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The Petraeus affair: It’s time we quit feigning outrage over infidelity

The ideal of an inviolate, monogamous marriage is relatively new. As Elizabeth Abbott writes in Marriage, A History, it's an 18th-century construct that was a business arrangement above all. The much-ballyhooed institution has always been elastic, and at various times included children, polygamists and gay people (in ancient Rome, Emperor Elagabalus married an athlete named Zoticus. And I am never going to get over missing that party).

But the saga of U.S. General David Petraeus's downfall over an extramarital affair underscores how our present-day view of marriage is stiflingly rigid.

When I heard that he resigned in scandal, my first thought was: "Oh, that drone strike that killed the 16-year-old American in Yemen finally brought down a CIA kingpin." Then the CNN ticker tape read: "Extramarital affair." Second thought: "Teenager and/or prostitute?" But no – Petraeus cheated with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, author of the fawning memoir All In.

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I kept waiting for the kicker: "He gave her flowers and secrets about illegal drone strikes." A resignation at this level has to be about more than a sexual relationship between consenting adults – or does it? Perhaps I'd underestimated our cultural commitment to the ideal of monogamy, a principle both romantic and damaging.

The story, emerging piece by piece over the course of the week, keeps getting tawdrier and weirder: Broadwell, possibly jealous, sent harassing anonymous e-mails to Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite who called the FBI. Agents unearthed the sloppily hidden affair. Next came reports of possibly flirtatious e-mails between Kelley and General John R. Allen, who succeeded Petraeus as lead commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

As Jon Stewart said: "It's not Homeland, it's Melrose Place." With all these horndoggin' boomer bros, it's more like a silver fox version of Entourage.

Perhaps a leader of that stature is held to a higher standard of moral rectitude, but as affairs go, this one doesn't seem truly heinous. There wasn't a huge power imbalance at play: no president-intern dalliance; no prostitution ring. Broadwell worked with Petraeus for years. She was a woman in a male-dominated environment whose job was to chart the ego and successes of her subject, an unusually intimate, highly charged endeavour. It may be icky, but it's hardly shocking that they engaged in what was essentially a workplace affair. The U.S.-based Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found in its 2002 and 2006 surveys that about 40 per cent of employees report being involved in a workplace romance over the course of their careers.

Tawdry and weird isn't the same as a threat to American security. If Petraeus had still been an active general, he could have been prosecuted for adultery under military law, but he joined the CIA in 2011. He's hardly the first high-level official in that organization to cheat. As Stephen Kinzer pointed out in The New York Times, Cold War CIA Director Allen Dulles was a notorious swordsman, even sending letters (pre-Gmail) home to his wife noting the ladies he liked best. Kinzer wrote of the man that one biographer labelled, "the greatest intelligence officer who ever lived": "[B]y today's standards, this master spy would not have been allowed even to join the CIA, much less lead it."

There may be no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation, but the nation is welcome to peer into the bedrooms of the state.

Of course, two people are deeply affected by this infidelity: Broadwell's husband and Petraeus's wife. They, not we, are permitted to pass judgment, and mete out justice according to their own values. If those marriages were conventional and monogamous (really – what do we know?) then the violation is theirs to tend, privately.

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But last time I checked, Petraeus's penis had nothing to do with the rest of America. His resignation, a head-hanging sacrifice to the public shaming machine, seems peculiarly North American. According to a report on CNN, the past five presidents of France have had at least one mistress each, and still showed up for work, for better or worse. When the current scandal broke in Paris, adults were tittering about American Puritanism while chewing croissants before sending their kids to subsidized daycare.

Some have said that Petraeus's affair opened him up to blackmail, but that's only true if we pretend that extramarital affairs don't happen. But they do – check Ashley Madison, the hugely popular dating web site for people in relationships that has 1.8 million users a month.

Our present version of marriage is a romantic fantasy that denies desire, and the reality of living with someone. Those committed to the idea of marriage work through the tough parts however they can.

But as a society, we don't talk too much about marital mistakes and compromise, or admit that there's a gap between the dream of the perfect marriage, and the labour of the real one. Instead, we feign outrage at sexual transgressions, clucking from afar. Petraeus's fall on the sword won't deter anyone from infidelity, but it might deter some good people from public service.

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