When a Wife Gets Cheated On, Survival Mode Kicks In

Would you stand by your man? A relationship expert theorizes on why betrayed political wives often do.


When news broke this week about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's liaisons with high-priced prostitutes, the question on many women's minds was: How could she? How could the Harvard Law-educated Silda Wall Spitzer stand beside him at the podium twice as he apologized on Monday and then announced his resignation yesterday?

Bloggers' expressions of outrage over Wall Spitzer's "standing by her man" were rampant:

"The picture in the New York Times is so telling, so sad, so perfectly humiliating," laments the Huffington Post's Amy Ephron.

"Speaking (ahem) as a political wife myself, I can see one clear advantage to this option: It's all over quickly. And no one asks you for a follow-up interview," opines Anne Applebaum in Slate's XX Factor blog.

The comparisons were inevitable: to Hillary Clinton (Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, et al.); to Dina Matos McGreevey, wife of the New Jersey governor who resigned after disclosing he was gay; and to Suzanne Craig, wife of Sen. Larry Craig, who was arrested for soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom. And yet, I couldn't find a psychological analysis of what compels political wives to do what they do. So I asked relationship expert Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, to give me some insight:

What can we infer is running through these betrayed wives' minds as they decide whether to step in front of the news cameras or hide in their bedroom under the blankets?

They're in shock; who wouldn't be? There's no way, even with all their experience in public life, to prepare for this moment. So they take the conservative approach and turn to other people for advice. They look at what other wives before them have done and listen to their husband's advisers. On some level, they must know they're not in good shape mentally. So they just stand up there, look sad, and try to figure out what to do later. What do you suspect they're concerned about first and foremost?

Survival, both economic and personal. In Wall Spitzer's case, her husband is losing his livelihood, may face fines or even jail time. They have an expensive Manhattan lifestyle to finance. She also has to worry about her daughters' survival. They need her to guide them through this, and her role is to be a strong mother for them. In fact, one way of coping is to not deal with yourself but to deal with your children. What's best for them? She may have decided that it's better to be brave than dissolve in sadness and fear. When you're thinking in survival mode, practicalities come first and emotional wounds come later. It's only when that duty is done that she can turn around and say, "What about me?" So, for women in such a fix, does fear come before feelings of anger and betrayal?

Yes, fear takes precedence. It's what you have to deal with first. The anger and sadness over the infidelity could overwhelm her and make her unable to function, so she has to push that down. I don't know what's psychologically healthier, but most of us go to our strength rather than our weakness. We try to be brave when the wolves are circling. Does this apply to any wife who's been cheated on?

It can, but probably to a lesser extent. Those of us not in the public eye don't have to protect our image as much, so we can turn to a network of friends for support. On the other hand, we can't dissolve in tears at work or the supermarket. So we do our best to put on a public face and not go around looking destroyed. What should a woman do if she finds out her husband is cheating?

I suggest the following: • Don't decide immediately whether to leave him. Your initial emotional state isn't the best for making long-term decisions. Give yourself at least a few weeks or even several months to process emotions. There's a lot to think about: children, economics, and his willingness to change and/or get professional help.

• Get support. Put yourself in the hands of close friends and an objective third party like a therapist.

• Don't obsess about the other woman. What is she to you? Unless she's your best friend, she's trivial. Blaming her might be satisfying but useless. It just deflects from the appropriate target of your anger—your husband.

• Meet with a divorce lawyer. This will help you assess all your options in terms of what to expect financially from a divorce. Also, you might want to see the best lawyer in town, even if you aren't going to hire him or her. Once you reveal all the details of your situation, you'll ensure that your husband can't hire that attorney against you.