One does not set out to be an adulteress, at least I didn't. And that word: "Adulteress," it sounds so Hawthornian. Yet, in light of David Petraeus' resignation from the CIA yesterday, it makes me wonder if we're not such a far cry from Hester and her Puritanical persecutors. Citing an extramarital affair -- with a woman who has been identified as the retired four-star general's biographer, Paula Broadwell -- David Petraeus declared in writing to President Obama that, "Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as a leader of an organization such as ours." Certainly, one would hope that our government is guided by strong moral codes and ethics that perserve the spirit of honesty and loyalty, and yes, I've argued that the personal is political, but I'm also concerned about the backwardness of the leading democracy that judges a man's (or woman's) professional aptitude by what he or she does behind closed doors, in the privacy of his or her own bedroom.
On the other hand, having recently extricated myself from an extramarital affair because of the moral shame I inflicted upon myself, I can sympathize completely with the former general's compulsion to confess his "bad" behavior, and in such a public way, as I am about to do.
It all started with an innocent drink. I was meeting H. for a casual business meeting, as we both work in media. Yes, I knew he was married. Yes, I knew he had a child with his wife. But the next thing I knew, I was with H. at an exclusive party in the Meatpacking District filled with art aficionados and models. For a certain circle in D.C., power and clout is determined by your proximity to the White House. For a certain circle in Manhattan, power and clout is determined by your proximity to the "glitterati."
And for many women who step into the role of "The Other Woman," since a public, monogamous relationship is not on the table, certain fringe benefits are. Now, I am no naif. I was well aware what was being offered, so it came as no surprise to me when H. pulled me aside and passionately kissed me. A million thoughts raced through my head: My father had cheated on my mother -- are people natural-born cheaters? No. That made no sense. My ex had cheated on me -- was this my way of retaliating, reclaiming my position as the desired one? Was I somehow prostituting myself to this married man for what he could offer me? But I didn't want to think; I just wanted to kiss him. And later that night, H. and I did more than that.
In the morning, I woke up thinking, perhaps it had all been a dream. But there were text messages on my phone from H. "Had I arrived home safely? What a wonderful night last night was! Was I free to meet up again today?" I was in shock. No man I would normally date would be so eager; in New York, dating is a game, a dance, and one holds one's feelings close to one's chest. It then struck me, an affair engenders different courtship rules. And, so far, I had to say, I enjoyed them. For the next several weeks, H. and I would meet, sometimes during the day for lunch, no sex being had, just conversation. He'd talk and I'd listen. Then he'd thank me, as if I were doing something extraordinary. It hit me then, men must cheat not only because they are driven by sexual urges, or urges to hurt their partner, but because they are lacking something -- some kind of attention -- from their relationship. I also must say, that I enjoyed the looseness of my relationship with H.; I had someone who lavished attention on me, called me, took me out, but I wasn't required to give it any more thought. I could concentrate on my work, my friends, my life outside the relationship. But this "honeymoon" period didn't last long.
As previously stated, I'm not totally naive. I was well aware that one day I'd become the discarded mistress. H. was becoming sloppy about hiding our relationship, fawning over me in public, in places where mutual friends frequented. But this was inconsistent. When I'd do the same, he'd get ferociously angry at me. One night he berated me in public for being so careless. Then came the possessiveness: Why was I talking to this guy? What exactly was the nature of my relationship with that guy? I was told I needed to be more respectful towards him. Of course I knew his outbursts were symptoms of his guilt, perhaps even displaced anger towards his wife. I took these outbursts for a while, telling myself, that as an "Adulteress," I deserved to be humiliated, because I was being a "bad girl."
One night, I was having drinks with some guy friends when they told me, "Jill, everyone knows you're having an affair with H." I left the bar and vomited in the street. The shame was that palpable. Home alone, with dawn creeping at my window, I logged on to Facebook and began stalking H.'s wife. Her page was filled not only with photos of her husband, the man I'd been stealing hours with, but their child. I burst into tears. What was I doing? I was ripping a family apart. I called a married friend and summoned her to lunch where I confessed. I apologized to her like she was an emblem of marriage. "Such behavior is unacceptable ..." But she reassured me that she wasn't angry with me; it was H. who was the "bad" one, and that if it wasn't me, it would be some other woman. She kept repeating that I deserved better; I deserved a real man, a real relationship, not some clandestine affair that was leaving me paranoid and self-effacing.
But I didn't stop. All my life I'd played by the rules. I'd been the "good girl" in school, at home, at work, and even in relationships. This new persona, though it was leaving scars of guilt on my psyche, was a cheap thrill. Certainly men in power who cheat must feel the same way. David Petreaus was an American hero; he crossed party lines drawing praise form Republicans and Democrats alike. Was the pressure too much to bear? I can't speak for him; I can only speak for myself, and how grossly indulgent it felt to be "bad." But then came the final straw.
One night H. had me drop him off at his apartment. I saw it: the home he shared with his wife and child. I asked the cab driver to pull over. I vomited in the street again. I had always thought people who had affairs were selfish. But the pleasure principle that had visited me my first night with H. had long since been vanquished, and all I felt was shame and sickness -- the sickness of deceit, and taking something that wasn't mine.
How Puritanical of me, to think in those terms -- I know: people do not own each other, not by vows or by law or by any other means. But without a semblance of propriety, how can we expect to live in a society where mutual respect governs our lives? And I knew H. was hurting too. A person does not have an affair because he is fulfilled. Of this I am sure.
Perhaps David Peteaus' resignation was a political maneuver, a preemptive strike before he was caught with his pants down. Perhaps he wanted to spare his wife and children the humiliation of that. Or, perhaps he was genuinely ashamed of himself, and felt this shame would prevent him from doing the best possible job at the CIA. I cannot speak to his motivations. I can only speak to mine.
I write this knowing that I will offend people; I risk my reputation and open myself up for judgment. But I also am thankful for the chance to say, I am truly sorry for hurting others, and myself.
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