“I have no words, no questions,” Penelope proclaims after seeing her husband, Odysseus, for the first time in 20 years, after he has made his way home from fighting in the Trojan War. “If it really is Odysseus, and he is home, we will recognize each other well enough; there are secrets that we two know and no one else.”
As a military wife who has watched my husband come and go from multiple long deployments (this century’s eight-to-12 month variety), I share Penelope’s understanding of spousal intimacy. It’s not the actual physical cheating I worry about; it’s that distance will erode the sense that it’s the two of us against the world, or that the intense new experiences that inevitably result from war will intrude on the feeling that we are co-conspirators in life. I’m not alone in that concern. Though military spouses (including me) are careful not to speak of the Petraeus family specifically, because of the strong impulse to protect Holly Petraeus from further pain (many in the community know her personally, others have benefited from her advocacy work, and the rest feel that she’s part of their “military family”), the recent headlines have prompted a quiet discussion in military-spouse circles about whether or not infidelity is a hazard of military life.
“I never saw it coming,” one friend told me after discovering that her husband had multiple affairs during a series of deployments, and who has stayed in the marriage. “But in the military, you’re given more opportunities for infidelity, and there are more stresses, which lead to bad choices. You’ve got the distance, you’ve got the long hours, you’ve got the drinking. There’s always a temptation. I’m not stupid, and my husband is a pretty good guy. So what about all the schmucks?”
Good question. Most military spouses I’ve heard from in the past week say plainly that marriage is hard regardless of the circumstances, but that the military environment seems to exacerbate the normal tensions that any couple might face, whether they involve money, raising the kids, or extracurricular sexual activities. Those who have experienced a spouse’s cheating tend to think it’s as contagious as the plague, like the friend quoted above, who feels like “the culture of the military contributed to the problem.” Others believe it’s a “man” problem rather than a “military” problem. As another military spouse told me, pointedly, “Infidelity is a hazard of life”—not military life.
Who’s right? I called Kayt Sukel, the author of Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, and a former Army spouse, to get her take. During her years as an Army wife on a military base in Germany, she led her unit’s family readiness group, a command-sponsored organization of family members that provides support, outreach, and information. Here, she learned the concept of the “home team/away team”—meant to refer to American troops who are married to women in the United States but who also have common-law wives and children at their overseas post. “Any sort of high-stress life that takes you away from your primary partner for months at a time presents a risk,” she says, “and falling in love affects your judgment. So it doesn’t surprise me that [the officers in the headlines] weren’t acting as discreetly as they should.”
Sukel doesn’t blame the impulse to seek comfort outside of marriage on the military, but believes that military norms may inadvertently support the behavior because “people keep each other’s secrets. You can’t talk about where you’re going or what your mission is; you’ve sworn not to reveal your whereabouts or your schedule. You trust the guys in your unit, you’re not going to let anything operational slip, and you’re not going to let anything else slip, either.”
Still, infidelity cannot be explained away, says military spouse and author Jacey Eckhart, who posted to a military.com blog for spouses earlier this week:
One of the results of the Petraeus admissions is that the question of fidelity between military couples rears its ugly head. I cannot bear all of the shrugging off of fidelity I have heard this weekend, as if infidelity for military couples is the logical result of spending so much time apart. … The thought that we should expect a little cheatage to come our way simply because we spend too much time apart is a poison in our culture. Infidelity is not acceptable. It is not inevitable. Faithfulness is not too much to ask for military couples. In fact, I think that it is because our military lives are so demanding on both the service member and the spouse that faithfulness is required of each of us. Every day. All the time. Physically. Emotionally. Financially.
I’m all for faithfulness. But should its absence merit criminal action, as it does for service members under the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Another military wife I know, who has thought long and hard about infidelity after her husband admitted to several affairs on overseas assignments, thinks yes, telling me that “the military has a moral responsibility to spouses to enforce rules forbidding adultery. [The service member’s wife] is literally at the mercy of the military commanders and puts her faith and trust in both her soldier and in the soldiers responsible for him to ensure that her own interests are being looked after.”
But there’s a wary undertone to these discussions because few military spouses believe that adultery is worthy of the tabloid-like headlines it has received during the last few days, particularly if there are no national security issues at stake (which there don’t appear to be in the current scandal). Many military spouses feel that the avalanche of media interest in the Petraeus affair is disingenuous at best—at worst, prurient with a pinch of schadenfreude. Not only do none of us want our marriage parsed by others, but we hear the profound truth in the Onion’s recent headline, “Nation Horrified to Learn About War in Afghanistan While Reading Up On Petraeus Sex Scandal.” Ten years of combat, and this is what grabs America’s attention?
As a military spouse, I wish the spotlight would fall on the real tragedies and crises military families face every day. They don’t require FBI investigations or White House notification. Simply drive down the main road at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. (or any local VA hospital), where a young man whose body consists of a head and a torso blows into a straw to steer himself through the crosswalk on the way into the hospital. This is where the reporters should be. Stop by the base post office, where a young man, face down on a stretcher, waits in a line for his mail. Step over to Dunkin Donuts, where another young man with four prosthetic limbs attempts to hand the cashier a $5 bill, which keeps slipping out of his metal claw. Pass a young veteran in a wheelchair trying to push his infant’s stroller with one hand while wheeling himself forward with the other. In this city of amputees, and in the scores of American towns that will house and attempt to heal them for decades to come, the dirtiest secret of wartime is already out in the open, for everyone to see.