, sharing meals, speaking for hours, etc — with someone you may be attracted to and expect nothing to happen.
This is why I’m not a huge believer in true platonic friendships, why I’ve argued that men who want to avoid cheating need to avoid nightclubs, and why I believe that you avoid cheating by making decisions weeks, months, years even before the opportunity to cheat even enters the picture.
Affairs like Petraeus’s don’t begin when actual penetration occurs. They don’t even begin when you first start flirting and/or having conversations that aren’t really all that inappropriate yet. It starts when you first begin to entertain the idea that you enjoy having a certain person around you, and you start doing things to make sure you interact more often. You start going to lunch at 12:15 instead of 12:30 because it increases the likelihood of you “running into” her. You find bullshit excuses to text them or hit them up on Gchat, asking him questions that you could have easily just googled. You allow her to follow you to Afghanistan, work out with her daily, and allow her to stay in your headquarters.
Considering that it’s near impossible to be in a relationship and avoid everyone who you might be attracted to, I imagine that some of you think I think affairs, especially among people with options, are inevitable and unpreventable. If none of us can outsmart nature, those who want to stay faithful are doomed, right?
This is not true. There are two easy ways to help prevent something like this from happening.
1. Only commit to someone if you fill completely “fulfilled” by them.
2. If you’ve committed to someone who doesn’t completely fulfill you and you ever happen to encounter someone you think you may be attracted to, nod your head at them, take a deep breath, turn the other way, and run.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)Â¹Can’t take full credit for this observation. My mom actually made it while watching a news story about the scandal. Btw, thanks again for all the well-wishes regarding her health. She has a long road ahead of her, but she seems to be responding well to her treatment so far.