I’m once again pondering the mystery of why people have affairs, in the wake of the David Petraeus debacle and the recent “scandal” involving the estrangement of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, stars of the Twilight movie saga (because of her infidelity). To me, pondering such mysteries and making any sense out of them is right up there with the mystery of life, the nature of God, the nature of the cosmos, and the mystery of good, evil and death. In short, the full measure of understanding is beyond our grasp.
People have been having affairs since the dawn of time. History is full of such relationships. Many of the ones we know the most about have involved monarchs and famous leaders – Edward VIII of England, Cleopatra, the Caesars, many American and European politicians including presidents: Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few. And there are priests and clergy, and so many of the Hollywood/entertainment set that one couldn’t possibly keep accurate count. Power and sexual shenanigans seem to go hand in hand. The evidence suggests this is a fact. So the Petraeus affair is not a singular occurrence in an historical context. And, we should realize that this behavior affects many ordinary folk we never hear about – many of our neighbors, co-workers, even members of our extended family. And those folks are rarely in the news.
And even more mysterious is trying to understand why the general public is so fascinated with these happenings and so willing to weigh in and judge, or defend, one party or the other. It is the stuff of potluck gatherings, church circles, coffee klatches, dog park encounters and car pools. We salivate over the scandal rags at the market’s checkout stand. When a certain type of human behavior repeats over and over and over again with almost predictable regularity, like the cycles of the seasons, or the rising and setting of the sun, why exactly does such activity cause so much interest? I never hear people talk quite so excitedly about how the sun comes up, the sun goes down, the moon is full, the moon is waning or similar weather and cosmic occurrences, except when there are unusually beautiful sunsets that take your breath away, or eclipses or planetary phenomena that only happen every 4,000 years – those are surely worthy of comment.
One psychologist whose analysis on this topic I read, says that affairs happen because of the human need we have for a soulful, spiritual, loving connection with another human being. Sometimes that need is not—or not fully—being met by the person to whom the individual is “committed” (e.g., the spouse). Which makes me wonder, not for the first time, about how insanely unrealistic it is to expect that we can get all our human needs met through a single relationship. Isn’t that what we expect of a committed relationship, of monogamy – a soul mate who will meet our every need? And then, isn’t that the very thing we rail about when the relationship doesn’t fulfill our every need? What is wrong with the picture is our unrealistic expectation of our own species. Indeed, it seems more than a lot to expect of any one individual — the ability to be the “be-all” and “end-all” to another complex human organism. This same psychologist whose article I read says that the physical relationship involved in affairs quenches a thirst of the soul, and that sexual affairs are not always just crass and physical. There are powerful psychological realities going on, and that is why people use this outlet, over and over again.
We haven’t even fully completed news coverage of super storm Sandy, and the fallout of the 2012 election, and here we are moving on to the more salacious coverage of the Petraeus affair, while thousands on the East coast are homeless, still without power, while unemployment is still high, and global warming continues to loom ominously. Putting aside the consideration about national security for a moment (though it really is a big deal), it is as if we not only need affairs as thirst quenchers for the soul on the one hand, but we seem to need the concomitant gossip and microscopic dissection of other people’s activities, on the other hand, as fodder for social interludes because we lack the originality to converse on other possibly relevant topics.
Not long ago, the Stieg Larsson epidemic seemed to sweep the globe and everyone was reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the other books in the trilogy. I read all three books, as did millions of others. For the genre, they were quite good. There is a character in those novels, who is the occasional lover and good friend of the protagonist Mikael Blomkvist. Her name is Erika Berger and she is married, apparently reasonably happily, yet continues to have this ongoing relationship with Mikael. At some point in the novels, it is explained that her husband, feeling deeply connected to this woman and not wanting to lose her, looked honestly and openly at his wife’s attraction to this other man. He wasn’t nuts about his wife’s other relationship, and yet didn’t want a divorce and neither did Erika. He saw that he was fighting against an attraction that was very powerful. So the three of them had some meetings and discussions and finally agreed on a fairly open three-way sharing arrangement, a sort of pluralistic marriage for all practical purposes. And for them, it seemed to work reasonably well. How mature. Yet, for us American readers, how odd.
Maybe it is the Puritan ethic that haunts us here in the US. The Europeans, especially the Scandinavians, seem to have a very different take on human relationships. This is not to say that jealousy and betrayal and feelings of insecurity don’t occur within their cultures too, but it certainly makes me wonder if we need to readjust our moral and judgmental compasses just a teeny bit. We’re evolving beings after all, at least those of us who subscribe to scientific observation. Or at the very least, we are changing beings, or adapting and accommodating beings. Evolving suggests continued positive upward movement, getting better and better. Maybe sometimes, instead, our dance is of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back variety. We shuffle, we try different permutations and combinations, we realign, we readjust, we reexamine, we take stock, we try again. We morph. To ascribe “good” or “bad” or “sinful” labels to our frail shifting efforts seems just plain silly to me. For instance, I read an article in which Paula Broadwell (the other woman in the Petraeus affair) was called “skankzilla.” Before we know all the details, I think that is a pretty strong label.
Overall, I think we might attach various shades of just plain “human” adjectives to our mis-steps; that seems more appropriate. There used to be an expression my father used: “Vass you der, Charlie?’ (with a German accent — picture Arte Johnson from “Laugh In” fame). Well, I wasn’t there, I don’t know the details of the affair, and it isn’t my business, and I’m weighing out. I feel badly for the family members over the fall out — but we are just making it worse by our gawking. I would care if any minors were directly abused or compromised in the ordeal, as in the Penn State mess. And, of course, there is the national security concern — that is where we should focus. And committees and hearings will likely do a lot of investigating, as would be appropriate at that level. Skip the rest of the human drama. Don’t we have individual lives to live?
Don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t advocate that we all go out and behave “badly” because our human natures are weak. But, I think the “human” continuum is much broader and much grayer than we are willing to admit. Until we face up to the complex frailties of the human spirit, and just accept that we are what we are, and forgive ourselves in the process even while we try to be our best selves, we are going to continue to be disappointed with ourselves and our fellows. And maybe, just maybe, we don’t deserve to beat up on ourselves and others of our species with such aggrieved and righteous ferocity. I reserve the right to write more on the topic if I learn more that changes my mind — I’m human after all.