Contra Costa Times - March 19, 2008
(Peggy's contributions are in italics)

Why stay with a cheating spouse?
By Jessica Yadegaran

Last week, the highly successful wife of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer stood by his side "silent, eyes downcast" as he confessed his involvement in a sex scandal and resigned from office. Since then, Silda Spitzer, a Harvard-educated former Wall Street attorney, has been under scrutiny. Why did she support the two-timer?

"If my husband cheated on me, I'd tell him to carry on (without me)," says Debbie Hargrave, who lives in Concord and has been married for four years. Her mother-in-law went through it and got a divorce. But Hargrave felt for Silda Spitzer. "She had to stand by him," she says. "It's his career. It's her bread."

The Spitzers are the latest in a chain of publicized indiscretions where the wife not only stays put, but stands by her man: from Hillary Clinton to Wendy Vitter and Kathy Lee Gifford. Public or not, what motivates someone to stay after his or her spouse has an affair?

In her 25 years of research and consulting on extramarital affairs,'s Peggy Vaughan says as much as 70 percent of people stay in the marriage after infidelity. "Most people think all infidelity ends in divorce, but frequently they (the couple) just keep it quiet," she says.

The common yet judgmental question "Why did she stay?" implies that she shouldn't, Vaughan says. "It's an extra burden for all the women who stay to have to defend themselves to their family and friends. When somebody tells you 'If it were me, I'd...' you can ignore the rest of the sentence because they aren't you."

She cautions couples from seeking divorce right away. "The people who get out right away second-guess themselves the rest of their lives," says Vaughan, founder of the Beyond Affairs Network and the author of eight books, including "The Monogamy Myth."

Vaughan and other experts say the reasons people stay say a lot about gender differences, and how we approach relationships.

From a young age, women are taught to value relationships, says Ray Campton, an ordained minister and Berkeley marriage and family therapist. Men, he says, are trained to be lone wolves. "A woman may say, 'My pride and principle demand that I leave you, but I'm going to this divine place and I'm going to forgive you, and stay,'" Campton says.

That said, women stay for the "usual" reasons, Vaughan says. If they are stay-at-home moms or make less money than their husbands, they stay for security and the well-being of their children. They also stay for the same reason Hillary said she stayed with Bill: She still loved him and was able to recognize his other qualities, Vaughan says.

"Women are more able to see past it (the affair) and not filter everything about the man through it," she says. "For men, sex is such a critical thing, it (the affair) diminishes their opinion of their wives."

For those who think men don't cheat as much as women, Vaughan says 40 percent of her telephone consulting is with men who are victims of their wives' infidelity. "People just assume that a man will flee, but they don't, and when they stay, they can have a much harder time dealing with it," Vaughan says. In fact, her research indicates that suicidal tendencies following infidelity are higher among male victims than women.

Perhaps that's because men tend to view the world in more rigid constructs, says Scott Haltzman, a Brown University psychiatry professor and author of "The Secrets of Happily Married Men." "They're really passionate about rules and agreements," he says. In the past two years, Haltzman has seen more cases of female infidelity than male infidelity in his private practice, he says.

In a chat room on, a downtrodden yet hopeful Heftysmurf posts: "I just want to get to the next stage," he writes. "I do not want to sweep it under the rug. I would like to figure out how we should talk and what I can do to regain closeness "... She messed me up for life and needs to own that most of all."

According to Vaughan, men stay for very different reasons than women. If they are fathers, men don't want to give up regular contact with their kids, since, in divorce, custody is often granted to the mother. Many also suffer a significant financial hit if they leave. Alimony and child support can put a damper on lifestyle and starting a new relationship, Vaughan says.

Moreover, she adds, men are more likely to stay because they want to prove that their wives made a mistake in straying.

"They have a natural sense of competitiveness and they don't want to give up what belongs to them," she says.

Ultimately, for both genders, an affair is the "rocking of the boat of their life," Vaughan says. And the shared history can be enough reason to stay in the marriage, pick up the pieces, and come out better and stronger. Even if you never wanted the tragedy to happen in the first place.

"Like any crisis, it's how you use it to rebuild the rest of your life," Vaughan says. "I'm not saying everyone should stay. I'm saying we should respect everyone's reasons and decisions to stay."

Picking up the Pieces

Here are steps to rebuilding a marriage after infidelity from Peggy Vaughan, author of "The Monogamy Myth" and founder of the Beyond Affairs Network, an organization of support groups coordinated through

--Sever contact with the third party. If necessary, take steps toward changing jobs, schools and cities.

--Be patient. Most people think you can forgive and forget, but rebuilding trust takes time. It is rare to completely recover from the emotional impact in less than two years.

--The person who had the affair must always answer questions from the spouse about the infidelity. It is the willingness to answer questions that diminishes the need to know.

--Don't punish for the answers you get. You asked.

--Commit to responsible honesty. Unlike monogamy, you can monitor honesty that is for the purpose of strengthening a bond and rebuilding trust.

--Marathons don't work. If they are not effective, limit conversations to 30 minutes. Consult a therapist who specializes in couples therapy and affairs.

--Remember, you are a team. Ask yourselves what you need to do for the relationship and the family. It's not just what the person who had the affair needs to do.

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