Lordy, Lordy: General Petraeus, General Allen, authors, triathlon athletes, West Point, Harvard, Tampa, military hostesses, radiologists, the FBI, a colossal mess for the U.S. And we were just trying to gain some footing after the tumult and havoc of Sandy and Election 2012. Nope, there is no peace for the human psyche when under the influence of hormones, grandiosity, entitlement, egoism (aka self-interest), ambition and best of all, that ever-reliable human instrument of destruction, Denial.
What Trips Judgment? Two decades ago I was sitting in my office listening to a very unhappy woman in a miserable marriage describe the small shards of joy she was extracting from an affair with a local in her town. Local was the operative word for me. As she reported the details, how they met, where he lived, what hour of the day she ventured to his home for their rendezvous, I felt fear seep into my pores, my pores, not hers. Oh no, in broad daylight, your car, his home, a condominium complex. You’ve got to be kidding! What was the difference between her reaction and my own? Well, several factors of course, but most important of all was that she was getting gratification from the romance, endorphins and all, and I was just sitting there with the stark reality of the chance that she was taking. Though her affair was one further step towards finding the courage to leave her marriage, she did have young children and a lot at stake. She waved away my concerns and in fact, never did get “caught” so to speak. But that was twenty plus years ago. The times have changed and the data that swirls in and out of my office weekly provides evidence that it is only a matter of time before “your illicit liaison” will be outed, if not by the FBI, at least by your son, daughter, cleaning lady, spouse or Facebook pal.
Competition and Lust: What is particularly intriguing to me about this latest great man slide is not that he fell for her or she for him. That part is easy. But that much like the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton affair, this Petraeus episode was exposed by a second woman, someone seemingly outside of the intimate clutch of the affair. As with Linda Tripp in the Lewinsky case, the woman/friend of Monica’s who tapped her phone conversations with Bill and submitted them to the authorities, Jill Kelley sent the FBI looking for the source of “harassing emails” that led to the discovery of a trail of amorous communications between Petraeus and Ms. Broadwell. So in addition to the mechanism of denial that allows normally intelligent people to lose a basic capacity for judging risk, combine that with ambition/competition/envy in the stew pot of lustful adventure and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.
My Point, You Ask? There is a strange transparency in our world today. It is called the “Internet.” I have worked with people who send or receive photos on their phones of their lover’s sexual body parts, don’t delete them and then reassure me that “no one ever picks up my phone.” I have discussed at length the usefulness of truthfulness because it is easier than being “found out” by your eight-year-old daughter or already pot-addicted teenage son. The damage differential between admitting to an affair, and being found out is simple: both include betrayal but the former comes equipped with some respect for the person you are betraying, the dignity of facing them, telling them and taking what comes with it. The other variety adds several more gobs of the poisonous gook of humiliation including the recognition that others knew this was going on while “I was the schmuck left in the dark.”
Back To Denial and The Internet: There is an even greater chance these days than decades ago for our secrets to be accessed by almost anyone with time on their hands and curiosity. I warn people, but they are in love or lust or on a mission to track down evidence of their partner’s lust for another. Their brains and bodies are cranking the chemistry of obsessive desire, which undermines the psyche’s alert system/risk assessment apparatus. Furthermore, as folks love to point out, falling in love with oneself, through the years of unstoppable achievement and recognition, likely intensifies the belief in one’s invincibility. “I can do this because I have been able to do everything else.” This is why it is so necessary to have a backup system of personal checks, like the generators we all relied on, if we were lucky, to get through Sandy with toilets flushing and some heat. If brain number one fails, we can bring in brain number two. Woody Allen’s infamous line “The heart wants what the heart wants,” coined to explain his seizure of girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter for his own lustful gratification, sounded at the time so juvenile and yet seems to have become almost biblical in its wisdom. Yuk, but it’s true. Unless you get that back-up generator of an observing alter ego working in anticipation of the next powerful climatic challenge, you will become another casualty of the Internet, because the heart will have its way.
It’s All About The Brain: I feel sorry for our country right now. We don’t deserve this mess. We spent months listening to the candidates, years watching politicians undermine each other, decades watching people of all kinds die in wars led by our leaders and their generals, and now we have to see the highest level of military brass walk around with their pants down, in front of us all. Silly/tragic but human. When will our country educate its citizens in the workings of their psyches, their bodies and brains, so that we can prevent such a waste of talent and time? Perhaps my post last week can offer some ideas on how to do that. Yes, we are just simply human but we do have great untapped personal resources that can aid us in being better at risk assessment, smarter at anticipating consequences, and more reliable for those who are dependent on us for their safety and happiness. Take a look again at this piece: Missing Teeth and Bully Wives: Aggression in The Coupledom. We need to become better generals in command of our desires, our distortions and our options.
Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012