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Adultery is on the rise: The other side of the Petraeus scandal

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Posted: Friday, November 16, 2012 12:10 am | Updated: 12:09 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Community Perspective

FAIRBANKS — Four-star Gen. David Petraeus has resigned as director of the CIA because of his affair with Paula Broadwell, who is married to a doctor and has 4-year-old and 6-year-old sons. 

Why do powerful men like Petraeus commit adultery? “A sense of entitlement,” the belief that they are invulnerable and a thrill-seeking personality are the top explanations in the media. 

But the focus on Petraeus leaves out a revealing question. Why did Paula Broadwell commit adultery? 

Paula Broadwell exemplifies the reasons for our national upsurge in adultery. She is highly educated, with two advanced degrees. She has held important positions in the field of counter-terrorism and writes for The New York Times and Boston Globe. 

Broadwell also traveled with Petraeus, with whom she was embedded (pardon the pun) in Afghanistan.

Adultery is rising not because men want to have more affairs than they used to but because the growing number of attractive women like Paula Broadwell increase their opportunities.  

Accurate statistics on adultery are hard to come by. People are apt to lie on surveys. Ninety percent of Americans say in such surveys that they disapprove of adultery.

One useful source of adultery statistics (although the sources aren’t made entirely clear) comes from the website Statistic Brain. Its numbers compare well to research in the field: 

• Percentage of men who say they would have an affair if they knew that they wouldn’t get caught: 74 percent

• Percentage of women who say they would have an affair if they knew that they wouldn’t get caught: 68 percent

• Percentage of men and women who admit to infidelity on a business trip: 35 percent

• Percentage of men who say they have strayed at least once in their marriage: 22 percent

• Percentage of women who say they have strayed at least once in their marriage: 14 percent

Men still commit adultery more than women, but among younger people the “adultery gap” is closing. Educated women are also more apt to commit adultery, and women’s educational achievements are high and rising.

“The newest surveys reveal a very notable shift in the demographics of deception,” writes Hara Estroff Marano in her article, “From Promise to Promiscuity,” published in Psychology Today.

“Among younger cohorts — those under 45 — the rates of infidelity among men and women are converging.

“Psychologists and sociologists attribute the development to huge changes in sheer opportunity, particularly the massive movement of women out of the home and into the workplace. Studies show that the majority of individuals engaged in an affair met their lovers at work,” she wrote.

Successful men and women traveling together for work together creates a “perfect storm” for adultery. They are more likely to bond together emotionally over challenging work. They are apt to stay at anonymous, luxury hotels. Add alcohol, exhaustion, the spice of secrecy, the unavailability of the spouse and distance from family and friends, and you have a recipe for adultery.

Biology also contributes to the thrill of a new sexual partner, according to psychologist David Levy, author of “Women Who Stray.” A new romance creates a cascade of neurochemicals, like oxytocin and dopamine, a psychological high that routine sex with your partner no longer provides.

The adulterous partner is often no more attractive than a man’s spouse. But working together makes other women available. “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,” folk singer Stephen Stills put it.

Another reason for the rise of adultery, especially among young people, is the development of a dating culture based on “hooking up.” Short sexual flings and long, monogamous relationships before marriage are commonplace.

Breaking up with your spouse seems far less awful when you are used to breaking up with other lovers you have lived with.  

The media have focused on the adultery of Gen. Petraeus. But Paula Broadwell is part of the explanation. She exemplifies the educated, financially successful woman who travels a lot for work. She, too, made the decision to have an affair.

Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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