Dear Prudence

A Cheater’s Checklist

Dear Prudence offers unsolicited advice to David Petraeus, Paula Broadwell, and others embroiled in the growing sex scandal.

Gen. David Petraeus being sworn in as director of the CIA, with his wife Holly looking on, in 2011, shortly before his affair with Paula Broadwell supposedly began

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images.

As Slate’s Dear Prudence I’ve gotten many anguished emails from people caught in the various corners of romantic triangles. How I wish someone in the romantic octagon (it’s blown past being a love “pentagon”) that is the burgeoning Gen. David Petraeus sex scandal had turned to me for advice. This story has now consumed four marriages: that of Petraeus and his wife, Holly; Petraeus’ biographer and other woman Paula Broadwell and her husband, Dr. Scott Broadwell; Paula Broadwell’s perceived rival, Jill Kelley, and her husband, Dr. Scott Kelley; and now frequent Jill Kelley email correspondent Gen. John Allen, and his wife Kathy. (If you’re a doctor named Scott, you might want to go check your wife’s inbox.)

Sure, they haven’t asked me, but I’m going to offer these suffering people unsolicited advice, and list some lessons for other would-be cheaters.

Spill All. I hold the truth in high esteem, but I also think there are occasions where it should be doled out judiciously. I often hear from people who, during the course of a long marriage, have strayed. Frequently they write because the dalliance was brief (if fun at the time), and now the cheater is consumed with regret and considering confessing to the spouse, who suspects nothing. Usually I say the penance should be living with your guilt. Confession of an affair, especially a short, meaningless one, is an unnecessary gut shot to your spouse.

But in the case of the four marriages at the center of this scandal, as in any situation where even a partial truth has been revealed, it’s time to tell everything. Do a complete accounting of all infidelities; revelations dribbling out over time are torture. Once your spouse knows all, painful as it is, you have a basis for rebuilding trust.

Don’t Put Descriptions of Your Lovers Private Parts, Your Genitals, or What You Would Like To Do With Them Someplace That Can Be Found. Both Gen. Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, with their training in intelligence, thought they were being really smart by using an email “drop box” to communicate their sexy missives to each other. If you’re going to cheat, limit yourself to whispering in each other’s ears—and nowhere else—just how big, firm, and luscious you or your partner is.

Avoid Going Nuclear. Jill Kelley is an alluring woman who attracts attention. Sure, it must have been disturbing when she received catty emails from an anonymous sender saying she was flaunting her assets around powerful men. (The sender of course turned out to be Paula Broadwell, who needs a Psych 101 refresher in “projection.”) But going to the FBI seems like a serious overreaction. It will have been an especially poor choice if there is anything embarrassing in Kelley’s own email history, which leads us to …

Flirting Is Not a Crime. We still don’t know what Gen. Allen and Jill Kelley were saying when they exchanged emails over the past few years. According to the Washington Post, the initial reports of tens of thousands of exchanges (based on a misleading total-page estimate) is an exaggeration and their actual correspondence may have been in the hundreds. He’s said to have called her “sweetheart,” but the endearment is being explained as a Southern thing because Allen is from Virginia. It may all seem suspicious, but his staff is denying there was an affair. If that’s the case, and Allen and Kelley just had a friendly, flirty relationship, then everyone should stand down, spouses and the military included. Let’s not be so puritanical that we destroy people’s lives and careers because they simply enjoy the company of someone of the opposite sex.

Don’t Get Involved in People’s Private Messes, Especially if They’re Trading on Your Position. The latest shocker is that Jill Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie, persuaded both Petraeus and Allen to write letters on her behalf regarding a vicious custody dispute she was in with her estranged husband. According to the New York Post, Natalie Khawam, who is a lawyer, lost custody of her young son in part for making false claims in court against her husband, accusing him of domestic and child abuse. The judge noted Khawam is “a psychologically unstable person.” You could argue that generals in the United States military show some psychological instability themselves if they agree to get drawn into such a personal dispute. 

Before You Hit “Send,” Look at Some Photos of Your Kids. Paula Broadwell sends crazy, hostile emails to her perceived rival for Petraeus’ affections. The FBI agent Jill Kelley turned to when she got these emails had been obsessed with Kelley and sent shirtless photos of himself to her. The head of the CIA reportedly wrote emails to Broadwell about their having sex under a desk. Before you hit “send,” think about having to explain stuff like this to your kids.

Don’t Throw It All Away. Maybe we’ll find out that among Gen. Petraeus’ superlatives is that he’s the military’s biggest horndog. But so far nothing even close to that has been revealed, and if it turns out the Broadwell affair was the general’s only extracurricular, it should not be a marriage ender. I’ve gotten letters over the years from cheated-upon spouses who ask if they are fools for wanting to continue their marriage. Every case must be taken on its own merits, but if the cheating is not a pattern, and the cheater has come clean, is sincerely regretful, and wants to recommit to the marriage, then ending it could be the foolish thing.