I am listening to an audio book called First Women by Kate Browser, which delves into the lives of first ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, providing lots of anecdotes and “insider” information about each of the ladies as well as painting a very interesting portrait of their lives in the White House, a portrait that stresses the restrictions and compromises far more than the glories and proximity to fame.
What struck me from my perspective as a couples therapist, is how three of these first ladies stayed in their marriages even with the knowledge of their husbands’ infidelities – knowledge that was known to others as well and in Hillary’s case to the entire world. These women stayed loyal and, even more surprising, in love with or at least caring towards with their husbands (though privately there were scenes and words) despite the humiliation and hurt they suffered as a result of these betrayals. Jacqueline Kennedy, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lady Bird Johnson all knew that their husbands had relationships with other women and knew that others knew as well. And even after they left the White House, Hillary and Lady Bird remained with their husbands while Jacqueline stayed fiercely loyal to her husband’s memory.
Are these women powerless victims, dependent to a fault on their husbands’ political success or so identified narcissistically with them that they have to keep protecting their husbands’ image in order to continue receiving the reflected glory? Are these the decisions of ambitious women who need the association with singularly achieving males to feed their own appetites? Are these women simply cultural representatives of their times when divorce was viewed as more shameful than remaining in a marriage with an unfaithful man? Or perhaps these are religious women for whom divorce is unthinkable – Jackie was a fairly devout Catholic and had suffered from her own parents’ divorce. I think all these factors played a role in the choices these women made. But another theme that reoccurred throughout the telling of their stories was along the lines of a crazy kind of love, a sort of deep dedication to these men and to the histories and journeys that their wives shared with them.
Do we have any respect for that kind of woman today? Because the woman who chooses to stay exists today – in a world that condones leaving and sees divorce as a very viable option. Can we learn anything from Hillary? Can we stand up for the woman who stays? Well, that’s up to the individual. But I do think we can learn something about marriage through a closer examination of the many complex factors that make up the shared life – factors that include romantic and sexual fidelity but also extend to the multiplicity of components that constitute adult life, many of which contradict and undermine each other, many that might enrich one area of that shared life and deplete another. Factors that might lead someone to choose not the black or white road or the right or wrong road but the road that is dimly lit and full of pot holes yet has riches in its path, too.
In short, do these women have to be ashamed of their choice to stay? Do these women have to be demeaned by that choice? Are they defined by the actions of their partners? Does society reduce the complex contract that is marriage and a shared family life to just some elements while disregarding others?
In many ways it is a lot tougher to be the woman who stays once the affair is outed than the woman who goes. Denial facilitates remaining – it eliminates risk. But once the affair is outed, and especially when others are in the “know” – the other woman always knows, a particularly painful humiliation – it is easier in some ways to just go, to “stand up” for yourself. I have spent many hours with the women who stay, both privately and professionally. In my role as a couples therapist, I have been with both the betrayer and the betrayed, trying to sift through the debris of broken promises and profound humiliation to see if a future can be created from a past and present tarnished and torn. It is often agonizing work. The level of pain experienced by both spouses defines the phrase “palpable pain.” It is thick and it is murky and and it is emotionally bloody.
Equally palpable is the courage and endurance that many of the couples exhibit as they try to save a life shared. Of course each story is individual. The women married to serial adulterers often knew early on that their spouses were somewhat of a liability. But for reasons too complex and vast to try to explain here, they chose to marry them, have children with them, share mortgages with them. Some combination of denial and magical thinking, usually facilitated by the drive to be that force of “change” derived from their family of origin, mars judgement and distorts the data at hand. But often too they adore these men, enjoy their company, want to heal them or benefit from their talents. The White House wives were married to men of tremendous ambition – very few become President of the United States, male or female. So the drive that characterizes these men is often associated with ample supplies of testosterone as well as an exorbitant need for recognition and control. Yet that characterizes so many of both the “successful” or merely needy souls out there. It is just a matter of degree and opportunity. I cannot discount the relevance of the stories of the White House wives because their husbands reached the pinnacle of power. Instead their model provides us with a publicly accessible portrait to explore.
So what are the factors that enable wives or in the case of same sex marriages, wives or husbands, to remain in a marriage once the seal of fidelity has been broken? For one thing, the attitude of the adulterer/spouse is key. Does he want the marriage to survive? If not, then there is nothing to stay for. It’s over. It takes two to save a marriage. From my observations, the betrayed spouse’s motivation to find a pathway to remain married even when trust is broken bends toward the other riches of marriage. Having children together – the creation of a “family” typically drives the desire and courage to stay, if at all possible. These women today understand deeply the emotional and financial burden of terminating a marriage, the burden on their children and the quality of life that they share with their spouses. A quality of life that is not simply perks. It can be affording college tuition. Or it can be the difference between owning a home or losing a home. This is not small change in life. People work hard to build the family fortress.
Another compelling factor is the often very positive aspects of the extended family life – belonging to a community of relatives and in-laws and neighbors that is enriching enough to feel dread at their loss; pain at the prospect of that loss for the children, for themselves. This is the tapestry couples weave together over the decades – a family tapestry of memory and a future of shared celebration and mutual support. Children of divorce talk about the challenges of graduation ceremonies, brisses and baptisms, the Christmas dinners and Passover seders, the wedding celebrations, all diced up and split into sides, even if the sides are talking. It’s not the same. Wives know that.
And in the case of Hillary and so many other women, where do you find another Bill, another Joe, another Henry, another hubby who matches you in wit, intelligence and a rich shared history. Someone who still, despite their deeply hurtful behavior, retains the personality aspects that attracted their spouses from the start. Often these women wonder if they will ever trust anyone else again; or love anyone else again. They are all too familiar with the divorced friend who spends hours on Match.com only to meet up with a man who either talks non-stop about himself or seduces and abandons them in record time.
And is there shame in being an ambitious woman? Should a woman be denigrated because she has tied her ambitions to her husband, or shares in a parallel progression of success, each contributing their portion to an overall successful quality of life or profession or business or societal accomplishment? Why do we need to hide any motivations that go beyond love? It’s silly. All the First Women are ambitious women. Read their stories and hold your breath. Yes, they have either chosen to, or felt compelled to, become an integral part of their husbands’ political success, but often they are an essential part of the engine, or the brains or savvy, that drives it on. And now that we have a former first wife who openly proclaims her own political agenda, always has, she is condemned for that. Why? Or better, what’s wrong with being in the same or similar line of work as your husband? With similar personal ambitions? With an eagerness to contribute to that work? Are we liberated or not? Are we equal or still just a bit “less than?”
The women I know who consider staying in their marriages in the face of adultery are often thoughtful and thorough thinkers. They probe deeply and are not content with simply following friends’ advice to “get rid of him.” They have depth and foresight. They can’t justify abandoning the marriage – though often they would like to take such a seemingly simple route. But they are not drawn to simplistic solutions or superficial fixes. They may be canny thinkers, savvy thinkers, often deeply empathic toward their children’s emotional experience, sometimes sacrificing the respect of their peers for the long-term emotional health of their family. They are women for whom I have a great deal of respect. But they are also women who cannot function with denial anymore. They need new guarantees and they need couples counseling over long periods of time. They know there is no quick fix. Building a new and more informed and mature kind of trust takes enormous work. And the chronic fear that they will be “fooled” again haunts them. It is a risk that they take every day – something that shadows their daily lives. Yes, they could be fooled again. We all can be fooled. So how do you manage that piece. First these women have to build up their sense of self – outline with black marker just who they are independent of what their spouse is or the choices he makes. Many of these women, partially spurred on by the real possibility that they will be on their own, become more self-sufficient, less dependent on the approval of their spouses. Some even run for the Senate or design a beautification program that becomes a landmark in our country’s history. One very educated and enormously talented woman dragged her broken heart off the kitchen floor and became one of the best in her field, a bread winner and a star in her profession. Facing betrayal, not running from it, stimulates personal growth. Too often women depend on the permission, the approval of their spouses, trained by a culture that has taught them to do so, even when their husbands may not. But once the emperor is revealed in his nakedness, well, that has a leveling effect too.
Of course there are many contributing factors to adultery. The marriage may have needed work for some time. The “cheating” spouse may have requested that the couple go for help or indicated to his wife that he was unhappy. The woman may have been dismissive, disinterested, hostile or preoccupied. These women are not victims, they are co-participants in a legal contract. They need to be on the ball. They need to be wise and observant and empathic and collaborative. Much of the spouse’s unhappiness or alienation is sifted through and examined in therapy in the aftermath of the exposure of the affair. No one is off the hook. No one is the victim here. As I tell my couples, this is tough stuff. I am in awe of their courage, of their tenacious fight for their Coupledom which requires both parties to see their flaws, to feel shame and guilt. To own their piece.
If this post appears to be a political endorsement of Hillary Clinton to some, it is true that she will get my vote this November. I am not ashamed to admit that fact even as therapists are supposed to maintain a certain anonymity so as not to exert undue influence on their patients. Boundaries are important but transparency and honesty are important too. I am choosing to be transparent. But that is not the reason I have taken on the challenge to write this post. I am writing it because I think we need to learn how to think out of the box about a subject as important as the decision to end a marriage. We need to honor and respect the courageous or ambitious or even self-serving decisions of women who choose to stay. There should not be shame in staying. It is not a criminal act. It is an informed choice. My job is to help make the individual and the couple as informed as possible.
Also, I am not recommending remaining in an unhappy marriage. I am recommending looking from all sides and with a deep probe at the possibility of staying long enough in a flawed marriage to see if it can be viable again, in a different way, with a rewarding future possible. And most of all, I am advocating withholding simplistic judgments and knee jerk interpretations of those who do choose to stay. Women do not have to be seen as victims, as helpless dependents who sacrifice integrity for security, but as individuals with the courage to make informed personal choices that factor in the vast complexity of the shared life. There is a great deal of dignity in doing so.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2016