Do women know men better than those men know themselves? Probably not, but the hopeful expectation that they do is one of the most irresistible (and under-acknowledged) drivers of extramarital affairs. The resignation of CIA director David Petraeus following the revelation of an extramarital affair, like the John Edwards/Rielle Hunter case before it, reveals a story we all know well by now: politician falls in love, risks his career, and destroys his marriage for the woman charged with documenting his life. Driven by something stronger than lust or the craving for ego validation, what lies beneath this particular kind of affair is some men's desperately narcissistic longing to see themselves through the eyes of someone whom they imagine knows them better -– and admires them more –- than they do themselves.
In the aftermath of last Friday's dramatic announcement, we're all asking and answering the familiar questions: Why do powerful men cheat? In this ever-more egalitarian age, do men really still cheat more than women? Are powerful and successful men invariably cursed with a self-destructive streak? What do episodes like this say about the possibility of sustaining monogamy?
As interesting and important as these evergreen discussions are, what's in danger of getting lost in the David Petraeus case is that this was clearly more than just a sexual liaison. This wasn't Eliot Spitzer laundering money to pay a sex worker; this wasn't Bill Clinton getting blowjobs in the Oval Office from an intern. The four-star general who pioneered a successful approach to counter-insurgency operations before becoming CIA director had a nearly year-long affair with Paula Broadwell, his biographer. (Her book, with the now-unfortunate title All In, was published in January, five months after sources report the affair began.) We don't know (though we inevitably will discover) the specific details of the relationship. Yet even in outline, the Petraeus-Broadwell story fits into a familiar pattern.
Most American men over 40 (and plenty far younger) were raised in a culture in which action was valued over self-reflection. Whatever vocabulary we had to describe our own inner terrain was usually bullied or beaten out of us by the time we hit adolescence. We grew up with what sociologists Deborah David and Robert Brannon, the trailblazers of modern masculinity studies, first labeled the four rules of manhood: No Sissy Stuff; Be a Big Wheel; Be a Sturdy Oak; Give ‘em Hell. No boy or man could live up to any of these ideals perfectly -– but in the trying, plenty of us deliberately suppressed or lost touch with our own vulnerability. That was as it should be, we were reminded: interpreting and managing our emotions was women's work. We didn't just outsource our compassion and our tears to our sisters and girlfriends, we outsourced our self-awareness.
Hugely successful men like John Edwards and David Petraeus lived by the four rules of manhood; the pretty hair and empathy for the poor for which the former first became famous couldn't hide the reality that this was a man who had made a fortune as a fiercely aggressive trial lawyer. His downfall came in a love affair with the woman who was assigned to document his campaign by making a series of behind-the-scenes candid web videos. Breaking one stereotype, John Edwards fell in love not with an intern young enough to be his daughter, but with a 40-something aspiring filmmaker who held out the flattering possibility that through her lens, he might see a side of himself he couldn't otherwise be sure existed.
It's hard not to suspect that that same lack of self-awareness drove General Petraeus. Men whose lives are defined by public action and attentiveness to image are vulnerable to "imposter syndrome." They may be keenly aware of the disconnect between how they are perceived and the messy reality of who it is that they "really " are. Married to women who are under no illusions as to their shortcomings, plenty of middle-aged men make the mistake of turning to the women who "understand." An affair with a journalist or documentarian offers a double bonus: not only the chance to be validated as privately worthy by a star-struck lover, but the promise of being presented to the public in the most favorable possible light by a woman whom you like to imagine knows you better than you know yourself.
Sex scandals are rooted in male narcissism, as Irin Carmon wrote for Jezebel when the Edwards scandal broke. Rielle Hunter famously first got John Edwards' attention with a blunt "You're hot!" But we make a mistake when we assume that male narcissism is only about being validated for being sexually attractive. It's also about the longing to be seen as worthy by a woman who is presumably in a position to know the truth about his goodness. Men who froze their own capacity for introspection when they were young are particularly likely to seek out the affair with the woman who promises to peek underneath the uniform and pronounce that what she sees is hot, fascinating, and noble. This is a narcissism driven as much by a specifically male lack of self-awareness as it is by preening, anxious vanity.