The topic of marital infidelity has been in the news a lot lately as the Josh and Anna Duggar saga has been unfolding. People were outraged to hear that Anna is sticking by her cheating husband. Many of the detractors say that Anna was brainwashed or trapped because of lack of education or job skills, but as a woman who has been married 20 years with an education, high job skills, and plenty of societal options to leave, I would stay too.
Before you jump to conclusions about me, let me paint the whole picture. Between the two of us, I am the one with more education. I own the larger share of the business we own together, which technically makes me his boss. If people were to describe me as a wife and person, they would likely use the word "feisty." Basically, I'm nothing like the perception of Anna Duggar. I'm not brainwashed, not trapped by a lack of economic independence, and definitely not submissive (that sound you hear is my husband snort-laughing at such a suggestion).
When I said "I do," it was a forever commitment on my part to build a family, and while a few things could undo that commitment, infidelity doesn't make the list. In my hypothetical world, my spouse may have been the one to make the mistake, but it takes two people to destroy a marriage. Why would I let his bad, epic, unforgettable choice force me to make decisions that would not only affect the two of us, but our children?
Recognizing that my theoretical view of married life after cheating might be rose-colored, I wanted to talk to others who had actually been in this situation to see if any chose to stay. Bringing up the subject of cheating spouses isn't something that happens naturally in playdates, so I took to Facebook to see if anyone would be willing to share. I expected exactly zero friends to want to open up a likely embarrassing and painful past, so I was blown away when person after person contacted me with stories of staying married after an affair.
These weren't just "simple" stories of a one-night stand or a drunken mistake. One friend shared that an affair had lasted more than two-and-a-half years, while another experienced an affair that led to a pregnancy. Another had just recently learned of the cheating, and although the pain was palpably fresh, she remained resolute that staying was the best choice. Among the 10 or so people who bravely shared their stories, the details were all different, but several things were the same. They all felt that keeping their family intact was more important than acting out of grief, and they all felt that good things—sometimes really good things—had resulted after they worked through the pain. When they talked about what they had learned and their decisions to stay, a note of pride rose above the obvious anguish.
With my friends' brave stories as a guide, I realized that my theoretical opinions about what to do if my husband cheated weren't far off. In fact, all of those who had actually been there echoed my rationale. First and foremost, I learned that choosing to leave would never erase the infidelity and the deluge of pain and suffering that accompany it; it only creates an entirely new set of pain and suffering. With children involved, the stakes are higher and there's no way to completely cut off the person who shares half their DNA without dramatically altering their lives.
Really, though, it's not just a decision that I would make "for the kids." It's just as much about me, about who I want to be as a person. In the end, the decision to leave feels rooted in selfishness. It implies that my need to get revenge or flee from the outright rage has more value than the life and the family that we have built together. Do I really want to give more value to my right to rage than to the overall health of my family?
It also implies that some other human has all the power to force me to make life-altering decisions based on my hurt feelings. This idea paints me as a weakling who is only one bad choice away from losing a family. Is my position as an equal member of the family so tenuous that it can be destroyed so easily? I have always believed that I shouldn't let other people's actions dictate my choices, and I wouldn't be willing to let that choice define who am. I'm a person who makes commitments. I'm a person who sticks with things even, and especially, when things get hard.
Would I be pissed? Would I be betrayed? Would our marriage be changed forever? Yes. Does any of that have more power than my right to retain my character even in the face of crushing defeat? No.
I understand that it's an insanely personal decision and that there are many ways to look at this. Just like I would never want to judge the intimate inside of a "public" relationship like Josh and Anna Duggar, I would never make judgments in this category for anyone but me. It's a topic that is fraught with contingencies. Even among my friends, daily uncertainties about the choice to stay remain. Some say they definitely gave a one-time offer. If their spouses were to cheat again, they're gone. Some say this is the choice they have made for now and they could change their mind in the future.
As for me, I stand by my decision that marriage is a long-haul, lifetime decision. You can call me crazy, naïve, or idealistic. I might be all of those things. Just don't assume that the choice to stand beside a chosen life partner, even in the face of infidelity, indicates some form of weakness. I think it's quite the opposite.