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Politicians Who Cheat

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Women initially stand by their scandalized spouse, experts say
Richard Ruelas
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 12, 2008
See original article here

Your husband is involved in an embarrassing sex scandal. Do you stand next to him when he apologizes for his misdeeds?

If you're the wife of a politician, you do.

If you're the wife of a regular guy, you might think your first reaction would be to send him packing.

But in fact, relationship experts say that sticking together is the initial reaction for most couples - famous or not - when dealing with unfaithfulness.

"It's easy to say in the office, 'I'll do this or I'll do that,' " said Kevin Leman, a Tucson psychologist and author. "But I've got news for you. You got three kids, you got three daughters, that's not a surprise to me."

To Leman, it was not unusual to see Silda Spitzer standing next to her beleaguered husband, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, during his news conference earlier this week where he apologized to his family and the people of New York after allegations that he solicited call girls.

Leman figured there were women around the country saying they would never agree to stand next to their husband in a similar situation.

"It would be the last conference he held," said Jasmine Pecenkovic, who was taking an afternoon exercise stroll around a downtown Phoenix block. The Queen Creek woman, who has been married 25 years, said her co-workers at Chase Bank had been talking about the scandal all week. Some said they might be able to forgive their spouse, or that maybe it could be explained.

Pecenkovic didn't think so.

"There's no explanation for that," she said.

Other political couples

The Spitzers join a parade of other political couples who've had to make photo opportunities out of a troubling point in their marriage.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, with his wife, Carlita, by his side, read a televised statement after the Detroit Free Press reported he had sent romantic text messages to his chief of staff.

Wendy Vitter stood by her husband, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, when his phone number ended up on a list of clients of the "D.C. Madam."

Suzanne Craig, wife of Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, stood by him at a news conference and later sat at his side as he answered questions on national television regarding his arrest in a Minneapolis airport bathroom on lewd-conduct charges.

In each case it's difficult to know exactly why a woman has chosen to stay. Such unity could be a sign of strength and a healthy relationship, or it could be a sign of weakness and desperation, said Cinthia Hiett, a Phoenix counselor for 18 years.

"Is she standing there because she's desperate and has her identity with him?" she asked. "Or is she staying with him because of some (inner) strength that says, 'We can get through this'?"

Hiett said big events, like the discovery of infidelity, don't usually break up an otherwise healthy couple. Bad relationships, she said, deteriorate over small things. Big events just expose the already fraying relationship.

Depending on the man's discretion, a wife can forgive, Hiett said.

"I've had several couples that are really truly good people, and they've just had a lapse in judgment," she said. "We all do foolish things, but we're not all fools."

Of course, Hiett said, Spitzer's wife probably is trying to figure out whether her husband's behavior was a rare lapse or a habit. Her decision to accompany him at the brief news conference might be an initial reaction, but it offers no clue as to whether she'll stick with him long term, as more details emerge.

The revelations were just a few hours old when she stood, crestfallen, next to Spitzer. It's not known when Spitzer told his wife he was implicated after he was caught on a federal wiretap arranging to meet with a prostitute.

And it definitely was before details arose from affidavits, reported by the New York Times, that revealed Spitzer as a repeat client who was known to be "difficult" with prostitutes.

"In a relationship, there's a part of that person you know that other people don't know," Hiett said. That's the part, unknown to strangers, that often allows a spouse to decide whether to stick or split.

"(It's) 'I know their makeup and I know their intentions. They screwed up and they're just a person,' " she said, "versus 'I need to walk away, because this person is destructive or pathological.' "

Sharing your troubles

Women face these types of decisions daily, probably more than ever, since the computer age has made cheating more accessible, said Stephany Alexander, a Phoenix-based self-styled expert on online dating and dalliances.

"It's not so easy to walk away," said Alexander, who through her Web site, www.womansavers.com, has heard countless stories of women dealing with cheating spouses. "There are ways to recover from this. You can try therapy, but it's a long road."

And if a couple does decide to stick together and work it out, they have to decide whether to tell friends and family about their troubles. The Spitzers and other scandalized political couples do not have that option.

Hiett said she recommends that couples individually tell close friends, for support, but to avoid telling family members unless the couple has that rare, ideal "functional" family. Friends might get past the indiscretion, she said, easier than a mother or aunt who might constantly find a way to bring it up during Thanksgiving dinner.

Leman, too, recommends telling a tight circle of friends, if necessary.

"Why would you tell everybody? It just doesn't do any good," he said. "You have enough people who are going to talk behind your back."

Still, Leman said, whether it's a high-profile couple or not, true forgiveness is difficult, because it starts with the couple being honest with themselves and their feelings. That can be difficult, especially if a spouse finds herself playing a role she used to mock or not understand.

Before her husband's indiscretion came to light, Wendy Vitter gave an interview to the New Orleans Times Picayune that showed she was one of those women who couldn't have imagined herself standing by her unfaithful man.

In 2000, a reporter asked her to comment about then-President Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern.

"I'm a lot more like Lorena Bobbitt than Hillary," Vitter said. "If he does something like that, I'm walking away with one thing, and it's not alimony, trust me."

Seven years later, she stood by her husband in what has become an all-too-familiar news conference.

"You don't know how you react until it happens," Alexander said. "You've invested a lot. You're in love. There are feelings involved here."

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