Sex & Relationships

Why We Should Stop Demonizing John Edwards

If the public wants to get to the bottom of Edwards' affair we have to drop the moral platitudes and look at what led him to it.
If we're going to make the private lives of our politicians grist for the media mill, then we ought to at least correctly understand them. We don't. Instead, we reduce behavior to simple good/bad dichotomies, infer only the most superficial of motives to the culprits, and make sweeping judgments about their basic characters without a shred of evidence. The Edwards affair becomes another traffic accident that we slow down to watch, safe in our cars, shaking our heads in pity, disdain, or secret relief that it happened to someone else. Most important, we profess bewilderment about the fact that these public figures acted irrationally, deceiving themselves and others that they behaved self-destructively without apparent regard to the consequences of their actions. All this, despite the fact that such phenomena are a universal fact of human psychology.

As I was listening to the outpouring of shock and outrage from media pundits about the Edwards affair, I was thinking about all of the men I've treated who had similar affairs, extramarital liaisons primarily based on sex and passion. Their motives were varied, complex, and often unconscious. Sometimes they ended badly for all concerned; other times not. But either way, these were distinctly human dramas, full of pleasure, conflict, guilt, loneliness, longing, and hurt. If the affairs were exposed, however, the reactions of others were usually moral and judgmental, much the same as the reactions today about Edwards. How could he be so stupid? How could he be so self-centered? How could he risk so much for superficial pleasures? Often, again like Edwards, my male patients agreed with these harsh judgments.

When behavior hurts others, it should be condemned. Such is the case with John Edwards whose behavior no doubt hurt his wife and family, whose cover-up hurt his staff and followers, and whose pursuit of the presidency could potentially have hurt his party and the nation. But let's stop thinking that we know what motivated him, or that even he knows. Every day in my clinical practice, the men I see act out of deep conflicts about which they, their friends, and their victims are unaware. The guilt, moral outrage, and pain of everyone involved makes real understanding unfortunately impossible. Empathy and compassion are difficult when the conversation is about crime and punishment. It might even be argued that such sympathies are irrelevant. After all, responsibility and accountability shouldn't require a note from your therapist.

But if we want to understand this type of behavior, then we have to go deeper than moral platitudes and we have to stop projecting our own feelings of guilt, outrage, and victimization onto the Edwards drama. The men I see who might share psychological similarities with John Edwards are often men who care deeply for their wives and children. They begin an affair because aspects of it promise to counteract private but burdensome feelings of obligation or disconnectedness toward those closest to them, feelings that may be consciously denied and invisible to the public eye. They sometimes seek a relationship where they're accepted unconditionally, a feeling that they often don't feel in their marriages and certainly not in their public lives. Many powerful men who are public figures feel obliged to constantly project and maintain an idealized image of themselves. The arms of an admiring new woman offer a fantasy of effortless pleasure, of being given to without expectation of performance of any kind. In other cases, men may experience their wives (rightly or wrongly) as brittle, unhappy, or troubled and their new paramour as happy, upbeat, admiring and energetic. The list of possible ulterior motivations and meanings could go on.

The point of offering these types of explanations is not to suggest that any one of them applies to Edwards. The point is that they're steps toward understanding behavior from the point of view of the one doing the behaving, not from the victim or an outside judge. This is what we mean by empathy, an attitude sorely lacking in discussions of men who cheat and then cover it up. When the conversation involves an effort at real understanding, then it becomes clear that we are all more alike than different, that while most of us perhaps wouldn't do what Edwards did, we're certainly familiar with many of his motivations and feelings. Consider, for example, the cover-up. Many pundits, wanting to appear tolerant and fair, suggest that the shocking revelation in this case isn't the original crime but Edwards' attempt to conceal it from the public and, more important, that he thought he could get away with it. But I ask you: Is this really so difficult to understand? Imagine a man whose entire identity is politics, whose basic conscious sense of meaning and purpose derives from being a public figure pursuing highly important goals. Imagine that man also loves his wife and children. He then acts out, driven by psychological pressures, longings and conflicts about which he is unaware. Is it really so incomprehensible or dastardly that, given the catastrophic losses that would ensue if he revealed his secret, that he would let himself be guided by the wishful fantasy that he could keep this under wraps?

Of course not. The human mind is quite used to keeping incompatible realities separate from each other. We split our public and private personas all the time. We all have private sexual fantasies and peccadilloes that are at odds with what others think of us, or even of what he usually think of ourselves. We have compulsions and addictions in which we enter states of mind that we know are self-destructive but which we keep divorced from our "normal" lives. We say things we don't mean and ask for things we don't need. We know our idols are not perfect and yet we act shocked (and fascinated, of course) when their private pathology leaks into public view. Ultimately, these contradictions result from the fact that we all have unconscious minds, play multiple roles, and have multiple identities that don't always fit into a coherent whole. And yet, we continue to be shocked when a John Edwards turns out to be capable of deceiving himself, and of having multiple and contradictory motivations.

In the end, we have to give up on this false notion that such things as changing your mind, having mixed feelings, conducting an affair, the state of your marriage, or whether you've ever seen a prostitute or picked up a man in a bathroom has anything to do with defining your character as a political leader. It does an injustice to the complexity of the mind, rendering it shocking and shameful rather than a fact of human life that we might attempt to compassionately understand.
Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of "Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies" and the forthcoming book "Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It -- and Men Don't Either." He has written extensively about psychology and politics.
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Election 2018