Family Matters

What’s ‘Infidelity’? Lessons of the Petraeus Affair For the Kids

When Gen. David Petraeus admitted to an extramarital affair, he joined a growing list of politically prominent men whose high profile meant that his private decisions became very public.

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

When Gen. David Petraeus admitted to an extramarital affair, he joined a growing list of politically prominent men whose high profile meant that his private decisions became very public.

For children old enough to read about the news, the inevitable questions will be about what words like “affair” and “infidelity” mean. Even if you’ve had the sex talk, it’s likely that it was pretty focused on straightforward baby-making mechanics, and probably did not include cheating as a caveat to sex.

You hope to teach children that sex equates with love, that when you pledge to treasure someone forever on your wedding day, it’s a vow to be taken seriously.

(MORE: Resignation at the CIA: Why Petraeus Had to Go)

And yet. Petraeus — who reportedly told troops that “character” was something that you display when you think no one else is watching — wasn’t thinking of the kids he’d potentially confuse when he seduced (or was seduced by) his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

This story is even more salacious than the usual cheating narrative that plays out in the public eye. It goes beyond showing “extremely poor judgment,” as Petraeus acknowledged in his letter of resignation from his position as CIA director. In addition to the usual blindsided, cheated-on spouses, there are big kids to contend with (Petraeus has two adult children) and little ones (Broadwell has two who were ages 4 and 6 as of January, when her book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, was published.

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There’s talk of security breaches and questions about potential unauthorized sharing of information. Legislators are peeved that they they didn’t hear of the investigation sooner. Conspiracy theorists are focused on the fact that Petraeus resigned shortly before he was supposed to testify on Capitol Hill about the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi that killed four, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Meanwhile, Tom Matlack, founder of online magazine The Good Men Project, is finding it odd that we’re harping on the sex scandal at all. Consensual sex between two adults is not newsworthy, according to his post, Can We Please Kill the Headline “He Cheated”?

Somehow we have gotten into this ground-hog day news cycle of powerful men who have sex outside their marriage as the absolute top story at even the most respected news organizations. I say: shame on all of us.
…Stop worrying about how men and women attempt to find love and screw it up over and over again. The scandals do nothing but obfuscate the most important issues of our time.

Perhaps that’s the take-home message here. People make mistakes. Even people in prominent positions of leadership. They cheat. They lie. They steal. And when you make mistakes, you have to pay for them. As parents, it’s our job to put that in context for our kids, to explain that Petraeus had a big, important job. He made a bad choice, and now he doesn’t have that job anymore because of his bad judgment. Broadwell put months into researching and chronicling Petraeus’ career and his path to success. Now she’s known, wrongly or rightly, as the temptress who led to his downfall. Another faulty choice.

Choices, of course, are part of life. It’s how we teach our kids to make decisions — hopefully the right ones —  that will stick with them far beyond any memory of what the word “infidelity” means.

(MORE: The Good Daughter: Cate Edwards Stands By Her Indicted Father)

2 comments
YouKnowIt
YouKnowIt

I totally disagree with this article. For one, each of the adults (Petraeus and Broadwell) CHOSE to engage in an affair. Neither were seduced. Let's not use that word. They CHOSE. Secondly, do you really think the is the FIRST TIME Petraeus displayed this kind of narcissism and arrogance? OF COURSE NOT! This is just the first time he got caught by the public. This behavior is just the tip of the iceburg. Hell, men will tell you, "there's the cheatin' kind"! It was not a mistake but a window into his character. I'd be willing to be my life that he's been doing this kind of under-handed stuff for years--well before he ever married Holly BECAUSE OF WHO HER DADDY WAS.

Sidiana
Sidiana

Ok.. so what's going on? This affair was for days everywhere and now that it suddenly gets really juicy and interesting the coverage stops! Come on.... Secret Services scaring the news?