Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Petraeus Affair: The Attractiveness of Holly Petraeus & Paula Broadwell


Once again, the extramarital affair of a beloved public figure has come to light. Since the resignation of General David Petraeus, the talking heads have been blathering up a storm. Their conversation has been further fueled by emerging details that make the unfolding story seem nothing short of a soap opera. (Jimmy Kimmel did a good job of breaking it down here.)
I have clients who are recovering from affairs, so I kept my eye on the story and listened to other people about their perspectives. At a coffee shop recently, I overheard three women having a conversation about the affair. (When I heard what they were talking about, yes, I eavesdropped.) After discussing the newest, juiciest details of the story, one woman said, “But have you seen his wife?” Pictures of Holly Petraeus have been splashed all over the world, and while commentators have been deliberate to speak in only glowingly terms about her, the side-by-side comparison with Paula Broadwell has been blatant. In one photo, for example, the wife and mistress are even captured in the same frame with red circles drawn around their heads.
Then yesterday, Pat Robertson weighed in on the subject on his TV show. After saying “I don’t think [Petraeus] is a devious human being,” Robertson listed Petraeus’ brilliant accomplishments. He then turned his attention to Broadwell and itemized why he thought she was so attractive. Robertson completed his analysis of the situation by saying “The man’s off in a foreign land and he’s lonely and here’s a good-looking lady throwing herself at him. I mean, he’s a man.”
While you might be tempted to go on a rant about Robertson (for the moment, I am going to side-step the “he’s a man” comment), he did what normal, every-day people have been doing privately. Without knowing the details of the situation, he painted a picture of a hot seductress chasing after a brilliant man. The woman at the coffee shop underscored the stereotype that a “frumpy” wife cannot compete with a hot seductress. On the airwaves and over coffee conversations, people from different backgrounds and genders reduced the affair to one factor: how the women looked.
I am deeply disturbed by this type of oversimplification. It devalues women – not just these two women, but all women. Robertson’s reflections made no mention of Broadwell’s accomplishments or what the strain of working overseas might have done to her marriage. The women sipping their lattes made no mention of the years Holly Petraeus spent raising the kids on her own or fighting on behalf of other military families in financial trouble. But when we support and participate in a culture that focuses exclusively on how women appear, we all lose. It creates an impossible standard: in order to stay unmarred by the pain of an affair, you have to be attractive, but not too attractive.
Engaging in this depiction does not stem the tide of infidelity because it does not accurately reflect the reasons why people have affairs. Many men have affairs with women who are less attractive than their wives…because how these women look is not the temptation. Noel Biderman, owner of the cheating service Ashley Madison, has been quoted as saying, “If you sat down with 20 people who’d had an affair and said, rate the person you had an affair with ‘better looking’ or ‘worse looking’ than your partner, almost 90 percent will say worse. You can build a profile right now of an unattractive woman, overweight, whatever, she’ll still have a dozen men interested in meeting her.”
As long as we reduce an affair to the way the women involved looked, we will remain vulnerable of having one ourselves. Men, if you think that only a marathon runner with great arms will tempt you away from your wife, then you are going to get blindsided by the plain looking woman who works in accounting and can listen with empathy to your stories. Women, if you think your husband is only in danger from a woman who has a DD chest, you will be stunned with it turns out the “frumpy” woman knows how to love him better than you.
Let’s stop the oversimplification and take a long look at our own relationships. Let’s start having candid conversations with our spouses about what we, as individuals, find tempting. Let’s find out what draws our eyes, bodies and hearts away from our spouses. Rather than making assumptions about the causes of infidelity, the information we glean through these conversations will actually reduce the risk of us straying.
ERYN-FAYE FRANS, Canada's Passion Coach ®

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