General Petraeus Had an Affair: Who the Heck Cares?

Another American hero took a tumble this week as news emerged that General David Petraeus, head of the CIA, had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. It seems clear that he cheated. But do we simply write him off as a dirtbag because he had sex with someone other than his wife? I’m not so sure.
Before most of my friends and I got hitched, there was no gray zone when it came to extramarital affairs. The person who cheated was lower than the lowest life form on earth and the person who got cheated on was the victim. But now, ten years later, the issue of infidelity seems a lot murkier. Rather than the cause, it often seems to be a symptom of a relationship already in trouble.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe it’s awful to betray your partner in any way. And it’s even worse when sex is involved, because you may be putting your partner’s life and health in danger. Years ago, a friend of mine contracted genital warts from her husband, a guy who had the audacity to claim he’d contracted this sexually transmitted disease years earlier, before they were married. Cheating is wrong and it's the cheater who is solely to blame. Period.
Except for this: marriage is complicated and it takes both people to make or break a relationship. There are times when you feel disconnected, emotionally, physically, or both, from your spouse. There are periods when you’re angry, resentful, lonely, jealous, bitter, wistful, hurt, or growing in opposite directions. There are times when you don’t like each other, feel incompatible, and can't even remember why you got married in the first place. If you’re lucky, these moments are fleeting. If you're not, the divide only deepens over time. And that's when a General Patraues situation becomes more of a possibility.
When the Lewinsky scandal broke years ago, I remember learning some fascinating stuff about cheating. One factoid that still stands out is how many women see emotional infidelity as worse than extra-marital sex. For women, a man's emotional connection to another woman can pose more of a threat to a marriage than a roll in the hay. Moreover, women who divorced their husbands solely because of a sexual affair often regretted it later on. Wow - that says a lot.
I’ve seen a few friends, especially those who are unhappy in their marriages, “playing around” these days. Whether it’s through flirty conversations on Facebook or long chats over leisurely dinners with a cute colleague, these folks know they are straddling the very fine line between innocent interactions and dangerous liaisons. Though I never would have said this a decade ago, I now see how unfaithfulness is about more than one person in the marriage having a physical or emotional dalliance with someone else. It's also a sign that there are dire problems in the relationship, problems that both spouses may be responsible for.