The pain of infidelity is enough for women to live with. We shouldn’t require that they also live with our tired moral judgments.
I had been married less than six months when I found out that my new husband was already cheating on me. I was standing in a sweltering laundromat on an Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, sweat dripping down my back, stuffing my new husband’s laundry into a washing machine. I picked up a sand-encrusted pair of his pants, and stuck my hand in a pocket to empty it of the detritus he invariably picked up. My hand struck a neatly folded piece of paper and dread slid like slime through my veins. I may not have known my new husband all that well, but I knew him well enough to know that he did not fold anything neatly.
I pulled it out and saw his name, Todd, written in a feminine print and decorated with hearts. Instinctively, I looked around to see if anyone was watching me. I didn’t know what was inside yet, but already I was ashamed.
I felt ashamed because I believed what other people had told me, that a happy man never cheats. Or to put it in more therapeutic language, an affair is nothing more than a symptom of a troubled marriage. In other words, when Todd cheated, he was saying that I was a bad wife.
In conservative circles, there is a lasting belief that a woman is at least partially responsible for her husband’s extramarital sexual behavior. When mega-pastor, Ted Haggard, was caught engaging the services of a male sex worker, another pastor opined that Haggard’s wife was likely responsible. Women give their husband’s a reason to cheat when they do not give their husbands “satisfying, free, sexual conversations and liberties..”
Having grown up conservative, I felt deep shame when Todd cheated on me. And perhaps the sense that his behavior was shameful to me is why I did not want to see his subsequent affairs. More than 20 years later, it has yet to go away entirely.
One of the questions I have asked myself thousands of times is why I stayed. Why did I stay married to him for another five years? Why did I have children with him? And why was I surprised when he left me for another woman? And somehow or another, the shame of staying has grown to eclipse the other shame I felt.
The shame I felt about staying with a husband who cheated is reinforced by our culture. Somewhere on our journey to empowering women, we got the idea that women deserve whatever happens to them if they stay with a man who beats them or cheats on them. We have decided that if a victim can leave, she is responsible for whatever happens if she stays. And we have taken that one step further, insisting that staying is actually an invitation to be cheated on again.
Our judgment against women who stay with men who cheat has become obvious in this election cycle as people discuss Hillary Clinton. Carly Fiorina, among others, has felt free to piously declare that if she had been married to Bill Clinton, she would have left him “long ago.”
Implicit in statements about Hillary Clinton’s decision to stay with Bill is that love and forgiveness be damned; there is something wrong with a woman who stays with a husband who cheats. There is an unwritten rule that emotionally healthy women—meaning, “good women”—don’t stay with men who cheat.
And now critics from both sides of the aisle are becoming contortionists as they pat themselves on the back for predicting that Anthony Weiner would screw up again, and it seems everyone agrees that Huma Abedin should have left him the first time. Shame on her, everyone seems to be saying, for forgiving him, for working on her marriage, for staying.
In my experience, this attitude does more to isolate women when they most need support than it does to genuinely empower anyone.
I’ve heard from a lot of women who have experienced various forms of infidelity, and over and over, they tell me that the worst part for them is that they feel they cannot go to their friends for support for fear of what those same friends will say if they decide to stay and try to work it out.
And these women stay and work it out more often than not. Cheating men are often good partners in many other ways—ways that count to their partners and that make it difficult to want to leave, let alone actually pull the plug on the relationship. Making women chose between a person she genuinely loves, even though he has hurt her, and a social expectation is shear lunacy.
Worst of all, holding women responsible for not leaving their cheating husbands is yet another way that we hold women responsible for the sexual behavior of men.
We seem intent on blaming women when men fail to live up to basic standards for decent behavior. So let me be crystal clear:
It is not a woman’s fault when a man harasses her on the street, no matter what she is wearing.
It is not a woman’s fault when she is sexually harassed at work, no matter how suggestive her behavior.
It is not a wife’s fault when her husband visits a prostitute, no matter how often she does or does not have sex with him.
And it is not a woman’s fault when her husband cheats on her, not the first, second, or twentieth time. It doesn’t matter if she forgives him immediately or if she dumps his clothes on the lawn and sets them ablaze.
The pain of infidelity is enough for women to live with. We shouldn’t require that they also live with our tired moral judgments. People must be allowed to find the answers that work for them whether that is forgiveness, divorce, an open marriage, or a solution that is none of our damned business.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.