News outlets are ablaze with the story of David Letterman’s recent tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey. The interview (scheduled to air January 7th) centers on the Late-Night host’s recent scandal – the public admission of several affairs with various female staff members, including assistant Stephanie Birkitt. The affairs resulted in a blackmail plot by a CBS producer, and on-air admission of infidelity, and countless questions from fans and media representatives throughout the country.
In the interview, David Letterman talks in detail about how the affairs have affected his marriage, blaming himself exclusively, and the work he’s put in to get things back on track with his wife.
From David Letterman and Tiger Woods to David Patraeus and Bill Clinton, the news reports an affair involving a powerful man on a fairly regular basis. It’s become less of a surprise in recent years, but why are these types of men drawn to infidelity, and why do they think they can get away with it?
When you get into the psychology of men in power, it isn’t so difficult to see the factors that make them so susceptible to infidelity, and to understand that they very same factors also lead to thinking that they can get away with it.
First, let’s address the basic need for companionship. While we can’t offer blanket forgiveness to these men, we can at least understand that, on a base level, human beings desire company – particularly in a romantic sense. Men in power, like presidents, celebrities, and the like, often spend weeks (and even months) away from their wives. Just as spending time together strengthens the bond of marriage, spending long periods of time apart weakens them.
This doesn’t entirely account for the phenomenon, however. Plenty of professions require husbands to spend time apart from their wives, and while this may put a strain on the marriage, we don’t see similarly high rates of infidelity.
The second major factor is temptation. Movie stars and professional athletes (among other types of powerful men) are often wealthy, in good shape, and live a relatively high profile lifestyle. These things can be very attractive to certain women, some of whom are willing to chase after these men in very direct and unscrupulous ways.
These temptations are coupled with the ego-boosting behaviors of the people on hand, from the assistants and staff who endorse/encourage adulterous behavior, to the fans and “yes men” that put the powerful man on a pedestal and feed his feelings of power. These elements can combine to create a psychological “snowball” that leads to feelings of invulnerability, disregard for consequences, and perhaps most dangerously, downright selfishness.
These last few risk factors are also why these men feel that they can “get away with it.” When given special and preferential treatment by those around them (both men and women), men in powerful positions will begin to see themselves as their supporters do – as untouchable, above consequence, and concerned only with their own desires.
At the root, powerful men cheat for the same reasons as anyone else – loneliness, seeking thrills, and selfishness - and while it is never excusable behavior, they are perhaps more inundated with the risks than any other population. Take note of these risk factors, and do everything in your power to avoid them – you don’t have to be rich and famous to be at risk.
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Dr. Dana Fillmore and Amy Barnhart, co-Founders, StrongMarriageNow.com