11/17/2012 02:38 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Infidelity: A Moral Dilemma?

Gen. David Petraeus stepped down from his position as CIA director last week due to an extramarital affair with his biographer -- married author and West Point graduate Paula Broadwell. Ironically, in the book authored by Broadwell, "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus," the former general claims his number one rule is to "lead by example from the front of the formation."

Was he leading by example when he had an affair?

President Clinton, former Senator John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and now the retired four-star general are all examples of men in power who publicly cheated on their spouses. And they stand in "formation" along with the rest of us; more than 55 percent of Americans will cheat on their spouses at some point in their marriages.


Monogamy in marriage is not an easy choice. Long-term monogamy is difficult; it's hard to maintain sexual desire for one person for 10 or 20 years, much less for half a century.

In fact, researchers claim that monogamy may not be genetically inherent to humans as a species. Even man's closest primate relative, the bonobo chimp, is sexually active without distinction for partners or pair bonding. The female bonobo monkey chooses a mate, drags the male out into the jungle and has hot monkey sex with him for about two weeks before bringing him back into the pack, spent and exhausted. Then, she chooses another male and repeats her process. And she is our closest primate relative. (Females of our species sometimes do the same!)

Yet, monogamy is not so much a sexual dilemma as it is a moral dilemma. If we promise to stay faithful to one person for a lifetime, how do we keep that promise and not lie or cheat? If we are at heart a moral person -- as most of us believe ourselves to be -- how do we maintain our own morality and preserve our own integrity in the face of our basic desire to feel wanted, to feel alive and to find passion?

Human monogamy is a choice -- a learned decision that we practice every day. It may not be something we are biologically predisposed to, yet we are not biologically predisposed to eating with a fork either. And monogamy as a moral choice means that humans can work on staying faithful, but that marriage itself is not natural or easy.

What couples struggle with is how to live in society and follow a higher order without acting on their baser, more primitive needs. How do we honor our need for love and passion and at the same time, create a modern moral code that we can live with and feel good about?

The larger question about the monogamy-morality link is whether it can work in marriage as we know it. If monogamy fails more than half of the time, are we looking at a system that no longer serves our needs? Are we holding onto a romanticized notion of love and desire, hoping that we can get it right, but continuing to fail at it over and over again? What is the moral code that we are holding ourselves up to and why do we continue to fall short of our ideal? Do we just give lip service to the model and continue to follow our own desires and lie behind our partners backs, hoping we don't get caught?

Perhaps we need to create a new monogamy that begins with honesty. It seems that the hiding and the lying is what gets us into real trouble. The shame that comes with being caught is not so much from the sexual betrayal as as it is from the fact that the affair was kept hidden. It's the lying and the lack of honesty that challenges our moral code.

Monogamy is not a sexual dilemma but a dilemma of integrity.

What separates us from the primates is our ability to the tell the truth. We know the difference between lying and being honest. We may not always have a clear choice between our desires and our sexual dilemmas, but we can decide to take the higher moral road and tell the truth.

So perhaps Gen. Petraeus is still leading from the front of the formation by admitting his mistake and coming clean. Living with integrity doesn't mean we never make mistakes; we're not perfect. But we have choices. Telling the truth is not always the easier path, but it can save us from a whole mess of problems later on.

Dr. Tammy Nelson is a sex and relationship expert and the author of The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship after Infidelity