Can you stand by a pathetic man and still keep your dignity?
Hillary Clinton's political aide has forgiven her 'sexter' husband. But why does it annoy us so much, asks Liz Kearney
Published 14/08/2013 | 05:00
The wedding photos are from a fairytale: the tall, willowy princess in the shimmering custom-made Oscar de la Renta gown, jet-black hair pulled back in a chignon, rose-red lips fixed in a broad smile, while beside her, the adoring husband clasps his hands round her tiny waist. His grip is so tight he looks as if he will never let her go.
But there has been nothing fairytale about the three-year-old marriage of the Democratic candidate for mayor of New York, Anthony Weiner, and Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton's closest political aide.
Two years ago, Weiner resigned from Congress when it emerged he'd been sending explicit photos to a string of young women. Having been caught with his pants down – and his top off – he retreated from the political arena to focus on family life with Huma and their newborn son, Jordan.
Weiner solemnly promised never to embarrass his family again, and after a period of political rehabilitation, re-entered the fray earlier this year with the announcement he was running for the office of New York mayor.
But Weiner just couldn't stay out of trouble. More to the point, he just couldn't keep from taking photos of himself in various states of undress and sending them to women who were not his wife.
It turned out the incorrigible Anthony, using the online moniker Carlos Danger – yes, the jokes do write themselves – had continued sending explicit messages to another young woman, long after he'd quit Congress and promised to behave himself.
Amid mounting public distaste for the politician's repeated transgressions, his lack of judgment and his pigheadedness in refusing to quit the election, most wives would have been forgiven for wanting to crawl under a rock.
But not Huma. She didn't retreat. Instead, she called a press conference.
Poised, graceful and immaculately dressed, the 37-year-old mum of one stepped up to the microphone beside her husband. Then in a clear voice, she told New York's assembled media, who may have been expecting her to cut and run, that she was standing by her husband.
She'd forgiven him; they were moving on. End of.
Right on cue, the Huma backlash began. The New York Post ran a full front-page picture of the loyal wife, with the not very subtle headline: "What's wrong with you?'
Opinion columnists rounded on her for letting the sisters down. Typical was Washington Post writer Sally Quinn: "Though her friends say she is strong and resolute and defiant, sadly she makes all women look like weak and helpless victims," said Quinn. "She was not standing there in a position of strength. It was such a setback for women everywhere."
The furore leaves us with two questions.Why is a woman as smart, as beautiful and as successful as Huma Abedin still standing by her man, despite being repeatedly humiliated by him? And more importantly, why does her loyalty irritate us so much?
"In situations of infidelity, statistically women are more likely to take men back than the other way round," says Bernadette Ryan, counsellor and psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland.
"One reason is that women tend to invest an awful lot more in their relationships on a day-to-day basis. She is more aware of the importance of the relationship to both of them, whereas men often only know what they've got when it's gone. For anyone who stands by their man, often it's simply that they love them, and are prepared to overlook their shortcomings to see the bigger picture."
Moreover, says Ryan, where the public simply sees slimeball politician, the wife, who presumably knows her husband better than anyone, might have good reason to take a more sympathetic view.
"We don't know what's going on for this man and his wife, but if he has some kind of sex addiction problem, she might be understanding of his behaviour," she points out.
"Equally, he might have a lot of other good qualities – he might be a good husband, a good lover, a good father, a good provider. Some women add up the pros and cons of a marriage and conclude that one bad aspect doesn't necessarily mean he is a flawed person."
There's also little Jordan to consider. Huma has reportedly told friends she doesn't want her son, who is now just 19 months old, to ever accuse her of 'giving up' on his father.
But could there be more to Huma's loyalty than simple family values? Has she been eyeing the political success of that of her mentor, Hillary Clinton, and remembering Hillary's own stoic demeanour in the face of Bill's indiscretions?
Hillary's refusal to press the nuclear button on her marriage did no damage at all to her own long-term prospects. In fact Hillary, with her high-flying post in the Obama administration and credible prospects of becoming America's first female president, now represents whatever the opposite of a doormat wife is. Does Huma have an eye on her own career?
"It's hard to know about that, but very successful women like her are often not prepared to give everything up," says Ryan. "With very high-powered couples, there can be a narcissistic attraction there anyway. They might say, I'm not giving up what I have for this. Hillary Clinton stood to lose an awful lot to flounce out of her marriage, so she didn't."
Author Kate Figes, whose study of infidelity, Our Cheating Hearts – Love and Loyalty, Lust and Lies, was published earlier this summer, believes that the public response to such sex scandals is completely over the top.
Infidelity of some description, she argues, is extremely common in long-term relationships and we would be better off trying to understand why it happens rather than flipping out about it.
"The idea that you'd have a relationship where you won't have a problem like this is ludicrous," she says. "And putting pressure on the wife to leave or to react in a certain way is more damaging to that couple than whatever went wrong in the first place. We have these social mores around couples and taboos surrounding monogamy that force people to accept the idea that cheating is always wrong and humiliating.
"So when people have affairs, they then dig themselves into a hole, and something that might have been quite a minor attraction or a mistake becomes much more complicated than it needed to be, if it had been addressed with openness and honesty in the first place.
"Who are we to judge, and how are we to know what has actually happened in a marriage?" she says. "Our reactions as a culture say more about our middle-aged, old-fashioned attitudes to monogamy and to what it means. We are very prurient, and few of us understand why people have affairs. We don't even understand why our own relationships don't work, so how can we understand someone else's relationship?"
Figes is right, of course. But that doesn't stop most of us from loudly voicing a range of opinions on how we think others should navigate their own private lives. Because for couples in the public eye, the personal is always political. Politicians set themselves up as people whose judgment we can trust, and in America more than anywhere else, political wives are a key part of a hubby's brand.
From Jackie O to Hillary to Michelle Obama, White House wives have been a source of endless fascination to the public. Wives can win votes that their husbands can't quite reach: the working mother, the stay-at-home mum, the ambitious young college grad – all might see themselves in the candidate's wife. And both halves of a political couple know this; Huma more than anyone.
So what should she do next? "I would have advised her against the press conference in the first place," says Jill Collins, PR consultant with Fuzion Communications. "I would have suggested she do an in-depth TV or radio interview with someone sympathetic who would give her a good hearing. That way she could explain her side of the story at length in a way we might understand.
"I think we've found her reaction grating so far because there is no realism in it – to talk about forgiveness at this stage just doesn't seem real.
"It would be more palatable if she simply said, 'it's not a matter of forgiveness, it's a matter of keeping my family together and I'm prepared to fight hard to do that'. That would sound real. And that way, I think she'd finally get us on side."