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Ethlie Ann Vare Headshot

Rock Me, Petraeus

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America has no patience with extramarital affairs. Screw up your assignment and the President tells you, "Heck of a job!" Screw around on your wife and the President accepts your resignation.

No one minded much that Arnold Schwarzenegger was professionally unequipped to be Governor of California, or even that six different women came forward during his campaign with accusations of sexual misconduct bordering on illegal harassment. He charmed his way through the scandal, kept his marriage intact and won the governor's seat. When, years later, he was discovered to have fathered a child with the family housekeeper, his wife left him and his reputation was shot.

Pizza mogul Herman Cain was a viable candidate for president despite the fact that he allegedly paid to squelch more than one sexual harassment charge -- never mind that he didn't know which side to root for in Libya, or where "Uzbeki-beki-bekistan" was. But when a longstanding girlfriend outside his longstanding marriage was discovered, his presidential hopes were dashed.

We don't like adultery, we North American Puritans. We are not French. This, despite the fact that, statistically, most of us will find themselves inhabiting at least one corner of a love triangle sometime in our lives.

Which brings us to (former) CIA Director David Petraeus. Who cares what he thinks of waterboarding at Gitmo, or knew about probable war crimes at Abu Ghraib, or any involvement he might have had in the billions of dollars gone missing in Iraq. No, the architect of the U.S. Middle East strategy resigned his position when it came out that he was embroiled in an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Petraeus is 60 and has been married for 38 years. Broadwell, also married, is 20 years his junior. So far, blindingly familiar.

The fascinating part of the story for me, your reluctant expert on sex and love addiction, is the circuitous route by which it was discovered. There's this doctor's wife in Florida -- a bit of a military groupie, from the sound of it -- who was frightened by a series of threatening emails she was getting. She went to the FBI... okay, she went to a guy she was allegedly kinda flirting with at the FBI, hoping to identify the source. The source turned out to be a jealous Broadwell. When the FBI investigation turned up "hundreds, if not thousands" of pages of emails between what they assumed at the time was some kind of nut-job and someone claiming to be CIA Director David Petraeus, they assumed the Director's email had been hacked. This was a security nightmare. They investigated further.

Of course, it really was Petraeus. He really had been having an affair with Broadwell, and she really was insecure enough to harass a woman whom she considered a rival. Because when you think about it, a man who cheats on his wife is already cheating on his mistress every time he goes home. Imagining yet another love interest isn't much of a stretch. In fact, Broadwell herself was trying to hack Petraeus' private email to get the goods on him. (She's being investigated by the FBI herself for that trick.)

Point of information: Hacking your boyfriend's email because you suspect him of being unfaithful is always rude, usually counterproductive and, often, a sign of love addiction.

What is love addiction? Well, all addictions are described as "compulsive and repetitive use of a mind-altering substance substance, despite negative life consequences." In the case of love addiction, the mind-altering substances are all those feel-good endorphins you get when you hear the voice of your beloved or feel the touch of your beloved. For a number of ironic reasons I am happy to discuss in excruciating detail, love addicts frequently themselves confusing love with longing, either pursuing the most unavailable of love objects or living in terror of losing the lover they have.

Bottom line: Hacking your married lover's email because you suspect him of being unfaithful is a pretty sure sign of love addiction. Hacking the director of the CIA's email because you suspect him of being unfaithful is a pretty sure sign of being certifiable.

By certifiable, by the way, I do not mean stupid. Paula Broadwell is not stupid. She has degrees from West Point and Harvard. She co-wrote a bestseller. But love addiction seldom occurs in direct (or inverse) proportion to intelligence. I am reminded of one of the first stories in my book, Love Addict, where the body of internist Jacquelyn Kotarac was found lodged in her ex-boyfriend's chimney. He wasn't returning her calls, so she decided to sneak in and surprise him. She didn't know he was on vacation. The doctor got stuck in the flue and wasn't found for three days. I repeat: Doctor. Dr. Kotarac died in a chimney while trying to stalk an unwilling lover in his own home. Love addiction can strike regardless of intellect, social status or moral fiber.

Do I think Petraeus should step down because he was having an affair? No, I don't -- although apparently the CIA frowns upon using email for sensitive personal communication. I believe notes written with disappearing ink left under a rock in the park is the preferred method. Powerful men have always exhibited a fondness for infidelity in countries that don't let them keep harems. Of more concern is the obvious lack of character analysis the general exhibited throughout. Maybe it's just me, but I would hope the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency was a good judge of people.

Paula Broadwell was a student at West Point when Petraeus met her. He was her mentor. By all accounts, she had a schoolgirl crush on him for years. He shouldn't have been sleeping with her in the first place. And for God's sake, if you are going to sleep with her... don't cheat on her.