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What If Petraeus Had an Open Marriage?

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General David Petraeus has resigned his position as head of the CIA. The reason, you've probably heard, is that he cheated on his wife. Gawker has some wild theories about who he might have been cheating with. But that's not the most important thing.

The important thing is that he's out of a job, and the CIA is out a highly respected leader.

While it's a stunning lapse in integrity for someone who was widely respected, it doesn't at first glance seem like the kind of lapse that has a lot to do with running the CIA. Does having an affair make him a less capable leader?

Maybe. Does philandering lead to other kinds of dishonesty? Would this have cost him the respect of his people? Opened him up to blackmail?

All these things are serious issues, and they add up to it being not all that shocking that breaking his marriage vows cost him his career.

The resignation has caused something of a stir among my non-monogamous friends. The conversation seems to center on the sex-negative aspects of this: did Petraeus lose his position because he had "illicit" sex? What would a world look like where you could have more than one partner and not risk your career over it? Some are wondering if you can even get security clearance if you're in an open relationship.

I happen to know that the answer to that last one is yes; I have numerous poly friends with security clearance, who are open about their relationships with their supervisors. They're not running entire branches of the U.S. security apparatus, of course. But they are doing their jobs with integrity, and being treated with respect by supervisors who understand the difference between an illicit affair and an honest open relationship.

I don't see this as necessarily being about Petraeus having a lover outside his marriage. I see it as being about him lying about it.

I'm not going to defend that. Lying to your spouse is a terrible thing to do, and I'm inclined to trust someone less if I know they've done it. It's not a characteristic I want in my government leadership. If you'll lie to the person you've vowed to be honest with and share your life with, what's to stop you from lying to me?

I think Petraeus' integrity is a matter of public import. Should he have lost his job over it? Maybe not. But he should be accountable for this pretty major ethical lapse.

Would I feel the same way if he were coming out about being in an open marriage? Of course not. I know from long personal experience that an open marriage demands the utmost integrity and honesty from everyone involved.

What's incredibly sad about this situation is that Petraeus probably never felt like negotiating an honest open relationship was an option for him. It may not have been; I don't know the particulars of his situation.

I am sure that if we had a culture of acceptance and positivity around desire; if we recognized the many ways people can love each other and express that love; if we did away with the assumption that monogamy and commitment always go hand-in-hand, we'd have fewer scandals about adultery engulfing those in the public eye.

Some people cheat on their partners for the thrill. Some are genuinely unwilling to do the hard emotional work necessary in an open relationship. But I think a lot of people who cheat just feel trapped and like they have no choices. They do something deeply wrong because they can't find a right way to live that honors the full expression of their sexuality.

I'm not excusing Petraeus here. We don't all get to fully express every aspect of ourselves, and if you've committed to a monogamous marriage and find yourself falling for someone else, the thing to do is keep your pants on or renegotiate things with your spouse. I'm not going to side with Dan Savage and excuse some cheaters on the grounds that their spouse is just being totally unfair in not letting them have the nice sex they want. I think cheating is always wrong.

What I'd like to see is a culture where there's much less pressure to cheat, and much more acceptance of people's different needs and desires. A culture where having a wife and a lover doesn't open you up to blackmail because it's simply not a dirty secret.

In that world, I'd like to imagine Petraeus would still be heading up the CIA, not because we'd be more accepting of him cheating on his wife, but because he wouldn't have cheated on her in the first place.

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