It is easy to see why the Petraeus affair persists in the news. Salaciousness sells. That national security might have been compromised ups the public scandal quotient and renders the mistake made by a former general and woman who thought bedding one might score her a little power.
One hardly need be a libertine in order to imagine that a man with a zipper problem might betray his wife's trust without forsaking the nation's trust -- but such men are exceptions. Most skirt-chasers are not Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Nor even are they President Clinton. Honorable men and women do not, for the most part, cheat on their husbands and wives.
Nor do they cheat on their spouses alone; they also cheat on their children.
In her November 24th New York Times essay "After the Affair," Judy Wachs describes her former husband, who was the father of four children under the age of 10 at the time of his catting around with a waitress, as having been a "wonderful father." One can applaud Wachs' generosity while recognizing that wonderful fathers keep theirs in their pants.
The somehow popular and thoroughly erroneous notion that a treacherous spouse can be a good parent is malarkey. In a relationship in which sexual fidelity is expected, a cheating wife is rarely much of a mother, and a cheating husband is generally a lousy father. Adultery imperils the psychological welfare of the children of parents who cheat. When men cheat on pregnant or nursing women they even endanger the physical health of their children.
Parents who commit adultery cheat on their families.
We know that when spouses who must separate do so before adultery pulls them apart they achieve far more harmonious separations. We know that most cheaters don't fall in love with their paramours, that most cheaters trade down, that most cheating is not even about sex and that some cheating is a facet of mental illness. We also know that the most meaningless adulterous sex often dashes families to smithereens.
We also know that children who grow up in intact homes fare better in all aspects of development. Children who grow up with cheaters, on the other hand, learn to cheat. They learn distrust. Children who see their parents use and discard lovers in the course of extramarital affairs learn thoughtlessness and selfishness.
A father who treats his wife with respect gives his daughter the gift of learning to seek out men who respect women. He offers his daughter the optimal lesson in how to command respect from men in an anti-woman world. Conversely, a philandering father teaches his daughters to attract schmucks. Which is why the daughters of philandering fathers are more likely to be promiscuous, self-destructive and distrustful of marriage and men.
Sons who watch their fathers betray their mothers learn that misogyny is tolerable and permissible, and when a mother cheats on her husband and children, she exchanges the very heart of her family for a little on the side.
A cheating spouse essentially "turns out" the husband or wife he or she betrays, making him or her theoretically at least, in some ethical sense, available to seducers. Yet it is rare to find the adulterer who first offers his or her partner the kind of license he or she seizes clandestinely.
Indeed, most cheating spouses find it unthinkable to imagine the duped husband or wife in question enjoying his or her own extramarital romp, and once caught, most adulterers will strenuously challenge the betrayed partner's right to a revenge affair. Most cheaters are "in love" (so they say) with their spouses, and cannot bear to think of those mates (they so love) in bed with others.
Children who grow up in marriages in which their two parents are trusting and trustworthy learn to seek and sustain satisfying nurturing loving relationships. Children who grow up seeing sex as a means of injury and betrayal, on the other hand, wind up cheated of the ability to view sex as a unitive, radiant and exciting aspect of abiding love. Cheating parents rob their children of innocence.
A man who would lie to those he most loves will lie to the world. David Petraeus was a traitor. He conspired with an enemy (Broadwell) of his family in a campaign to injure his wife and grown children. A man who can not be trusted to protect his family from the kind of anguish Petraeus bestowed can not be trusted to protect anyone.
The spawn of Paula Broadwell are too young to read about her betrayal of them and their father, but they will learn of it, and in the apprehension be wounded to the core. They will one day know that the mother whose job it was to teach them integrity was a liar. They will know she forgot all about them -- that they were nowhere near her heart -- when she traded their psychological well-being for the privilege of making the beast with two backs with a general. So much damage just so Mom could get some on the side.
Men and women who honor their marriages by either choosing to work out problems or electing to separate before infidelity desecrates their marriages, teach their sons and daughters that vows matter.
Parents like David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell teach their children that promises are meant to be broken.
Thinking of going for a drink with that lonely co-worker who's been stroking your ego at the office? Think again. Try thinking of your kids.