I'm looking at That Picture again, the one beamed every 10 minutes on cable news: General David Petraeus in uniform standing very close to Paula Broadwell in a silky blouse, her right breast nearly grazing his torso. If we didn't know what we know now we might think they are fraternal twins, almost the same height though she slightly taller, both taut with high foreheads and narrow noses.
He is 60 and she is 40 and they are grinning like teenagers, flushed from the connection of a very deep friendship and perhaps the afterglow of very fun sex.
A therapist comes on the screen and starts blathering about what everyone is blathering about: How high-profile men who are usually married are aphrodisiacs for women. She becomes a voiceover for rotating images of wayward famous husbands, Tiger and Arnold and John Edwards.
I am so sick of this overblown non-news story, the generalization of "Why Women Want To Sleep With Powerful Men", as if all women were lemmings flocking to fancy-titled males, putty in their hands. "These men make women feel protected," the therapist is saying. "These men bring excitement to their less exciting lives."
Granted there may be many women like Broadwell who enter lopsided liaisons, seduced by power and prestige. But she and Arnold's housekeeper are not emblematic of Everywoman. I am a relationship writer who excavates real stories from real wives of all ages. And here is the real news: Wives have affairs for a variety of reasons at different stages of their marriages, and it's usually not from being intoxicated with job titles and high profiles. Most of the trysts I hear about are initiated by strong women, not by besotted, bored damsels in distress. They are women with their own dynamic careers who often seek out lovers with lesser salaries and lower profiles.
I've interviewed wives who have secret love affairs with men in blue-collar and workman professions -- yes the pool man, the landscape architect, even one who snagged the plumber. These women start the affairs, control the affairs, and end the affairs. They are women who own their own power and are not looking to be protected.
Maybe the wife feels ignored. Maybe she isn't getting laid. Maybe she is on a business trip and makes a stupid and drunken mistake. Maybe she married her childhood boyfriend, her one and only lover, and she has the urge to try it with someone else. Maybe she is a narcissistic executive who want to be with someone who's not as smart, self-centered and competitive.
Maybe she falls in love. Maybe she falls in uncontrollable lust.
It certainly isn't only macho husbands with power who can play this game and who are playing this game. Despite more than a 30-year passage of time since the swell of Women's Liberation, the macho and prevailing myth is that it's the husbands who are more susceptible to infidelity. With women beginning to out-earn their men in professions that demand lots of travel, adultery is an equal-opportunity employer. There are no accurate statistics on adultery because most people lie about sex, but marriage researchers estimate that figure could be as high as half of married persons in the United States.
I'm not writing this in celebration of adultery. Screwing around on a spouse is painful and wrong. Yet philandering happens, constantly, and has for centuries. The majority of the women who reveal their affairs to me don't want a divorce. Their extramarital adventures are fleeting and remain secretive, and don't de-rail their marriages.
I'm thinking of a woman who had too good of a time at her high school reunion, which she attended without her husband. She re-ignited a relationship with her senior prom date, the first man she ever slept with -- her husband being the second, and her only other partner. As she approached her 40th birthday, this re-kindling with an old flame made her "feel younger than I'm feeling as the mother of a six-year-old and a wife of 10 years. Maybe I was having a 10-year itch," she says.
After a few romps the high school flame burned out quickly and she became newly appreciative of a husband "who was mature and interesting and the father of my children." She also admitted that having sex with someone else made her more adventurous in her marital bed. Her secret remained a secret and as she puts it: "No one got hurt."
What I know from the work that I do is that many people you would never suspect have secret lives. The prim soprano in your church choir may be shtupping the paunchy piano player. I also know you can never judge a book by its cover: I loathe this talk that Mrs. Petraeus is dowdy and therefore, "why wouldn't her husband fool around?" Mrs. Petraeus may be one hot woman with her own secret lives. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors except the two people in that room.
So we can speculate all we want on why a neighbor has strayed or why a general has strayed or why his lover with a husband and two children has strayed: But only they know what drives their behavior. Perhaps their spouses are straying, too. So don't be so quick to judge.
We may never uncover the truth behind what really occurred between David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell -- who did what, who did it first and how things started to unfold. Nor do we know what will happen to their marriages. Obviously in his role as the keeper of top national secrets it was dumb to sleep with someone with whom pillow talk could be an international disaster. Obviously it was dumb for her to taunt, via email, a va-va-voom hostess she deemed to be a romantic rival.
But I do know this: women love a lot of other things about men besides their power.