There is a particular look we give the woman who has chosen to stay with the man who cheated on her.
And it isn’t a very nice one.
Our eyebrows raise a little, and we cock our head to the side. We project onto her a sort of disingenuous sorrow coupled with a hint of condescending pity.
‘Was she the woman who ‘chose’ to stay?’ we ask ourselves. ‘Or was she just the woman who wasn’t strong enough to leave?’
Psychotherapist and expert on sex and relationships Esther Perel, says that a few decades ago the decision to file for divorce was loaded with shame. But in the modern moment, when ending a marriage or relationship is no longer taboo, the ‘new shame’ is to stay when you have the option to walk away.
We evoke language like ‘self-respect’. ‘Strength’. ‘Bravery’.
The woman who knows her worth, leaves. That is the one and only correct response to infidelity. You have been insulted, made to look stupid, and the trust has been irreparably broken.
It is the worst crime that can befall a relationship – and, in fairness, it’s not hard to see why.
“Why would they do that?”
“Why?” is the question you’re always left with.
Following, of course, the “who?” the “when?” and the “how?”
“Why would they do that?”
There is a special brand of shame you feel when someone cheats on you. It’s humiliating. The person who is meant to love you most, and knows all your flaws, couldn’t help but ‘stray’ – the word itself implying that they tried very hard to stay in their lane, but in the end, they just couldn’t help it.
Listen: Mia Freedman interviews expert Esther Perel on why people cheat. Post continues below.
It feels like a rejection of your whole being, from the way you laugh to the shape of your nose. And the answer to the ‘why’ descends on you, like a lone brick falling from the sky, at 3am on a Monday night.
“Because I wasn’t enough.”
There was something The Other Woman or The Other Man has, that you don’t. They weren’t satisfied. “Cheating is a symptom,” we rationalise. “And I was the problem.”
We’ve been led to believe, from pop psychology, music, movies and relationship columns, that someone cheating always has something – at least a little bit – to do with the person being cheated on.
You didn’t have enough sex. You were neglectful. You were too jealous. You weren’t putting enough effort into your appearance. You didn’t go on enough date nights. You demanded too much. The relationship had already died, and they were just too afraid to break your heart.
There is enormous shame in telling your friends and family that the man or woman you’ve devoted yourself to, wanted, even if only for a moment, someone else.
And in the midst of a tidal wave of emotions, one is expected to make a decision. And fast.
“If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
Several women in the public eye have been marred by their husband’s affairs.
Let’s start with Hillary Clinton.
It was 1971 when Hillary and Bill first met, and they married in 1975.
It was another 20 years before Bill Clinton, then the President of the United States, entered into a sexual relationship with the 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky. When the affair came to light a few years later, Clinton lied stating, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Eventually, the evidence became so overwhelming that Bill was forced to confess to Hillary early one morning. His eyes were "filled with tears," Hillary recalls, and he just stood their repeating, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I was trying to protect you and Chelsea."
It goes without saying that the scandal ruined Monica Lewinsky. But - despite the fact Hillary had nothing to do with the affair - it hurt her reputation, too.
She was labelled an enabler at the time, with Trump since referring to her as an "unbelievably nasty, mean enabler."
Many Republicans insist she stayed as more of an 'arrangement' than a marriage, using Bill for his political connections.
In Ivana Trump's new memoir Raising Trump, she recounts how years ago she approached Hillary and asked, "How do you deal with it?"
"She just looked at me and walked away," she recalls. "I look at political wives who stand by their cheating, lying husbands at press conferences with a glazed look in their eyes, and I can’t believe they put up with it. How do they explain it to their children?”
Indeed, "how could you?" is the question directed at the cheatee - not the cheater.
For two decades Hillary has been made to defend her choice to stay married to Bill. In an interview, she said, “I’m not sitting here – some little woman standing by my man... I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together.”
It was only last year that Donald Trump retweeted the words, "If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?" a horrifying thought that might just reveal where we really place the onus of infidelity.
Hillary did not stay with Bill out of necessity, but by choice, and it's a decision that culturally we remain uncomfortable with
"What if the affair had nothing to do with you?"
Esther Perel asks her clients who are grappling with the aftermath of infidelity; "What if the affair had nothing to do with you?"
There are dozens of reasons why happy people cheat, she insists.
"Few events in the life of a couple, except illness and death, carry such devastating force," Perel writes. "Infidelity may be ubiquitous, but the way we make meaning of it - how we define it, experience it, and talk about it - is ultimately linked to the particular time and place where the drama unfolds."
You can listen to the full episode of No Filter with Esther Perel, here.
When cheating takes place in good marriages, that is to say, kind, respectful, loving and companionate partnerships where infidelity is not common place, sometimes it's not that one partner is turning away from the other. Rather, they might be turning away from the person they have become.
"We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves," Perel says.
It doesn't mean the cheating hurts any less. It doesn't disqualify the act from being one of profound disrespect and betrayal that ought to be treated seriously.
What it does mean is that staying with someone who cheated on you does not make you weak. It doesn't mean you're lacking self respect.
Infidelity hurts. It's humiliating. And one of the hardest things for people who decide to stay, is dealing with the shame they internalise from those around them.
How one navigates the complexities of their relationship isn't a reflection on their character.
Ultimately, we just have to trust women to make the decision that is best for them.
Have you stayed with someone who cheated on you before? How did it turn out?