Feeling cheated

Leaders who cheat on spouses should be held accountable.

by Bronwyn Miller

Just over a week ago, retired four-star Gen. David Petraeus resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, citing an extramarital affair that had been revealed by an FBI investigation. He has been married for more than 37 years.

Many are confused and outraged by Petraeus’ resignation. “Why couldn’t he just admit what he did, apologize to his family and continue on in his job?” Susan Adams wrote in Forbes. Military journalist Tom Ricks shrugged off his behavior: “What we have … is shocking proof that Gen. Petraeus is a human being.” Steve Siebold wrote in the Huffington Post that this “personal matter” should not concern America or Congress, adding that “if we weeded out all the politicians that have affairs, D.C. would be a ghost town.”

Didn’t we all learn at an early age that “everybody’s doing it” is not a sound, viable reason for doing something we know we shouldn’t? Condoning Petraeus’ behavior with the argument that “he’s not the first, and he won’t be the last” problematically trivializes the act of cheating in a way that cruelly ignores the pain of those who have been cheated on and disregards the character flaws that lead to the decision.

The fact is that cheating and lying to hide it undeniably reveal traits that we should not want in a leader. If in one area of his life an individual is capable of incredibly poor judgment, dishonesty, broken promises and disregard for those to whom he claims to be committed, how can we continue to wholeheartedly trust his character in another area? It is naive to argue that our personal and professional lives are not inextricably linked. We might wear a lot of hats, but they’re all on the same head.

Cheating is not inevitable. Indeed, particular biological and genetic mechanisms may wire us against monogamy. But scientists also agree that we very much have the ability to override such impulses and make very conscious decisions about whether we cheat. “Biology made me do it” is simply not an excuse. If a man or woman feels incapable of monogamy, the solution is incredibly easy: don’t purport oneself as the opposite. Be upfront about your limitations — and definitely don’t propose to someone.

The real criticism here is not at the incapability of Petraeus — or any other cheater — to be monogamous. The problem with cheaters is that they engage in a situation that is entirely avoidable. Here in the U.S. we enjoy great freedoms, and one of those is that no one can force us down the aisle and require us to make a promise of lifelong fidelity if we don’t want to. Had Petraeus been single when his raunchy sexual exploits were revealed and issues of infidelity and dishonesty were not at play, the conversations would be much different.

Those calling for Petraeus to remain in his position are using petty excuses that disrespect the importance of trust and accountability in all of our interactions, both privately and professionally. Ironically, those of us who actually want Petraeus to be responsible for his affair are being accused of “prudishly” holding onto “a stubbornly old-fashioned sense of family,” serving as an example of “America’s emotional immaturity around sex and politics.” On the contrary, it is much more primitive to tout the argument that “everyone cheats” than it is to accept that perhaps not everyone is meant to be married. It is an entirely fair expectation that as part of a highly evolved species we be able to know our own limitations and feel comfortable in publicly engaging in whatever level of commitment we choose: singlehood, open relationships or monogamy. This personal choice should be respected, but if we lie, we should be held accountable.