The Stigma Around Staying


I recently had the opportunity to meet Hillary Clinton. And regardless of your feelings about either of the P-words (politics or pantsuits), here’s a quick and dirty list of facts you should probably know about her:

She is, was, or has been --

  • an accomplished author,

  • a distinguished graduate from Yale Law School,

  • a civil litigation attorney,

  • a law professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law,

  • first lady of the United States for 2 terms (8 years),

  • Senator for the state of New York for 2 terms,

  • US Secretary of State,

  • the first woman in American history to receive the presidential nomination from a major political party, and

  • *almost* the first female president of the United States (she won the popular vote).

Again, regardless of one’s political views, I think it’s fairly safe to say that her accomplishments warrant a great deal of respect.

But that isn’t the reason why I would like to talk about Secretary Clinton; not directly, at least. Rather, what I’d like to discuss is something that has arguably served to ostracize her to a certain extent over the past 20 years - namely, her choice to stay with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, after he was found (and very publicly so, at that) to have been unfaithful to her.

Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel has commented on the sense of shame that can often surround men and women who choose to stay with their spouses after an infidelity has been revealed. Perel notes, “if it was once a stigma when you divorced, today the new shame is choosing to stay when you can leave”.

While divorce has become more socially acceptable over the past several decades, our society’s intolerance for infidelity has not wavered. Within the context of marriage, infidelity still represents the ultimate betrayal.

So in light of these cultural trends, today when a spouse gets caught cheating, we’ve come to expect a divorce to ensue. But even more than that, we often go so far as to negatively judge the “victimized” partner if they choose to remain in the relationship after learning of the transgression.

Historically, marriage was not so much a representation of romantic love and choice as it was an economic arrangement. But today, individuals are more independent than ever before, often possessing the requisite education and means to survive or even thrive on their own, outside of the marital construct.

Marriage has become tied to independent choice and desire. So when one spouse commits adultery in this day and age, we seem to feel that the scorned spouse should leave simply because they can.

In this vein, Secretary Clinton received criticism for staying with her husband in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the late ‘90s. Some perceived her to be weak for choosing to remain in the marriage. Others felt she lacked self-respect. People even went so far as to question her character and judgment based on her decision.

And is that fair? No. Not at all.

But that’s exactly what I’d like to discuss: Why is it that we (whether as individuals or as a society) feel so threatened when a person chooses to stay with their unfaithful spouse? Why do we feel the need to judge them for it?

I invite you to share your own thoughts in the comments to this post, but my theory is that our reaction is rooted in fear.

When someone chooses to stay with their spouse despite that spouse’s infidelity, their actions directly conflict with, or even threaten, our societal construct of marriage. And our society feels drawn to defend and protect that construct for the same reason we built it in the first place - because it carries with it some promise of safety, security, and certainty (no matter how illusory that “promise” may ultimately be).  

So the idea of allowing or permitting infidelity to exist within the construct of marriage and not having it cause the marriage to implode scares us, because it introduces an element of uncertainty, insecurity, and instability into the fold that feels unnatural, that doesn’t belong.

Not only do we not know how to reconcile the two ideas, but we tend to love dichotomies (even false ones) because they make things easier for us to categorize and comprehend.

All of this leads us to feel threatened by marriages that survive an infidelity.

Is it possible for us to buy into and endorse a construct of marriage that doesn’t self-destruct when infidelity occurs? Would that require our traditional definition of marriage to shift or expand? And without the threat of losing one’s husband or wife to divorce, what’s to incentivize a given partner in a marriage to remain faithful to their spouse?

We seem to fear that by virtue of a scorned spouse choosing to stay in their marriage, the incidence of infidelity will become more commonplace or acceptable on a broader level. So our inclination is to desire punishment or justice for the transgressor.

And we project our own fears onto the scorned individual as well. We seem to think we know what’s best for them without knowing or understanding the full context of their situation.

It’s important to remember and acknowledge that relationships are enormously complex, and marital vows can be breached in many different ways. Oftentimes, missteps from both spouses lead a given relationship to crumble.

We have no idea what was going on in the Clintons’ marriage, and it’s not our business to know those details. It’s their business alone.  

Our responsibility and our freedom of choice applies solely to our own relationships - not those of others. So if you choose to forgive your partner for a transgression they’ve committed, that’s your decision and your prerogative - not anyone else’s.

My hope is that we will one day get to a place in our society where we’ll stop judging people like Secretary Clinton for choosing to stay. I’d prefer to live in a world in which we respect others’ choices and allow them to handle and own the consequences of their decisions without adding our own caustic opinions into the mix. Because what value does that provide, really?

Let’s pull our noses out of other people’s relationships and grant them the same degree of consideration and respect that we would hope to be granted.

And let’s acknowledge and admit when fear lies at the root of our actions and ask ourselves: do we really want to be people who are driven by fear? Or do we instead want to begin building a world that’s driven by love?