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Standing by Her Man: Why?

Experts say emotions ranging from rage to humiliation affect the cheated-on spouse who decides to stay.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Fashionably dressed and smoothly coiffed, New York first lady Silda Spitzer's expression seemed to convey a mixture of sadness and rage during the Monday press conference where her husband, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, publicly apologized over his alleged involvement in a prostitution ring.

The news videos headlining the alleged infidelity of a powerful man brought up other similar images of late -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey and his wife, Dina, and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and his wife, Suzanne.

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In each case, the man was allegedly not faithful. And in each case, the wife stood by her man -- at least temporarily.

The latest case, as the others, brings up a host of questions for most of us: What are the cheated-on spouses feeling? Why do they stand by their partners? Why do they stay?

Experts consulted by WebMD say they don't know enough about the Spitzer case to comment directly on it, but through their years of experience working with unfaithful couples or researching fidelity, can suggest dynamics that might be occurring.

(Why do men in power seek out prostitutes? Read one expert's opinion about the case of Gov. Eliot Spitzer on WebMD's Sex Matters blog.)

Standing by Her Man: Despite Rage?

"The immediate reaction to the news of infidelity is a profound trauma for people," says Don-David Lusterman, PhD, a psychologist in Baldwin, N.Y., who is well known for his expertise in treating couples with infidelity issues.

"Men and women [both] are very traumatized," he says of the cheated-on spouse. "They really enter marriage thinking they are going to live happily ever after."

Terror can be the next emotion, after digesting the news, Lusterman tells WebMD. The spouse may ask herself or himself: "What else do I believe [besides thinking he was faithful] that I shouldn't have?" They may experience the anxiety of wondering what part of their life is as they perceive it and what part is not.

The immediate reactions to infidelity are "primal," says Marion Rudin Frank, PhD, a Philadelphia psychologist who works often with couples. "The green-eyed monster is there," she says. Cheated-on spouses typically are also fuming and grieving for the marriage they thought they had and the investment they have made.

Spouses betrayed by their partners, understandably, tend to be "furious at every level," says Helen Fisher, PhD, a cultural anthropologist at Rutgers University and a leading researcher on love, romance, and attraction. Profound embarrassment can creep in, especially in a betrayal so public as a politician's.

Humiliation is common, too, she says. "There's the fact that some people will laugh at her." They'll wonder why she stays, even temporarily.

Oddly, another emotion may take over once the couple is facing the music -- or in the case of the powerful, the press conference. "She gets to look noble by standing by him," Fisher says.

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