To thine own vows be true: public and private considerations

This is actually something that’s been on and off my mind for awhile, but the events in New York State earlier this month brought it back up again.

In a recent post, PunditMom – who has gone public as a Hillary Clinton supporter in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination – pondered the idea that “(t)here just seems to be a lingering, niggling something about Hillary’s decision to — yes — stand by her man that rubs a lot of women the wrong way and they’re holding it against her in her presidential bid.”

In my opinion, that’s between the two of them, and has no bearing on her ability to do the job – or his, for that matter.

As I understand it, Hillary had plenty of opportunities to kick Bill to the curb before Monica, and if she didn’t, there are probably any number of reasons – some personal, others perhaps less so – which, again, are between them. One possibility often suggested is that they had some sort of political, career-related “understanding” between them. Perhaps, but I also suspect that “should I stay or should I go?” is not as cut-and-dried when your life is that public. I can tell you from experience that sometimes it isn’t in private, either, and unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to say what you’d do. And what you end up doing might not be what you thought you’d do; relationships are complicated critters.

The Spitzer situation isn’t perfectly analogous to the Clinton one for a couple of reasons, I think: the hypocrisy and apparent disconnect between public and private actions, and the illegality. (Like it or not, from a public perspective, breaking vows and breaking laws are different.) It isn’t as much a matter of “simple” infidelity, if there really is such a thing in a long-term relationship, in or out of the public eye.

In the case of my first marriage, it was stated very early on by my future husband that as far as he was concerned, infidelity would be a deal-breaker for the relationship. Hence, the irony when after 15 years of marriage, he was the one who “broke” it.

My understanding of our “terms” was that if he was straying, it was because he wanted out. The complication was that he wasn’t so clear on that, and it was a very painful couple of years of unraveling from that point on. And for quite awhile, I was prepared to “stand by,” regardless of the terms. Granted, I had serious self-esteem issues (I’ve gotten better), and they were probably a factor in my feelings about doing that.

The thing is, I believed – still do – that the infidelity was a response to other issues we had (but clearly weren’t dealing with), and in itself I don’t think it was a deal-breaker. It just stirred up too many other things we couldn’t – or perhaps by then, didn’t truly want to, considering the compromises it would take – resolve in ways that would keep the marriage together.

He’s now married to the woman he strayed with, and if I were her I’d never be sure he wouldn’t do it again. And having been there once, I do believe it would be a deal-breaker in my second marriage. As it happens, my second husband is well aware of that – and my self-esteem has grown a bit.

It’s been hard for other people to understand that my first marriage didn’t break up “because he cheated.” It was a factor, but not a reason in itself. I think if it’s that simple, there may not be much of a relationship to begin with; and after 17 years with someone, it seems to me it should take more than that to break it up. But I suspect that if it hadn’t happened, we might still be together, not exactly happy and not having much in common, because we would need a huge jolt in order to change anything. His affair provided that huge jolt, even if it didn’t change things instantly; and ultimately, I’m really not sure who left who.

I’m not sure that people who haven’t been there, one way or another, realize just how much this isn’t a black-and-white question. And I’ve only been there in a context that didn’t really affect anyone outside my own family, so I can only imagine that there are even more complications when infidelity plays out publicly.

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  1. First of all, sorry you had to go through that.

    We have a friend going through something very similar. He often says that he knows people think he’s stupid for not ending things already. I’d like to think I wouldn’t give it a second thought, but with kids involved (I’m not sure if they were for you) and just the years you’ve been together, I’m not sure it would be an easy thing to do.

  2. Mike – My son was 15 when all of this started, but his dad and I didn’t get divorced till he was almost 18. It is most definitely not an easy thing. Some couples actually make a good comeback from it, but that wasn’t to be in our case. I feel for your friend going through it.

  3. You’re right, it isn’t as simple as black and white. I wouldn’t presume to say what Hillary should or shouldn’t have done.

    But having gone through a situation similar to yours with my first marriage, I find that I am less tolerant than before. I gave my first husband an awful lot of slack, took him back over and over. Gack.

    I would never do that again. One strike and you’re out, that’s my motto!

    BTW, I have never told my second husband this. He is a special person.

    Given all that, I wonder if Hillary would be in a stronger position now if she had made the break with Bill back then. I think the hesitancy of some to back her is related to a worry about having “the Clintons” back in the White House.

  4. Working Girl – I’m inclined to agree with that take on “the Clintons” being back in the White House; some people don’t find that all that appealing. But I suspect Hillary would be a polarizing figure regardless.

    My second husband is pretty special himself, but I did let him know about the “one strike” rule. 🙂