And … another one bites the dust. Tiger Woods is only the most recent in what feels like a never-ending string of high-profile guys who cheat. As the details emerge in the form of naughty voicemails and proof of Tiger’s penchant for sexting his mistresses, all eyes will be on his wifeElin Nordegren Woods. Will she stay? Will she forgive (but surely never forget). Or will she leave, taking their two beautiful children and a hefty settlement with her?
While it’s easy for most of us to imagine Elin leaving Tiger, we’re probably less likely to understand why she might choose to stay. We may say David Letterman’s an idiot, and wonder why his wife – as well as all the wives of public figures caught with their pants down, from the poster-girl-for-women-scorned, Hillary Clinton, to Silda Spitzer and Elizabeth Edwards – don’t just get up and leave. Or, better yet, kick the horndogs out.
But maybe it’s not that simple. Psychologists and divorce lawyers told BettyConfidential there are a lot of reasons why women stay with men who cheat … from the need for security, to concern for their children, to blaming themselves, in part, for the betrayal. And then there is even the question of love. Yes, they still may really love the guy who has done them wrong.
Afraid to Leave the Security of Marriage
Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage (Adams Media 2008) says, “In my practice I’ve seen women stay even when he’s abusive, mean to the kids, and a cheat. In those cases, staying is most likely an indication of the woman’s fear of handling life on her own.” Vikki Ziegler, a celebrity divorce attorney who, for the past fifteen years, has been dealing with cases where women have been cheated on concurs. She says women initially stay with their cheating husbands for three reasons: money, children and security. Eventually, they can have a change of heart, which is why they end up in Vicki’s office.
Gwynne, 31, was married for seven years before finally leaving her unfaithful husband when he got his girlfriend pregnant. Why did she stay in the first place, after he continued to betray her trust? “Fear. Desperation. I was a stay-at-home mom, going to college full time, with no way to support myself. We were struggling as it was, and for me to walk away from his income? I couldn’t do it.” When she felt she was able to cope on her own, she left him.
To Save Their Families
Melissa*, 34, has been married for 13 years; they have 8-year-old twins and a 4-year-old. Their youngest was 4-months-old when Melissa discovered her husband was cheating on her with a mutual friend.
When she first found out, she described herself as being “hysterical,” and feeling “complete disgust” for her husband. “I broke the glass in every wedding picture over the mailbox. At times the sight of him made me want to throw up. I was so upset and depressed that if I wasn’t nursing a baby, I am pretty sure I would have starved or worse.”
At first she stayed “out of spite.” Then, she says, “I stayed because I thought there might be a chance … He was truly remorseful and slowly regained my trust by being one hundred percent accountable.”
Melissa says, especially at first, her children and their future were big parts of the reason she did not leave. “I was crazy thinking that ‘she’ would be raising my daughters. I would have done anything to prevent that. I literally pictured them together as a family at dinner and felt sick.”
However, she says, the children’s needs alone wouldn’t have been enough if her husband hadn’t ended his affair, and worked with her to move forward. “The initial reason for staying got me to stay long enough for actual changes to take place. That said, there is a point where if he refused to end his affair with that woman, I would have had to leave.”
They Blame Themselves
Self-recrimination also seems to play a big part in why women stay with men who cheat. They blame themselves for their men’s behavior. As Gwynne says, “Mostly [I felt] self-loathing. Why wasn’t I good enough to keep him faithful?” And Melissa also said she felt responsible to some degree: “When you accept that part of the blame lies within, leaving before you have honestly attempted to reconcile is a mistake. The grass was greener on the other side for my husband, because I wasn’t watering my own grass.”
Susan*, 47, had also been married for ten years when she discovered, thanks to a little email snooping, that her husband had been carrying on an affair with his ex-wife. When she confronted her husband, he was remorseful; she believed him when he told her seeing how much he hurt her made him realize he could never be unfaithful again. But she, too, accepts part of the blame for the affair: “I play the ‘If Only’ game: If only I had paid more attention to him; if only I had initiated sex more often; if only we’d talked less about work and more about fun; if only …”
Susan made the decision to move forward: “I decided to start doing those ‘if only’ things. Otherwise, I was just identifying a problem and not trying to solve it. I would never know if we could work it out or not unless I did the best I could.”
To this end, Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D., says that sometimes “Cheating is the best thing that could happen to a numb couple; it FINALLY shakes the tree and drives people to consider either mending or ending their problems. If they choose to patch it up, their success will depend on how deeply each is willing to work on the relationship.”
For a Second Chance at Love
As Susan says, “I love my husband. I love the way my husband smells and the way he smiles. There are so many good things we share that I was reluctant to let go without very careful consideration.”
Leslie, 45, had been married for 10 years and had three children (ages 3, 5, and 8) when she discovered her husband hadn’t just been working all those late nights with his assistant (sound familiar?). In the end she decided to stay, because she, too, still loved him and believed he deserved a second chance: She concludes, “People screw up (literally!) True love can be messy….”
So what’s the bottom line? Maybe there’s no one simple answer to why women stay with men who cheat – and there’s no black and white conclusion as to whether it’s “good” or “bad” to do so.
Dr. Tessina says, “It’s often a very good decision for a woman to stay with a man after he cheats, and at other times, a bad decision. There are a lot of contributing factors. If the relationship is pretty good, or can be repaired, and the cheating was a stress-related or a mid-life thing, the odds are good that the marriage will last, and the good will outweigh the bad.”
It’s easy to point fingers, to shake our heads, and to say that would never be me. But no one ever really knows what goes on between two people; how much a woman may be struggling with fear, shame, pain, and anger – or, for that matter, how hard she and her husband are working to rebuild what they once had and want to have again.
*Not her real name.