Lessons for Life

Inside the mind of a cheater

Why powerful people continue to put their careers at risk by having affairs

Cheating

Boxed copies of "Total Recall -- My Unbelievevably True Life Story" by actor and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are seen during a book signing on October 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. Schwarzenegger's memoir, named after one of his blockbuster movies, includes details of his marital infidelities, including fathering a child with his housekeeper, leading his wife Maria Shriver to file for divorce. (PAUL J. RICHARDS, Getty Images / October 2, 2012)

If we've learned anything over the resignation of retired Gen. David Petraeus as the head of the CIA over an admitted affair, it's that high-ranking men and women continue to break the rules. Affairs will always make the headlines. So why is it that these powerful leaders continue to put their careers and reputations at risk by having inappropriate relationships?

"Affairs have nothing to do with intelligence," said Robert Weiss, director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Programs for Elements Behavioral Health in Long Beach, Calif. "If you think about an affair in terms of the emotional needs that it meets, the person feels special, they feel important, they feel desired, they feel needed. Just because you're intellectually bright, engaged and focused, doesn't necessarily mean that emotionally you're able to cope at the same level."

Weiss, who is also a licensed clinical social worker specializing in sex addiction, said men in particular — especially those in the military — are not encouraged to discuss or process their emotions, which makes them more susceptible to having an affair.

"The way I think of it is like being hungry," Weiss said. "You can be hungry for a few hours and have a conversation, but at a certain point, I'm going to be so hungry that I won't be able to think about what I'm going to do, I am just going to find some food. So in a similar way if you're not feeding yourself or nurturing yourself emotionally, even if you're a very strong, very committed, very intellectually bright person, you will end up being led around the nose by your emotions. You can only deprive yourself emotionally for so long before you're going to act out in one way or another."

But is it really our business to know what two consenting adults do in their spare time? David Gebler, a business ethicist and author of the book "The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance," said when leaders put their personal interests above the organization's, it should not be kept a secret.

"Most organizations have a code of conduct which demands leaders act with a certain level of integrity and not put the reputation of the organization at risk," Gebler said. "In the case of Petraeus, the military code prohibits adulterous relationships. We're paying leaders whether by rank or by salary, to operate at a level and adhere to a high standard. It's not expected of us in the trenches, but it's expected of them."

Feeling you're "above the law" also comes into play with leaders who have affairs, Gebler said.

He cited two different types of corruption that can come out of that feeling:

"There are people who are just true narcissists and they just do not believe that the rules apply to them, and this is the cynical corruption. You see this with celebrities and with star athletes or rock-star business leaders — where they have been treated with kid gloves all their lives and they think they can do no wrong.

"The other is an innocent corruption, where someone who is more humble ... really (sees) themselves as a regular guy, but they get so caught up they begin to act irrationally, which I think is what happened with Petraeus."

So when the flaws of a public figure's personal life are brought to light, can trust be rebuilt? Gebler said it can be done if the offender is open and transparent about their indiscretions.

"We have to acknowledge that we are human and that this is human nature," Gebler said. "We are amazingly forgiving as a society and as people. The faster the person who is at the heart of a scandal comes out, makes a statement and addresses the issues, the faster you can make a decision if this is permanent damage."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

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