Standing by Her Man: Why?

Experts say emotions ranging from rage to humiliation affect the cheated-on spouse who decides to stay.

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.

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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.

Why Do They Stay?

The reasons some spouses stay in a union after infidelity are multiple, experts concur, and differ depending on the dynamics of the marriage.

Staying may be about keeping the status quo, says Frank, especially if the woman is the one experiencing the infidelity. "Women tend to have grown up more [than men] with the message of 'Don't rock the boat,'" she tells WebMD.

There's the old "I can change him" mentality that can creep in, too, experts say.

Or a woman may believe the behavior is an aberration, Lusterman says, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

The couple may need each other's skills, says Fisher. "There are many, many reasons you stay in a marriage and it's not all sexual."

The relationship may still work for some women, Fisher says, even after infidelity. "She might need money or his contacts, or he may pay the rent."

A woman married to a powerful politician may have him on a pedestal, says Frank. Or a woman may see other qualities in their partner that can compensate for the bad behavior, Lusterman says.

Some women may look at the marriage as a whole, he says, and see enough good to hang in there, Lusterman tells WebMD. Those with children may be unwilling, at least immediately, to upset their idea of family.

What the cheater does in the wake of the revelation can turn the tide, too, experts say. "He may turn into one of those guys who stays so sweet and charming she gets swept back in," Fisher says of someone who cheats and hopes to stay with his wife.

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Advice for the Betrayed

The action a spouse who has been cheated on takes -- after the betrayal is revealed -- is crucial to determining if the relationship can survive, according to Lusterman.

He advises couples experiencing infidelity to separate for a period of time. The betrayed spouse should ask the one who cheated to get help to overcome the infidelity, Lusterman says. The betrayed partner needs to ''make a new contract," he says, being sure the unfaithful partner knows the behavior won't be tolerated.

In his experience working with couples, a marriage has the poorest chance of surviving if the unfaithful spouse engages in what he calls "pursuit behavior." This type of infidelity, he says, doesn't involve a one-night stand and a temporary lapse of judgment but a deliberate planning of the infidelity.

Those who pursue infidelity, he says, may need to have extramarital sex to feel powerful, not just to have sex.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 11, 2008

Sources

SOURCES:

Helen Fisher, PhD, cultural anthropologist, Rutgers University.

Marion Rudin Frank, PhD, psychologist, Philadelphia.

Don-David Lusterman, PhD, psychologist, Baldwin, N.Y.

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