Sexual Recklessness: What Is It With Powerful Men?

Gen. David Petreus joins a long list of powerful men brought down by their sexual recklessness. Click to enlarge this image. Getty Images
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The list of top military men who have had sexual affairs is not short. Why would a powerful man sabotage himself for the "other" woman?

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. George Patton, and, now, Gen. David Petraeus. Are they some of the greatest military men in U.S. history, or adulterers?

Both, most Americans probably agree. So why do men in power so often entangle themselves in sexually reckless exploits? Psychologists say it's not surprising: The same qualities and characteristics we consider positive traits of being a national or world leader can veer toward the negative, given the situation.

"Top politicians are not like the rest of us," said psychologist and Temple University professor Frank Farley. "Many of us want a good 8-5 job and a good home life, but political life is the opposite of that. These jobs involve daily challenge -- being sent off to wars, constant travel. It attracts people who at a deep level have a high tolerance of risk taking and uncertainty."

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If we look at a few more traits: boldness, self-confidence, innovative, someone who thrives on challenge and possesses independence of judgement, a picture emerges of someone likely to be a hero. But those very traits can also lead to opportunities for big mistakes, often in the public eye.

"You're simply so attractive; you're a person of accomplishment and success, you're charismatic, and when a risk-taking personality meets opportunity, sometimes things happen," Farley said, adding that in the Petraeus case, both partners in the affair seemed to have risk-taking traits.

Some believe there's an element of self-sabotage involved.

"Life is not about where you think you're going; it's about the experiences you get along the way," said Cris Baker, author of "Self-Sabotage: What It Is, Why We Do It, When We Do It, How to Overcome It."

"The experiences you might want to have are complete experiences and they're only complete wen you know them from all sides and aspects. You can't get to completion without knowing what commitment is unless you also experience breaking it. Petraeus is, or was, one of the most powerful men in America, and maybe on of the experiences he wants is to become powerful and see what it's like to lose that. It's the self-sabotage mechanism. We all have one; we've all been tempted."

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In other words, Petraeus isn't different from the rest of us; he's just in the limelight, Baker said. And either he didn't think through the consequences, or he thought he could get away with it.

Indeed, highly self-confident leaders believe that they control their fate, Farley said, so believing an affair can be gotten away with isn't so far-fetched. But, they're also human.

"There's a strong streak of humanity, and they're away from home a lot," Farley said. "But do we want them to be anything but human? The human side probably helps to make them great leaders. … Marriage is a great institution, but monogamy is just another lost cause in the human species."

That turns the question to whether the public is willing to forgive the mistake. Throughout history, the answer has often been yes.

"I study heroism a lot, and when you do national surveys and ask people who their top heroes are in the public sphere, FDR and JFK are nearly always in the top list of presidents … and they are both poster children for adultery," Farley said. "And Bill Clinton is maybe the most popular politician on the globe."

The public may be especially likely to forgive Petraeus if his mistake was solely personal -- that is, if national security wasn't compromised -- and if he shows he is repairing his family relationships.

"The key for the nation is, did it impair their leadership, and so far (for Petraeus) it doesn't look like it has," Farley said. "I don't think he should have resigned. Here's a talent we might lose. He said he made a mistake, and I'm sure he's mending the homefront. There's got to be a great place for him in our government; otherwise, I'm sure the private sector will pick him up."

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