The Psychology of the Petraeus Affair

I’ve had this link on my list of things to write about for a few days and even though it’s not the most compelling thing to write about right now, I wanted to make sure I wrote about it before it got to be too far away from the incident. The link is a panel discussing the motives behind the Petraeus affair.

The only thing I’ve written so far is my bafflement with Petraeus’ forced resignation “because of possible blackmail.” When I heard about this discussion, I thought I should also add something to the discussion. Some of the reasons that were discussed in the video/article:

  • Invincibility
  • Self-sabotage
  • “God made us this way”
  • “Men are simply no good”
  • Opportunity
  • Risk-seeking behavior (paired with the first one, invincibility)

While those are all plausible explanations, some carry more weight than others. Better yet, I think that there is an important one missing from this list: drive.

As the panelists tell us, this is not the first time that we’ve seen high-profile people and infidelity. In fact, this isn’t even something that’s limited to politicians — athletes do, too. Both Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods come to mind as two very high-profile athletes who’ve publicly admitted to infidelity. (I say publicly admitted because who knows how many other accounts of infidelity there have been that the public has not been privy to.) In researching for this article, I came across a good summary of the literature on infidelity in a post about Tiger Woods:

The precursors to cheat could be summarized as:

  • Significant, ongoing, unresolved problems in the primary, long-term relationship or marriage
  • A significant difference in sex drive between the two partners
  • The older the primary relationship
  • A greater difference in personality than perhaps the partners realize
  • And to a far lesser extent, perhaps some theoretical, evolutionary remnants that may have reinforced multiple partners over monogamy (although this is just a hypothetical argument that would be difficult to disprove)

While these are some helpful (in understanding) precursors to cheating, there’s still one more I want to discuss — personality. Yes, personality is named in this list, but I don’t think that it adequately gets to the point I’d like to make.

File:Triangular Theory of Love.svg

Think about the kind of personality required to make it to the levels that Petraeus, Woods, and Bryant have. It takes quite a bit of discipline, dedication, and perseverance. These men didn’t just wake up one day at the pinnacle of their professions. They worked hard for it. While, of course, talent plays a big role in being able to make it to the upper-echelon, drive also plays a big part, too. It is this drive that I think plays a large part in infidelity. It’s almost as if we could theorize that there’s a triangle.

In fact, it reminds me of Sternberg’s triangular theory of love (pictured above-left). I would argue that drive is one of the vertices of a triangle, invincibility is another, and opportunity is the third. Without these three things present, one won’t necessarily cheat. Similarly, with these three vertices present, one won’t necessarily cheat. Though, when these three vertices are present, I would bet that the incidence of cheating is elevated.

Published by Jeremiah Stanghini

Jeremiah's primary aim is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the "Blind Men and the Elephant," it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a 'tusk' or a 'leg.' He writes on a variety of topics: psychology, business, science, entertainment, politics, history, etc.

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