Broken men like John Edwards must put family first

The outrage over John Edwards’ affair with a former presidential campaign worker transcends what we have seen with most recent sex scandals.

This partly results from his repeated denials of the affair. More important is the fact that it took place while his wife was battling cancer. The two of them had already dealt with the tragedy of losing a teenage son. The public is furious that Edwards caused his wife more pain.

Why, people want to know, do men who have it all throw away their blessings? Why, when they have wives who will do everything for them, is it still never enough?

The answer is often that men who cheat do not do so because they don’t love their wives but because they hate themselves. It’s not that their wives are uncaring. It’s that their perforated sense-of-self is immune to affection. Were their wives to shower them with all the love in the world, it would simply seep through the broken shards of their shattered egos.

When asked about the affair last year by the media, Edwards denied it, saying, “It’s completely untrue, ridiculous. I’ve been in love with the same woman for 30-plus years and, as anybody who’s been around us knows, she’s an extraordinary human being — warm, loving, beautiful, sexy and as good a person as I have ever known. So the story’s just false.”

The form of his denial should have been a red flag. Men do not refrain from cheating because they have special wives, but because they have a commitment to moral behavior and righteous action.

Many men feel like failures. Immersed as they are in a hypercompetitive culture that makes them feel like they are valuable only through external achievement, they nurse a lifelong feeling of anonymity and insignificance. That gnawing insecurity becomes the very engine of their success. Thus, they reason to themselves: If I become a rich trial lawyer and get invited into high society, I’ll be important. Wait, that happened and I still feel like a failure. Time to become a senator. OK, I did that, and I still don’t feel fulfilled. Let’s go for the gold, president.

But all that attention and power will never make these men feel like they matter, because it’s being pumped straight into a black hole. There is no bottom to their low self-esteem.

Once a man’s ego is dependent not on the love he gets from his family but on the adoration he gets from crowds, he transfers the locus of his self-esteem away from his intimate circle to a fickle public. His need for public validation becomes an addiction. His wife cannot make him feel good about himself because, he reasons to himself, if he is a great big nothing, the woman dumb enough to marry him, however virtuous and accomplished, is an even bigger loser than he is. His wife is unwittingly punished for her devotion.

And that’s where you see great men becoming susceptible to affairs. It is specifically the woman to whom they are not married, the one that has not been devalued through a merger with a failure, who can make him feel consequential.

Edwards practically admitted as much in the statement he released admitting to the affair: “In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up — feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself.”

The egocentrism and narcissism to which he confesses are always the hallmark of the broken American male who mistakenly believes that ephemeral attention is an adequate substitute for intimate love. Fractured males always beat themselves up, whether they succeed or fail.

Far from judging Edwards, my heart goes out to him. His is an American tragedy. Every day hundreds of millions of Americans go to work believing that what they do in the office will be more central to determining success than what they do at home, that impressing the boss is more important than keeping your wife off Prozac and your kids off the streets. But are you a success in life if the people who mean the most to you think the least of you?

When Edwards announced in a press conference that he would continue seeking the nomination of the Democratic party for president despite his wife’s metastasizing cancer, Elizabeth Edwards, who is universally admired by Americans, announced that she supported the decision because she did not want her children to believe that they had to give up their lives when faced with difficult battles.

Perhaps a more important lesson to convey to our children is that what will truly make them special in life is not becoming president but being committed and loving people who always put family first.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach recently published “The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him.” This piece previously appeared in the Jerusalem Post.