Should I Stay or Should I Go: How a Woman Responds to her Husband’s Infidelity under the Lens of Public Scrutiny

When I first heard that Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger were separating, I wondered what had gone wrong. Then a few hours later, when I learned that he had fathered a child outside of his marriage ten years ago, I understood. Though some in the media were concerned about whether Arnold would continue his action hero franchise and whether Maria was foolish to set aside her own career aspirations when she became First Lady of California–after all she sacrificed, this was her reward?–I was not worried about these matters. Instead, I felt intense sadness and empathy for a woman who had experienced a very personal betrayal.

It is hard for any woman to cope when she first learns of her husband’s infidelity. There is such a range of emotions in play:

Shock/Confusion: This cannot be happening to me. When? Where? How? Has it happened before?

Anger: How could he do this to me? What was he thinking? He is such an idiot!

Fear and Anxiety: What is going to happen to the life I had planned? Where will I go, what will I do?

Guilt and Shame: Was it partly my fault? What will people think of me?

Denial/Deflection: I can fix this. It will be ok. No one needs to know.

That last part is no longer an option for a woman in the public eye. Imagine you are reeling from the news that your husband has not only cheated on you, but has fathered a child with another woman while married to you? You can’t make the child go away–you can’t make any of it go away. But at least you can cry and yell and throw things if you want. Maybe soothe yourself with some mindless entertainment on television or online. Run out in your sweatpants and buy some comfort food. Until you remember that you are married to a very high profile individual. The news channels are splashing your picture on their monitors with tag words like scandal and betrayal. Your own name has gone viral in searches on the internet. Every time you leave the house, paparazzi are poised, eager to catch a picture of you with tear-stained cheeks or hollowed-out eyes so they can profit from your pain. When you are a high profile politician’s wife, you don’t have the luxury of retreating to a safe place to lick your wounds.

Now, on top of that scenario, imagine you are also a mother. If it were just you, you may be tempted to go out in your sweatpants and grubby t-shirt and glare at the reporters. They want material? You’ll give it to them. Or maybe you would do the opposite…put on your hottest outfit and go out on the town with your girlfriends, refusing to give the press what they want from you. Unfortunately, when you have small children, you don’t have time to think about how you want to handle things. You need to decide, and quickly, just how much information you want to give them. Because unless you remove all electronic devices from the home and put them into seclusion, they are going to hear details you never wanted them to hear. This is when the anger stage kicks in, along with the fear and grief. These poor children didn’t ask for any of this; how could your spouse have been so cruel as to do something that doesn’t just hurt you, but hurts your children? What will happen to your dreams of raising your children with an intact family where mommy and daddy are together and happy and the kids never have to worry about where they will be waking up Christmas morning?

These questions lead to the next step in reacting to a crisis of infidelity. The age-old question, “Should I stay or should I go?” For those who have never experienced infidelity, it might be easy to say, ‘If my spouse ever cheats I will be gone so fast his head will spin’. However, in reality, when you have a decade (or decades) invested in a marriage, it is extremely difficult to just walk away. Compound that by having to look into little faces that may not know exactly what separation and divorce mean, but they know it means that mommy won’t be able to tuck them in every night anymore.

When it comes to high-profile marriages, including those of political figures, it seems that those who move on immediately receive kudos for being strong women. On the other hand, those who decide they want to work on their marriage are likely to become fodder for the ladies at The View, who wonder why a woman would feel so worthless that she would stay with a cheater. I maintain it isn’t that black-and-white.

Looking at recent political scandals involving infidelity, the results have been mixed. I find irony in the fact that, when her husband was on the campaign for the 1992 presidential election, Hilary Clinton stated in an interview that “she wasn't some little woman 'standing by my man' like Tammy Wynette." Then, when her own husband’s indiscretions were revealed, and threatened to topple his presidency, she did just that: she stood by him. After Eliot Spitzer, then-Governor of New York, was revealed to be “Client 9” in a prostitution ring, he lost his position as governor but kept his job as husband; he and his wife entered couple’s counseling to work on their marriage.

Conversely, when South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford admitted to his affair with an Argentinean woman–after he was considered missing for nearly a week in 2008–his wife moved out of the Governor’s mansion and ultimately filed for divorce. The late Elizabeth Edwards filed for legal separation from her husband Senator John Edwards after learning he had fathered a child with his mistress. Last week, after learning of her own husband’s actions, Maria Shriver moved out of their family home; the legal fate of their marriage is yet undetermined.

Clearly, how a woman responds to her husband’s infidelity is up to her, and the difficulty of deciding how to act is compounded when the woman is A) Also and mother and B) In the public eye as the spouse of a high-profile politician. Ultimately, I think the best thing we can do to support women in this situation is to resist the urge to partake in the media frenzy, and to respect whatever decision they ultimately make, whether or not we would do the same.