Does staying with a cheating husband make her a hypocrite?

A woman's strict views on infidelity are challenged by her husband admitting he, too, was unfaithful. Is she a hypocrite if she stays?



March 12, 2024 - 1:02 PM

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Carolyn Hax is away. The following first appeared in 2010.

Hi, Carolyn: I’ve always considered myself an independent person. I am a married, full-time working mother of two young children, so I’ve got my hands full, but I’ve always prided myself on striking a balance between work and family. I’ve always had a strong opinion that there is no place in a marriage for cheaters — that if my husband ever cheated on me, there would be no lingering, I’d be out the door. My mother stayed in her marriage after my father had an affair. I saw how that affected her, and I never wanted that for myself.

Well, now I’m in the same situation. My husband of seven years just revealed to me that he had an affair for five months with a woman he works with. He says that it was purely physical, and that he loves me and our children and will do anything to make our marriage work. He has volunteered to go to counseling.

The problem is I still love him. He is a great father, my best friend, and I can’t imagine my life without him. I also don’t want my boys to grow up with a weekend father. How do I reconcile my feelings of hypocrisy if I choose to stay with him?

— Hypocrite?

Hypocrite?: There are lots of problems here, but loving your husband isn’t one of them. If anything, it’s helping you with the solution.

Labels, on the other hand, are a problem, here and always.

Fortunately, they’re shallow enough — and our nimble language is deep enough — that you can always push one aside with another. Where you say “hypocrite,” I can say “naive” (in your view of your parents’ marriage), or “rigid” (in your application of those youthful life lessons), or “enlightened” (in your current, post-apocalyptic state). It’s all in how you process your facts.

And since labels are so fungible, you might as well reject them entirely in favor of facts: Your husband cheated. He says he wants to make amends. He could just be saving his butt. You love him. He’s a good father. He’s your best friend. You are not interested in ending the marriage.

Just because these facts come as a complete surprise to you doesn’t mean you should ignore or distrust them. There are some other facts that explain why: Life is complicated. You are not your mother. Your husband is not your father. Plans are nice, but reality gets the last word.

Please take this and any other relevant information and make your best decision. No one is making you fit into your outdated, preconceived notions of marriage or family or your “independent” self, except you — and so it’s okay to declare yourself independent of formulaic thought.

If it helps to weave all this new information into a coherent theme, here’s a new lesson to take from your parents’ foibles: You do your best with the life you’ve got.

The specifics of what that means are entirely yours to decide, because no one’s experience is exactly like anyone else’s. When the unthinkable happens, there’s beauty, not shame, in growing up, wising up and finding new ways to think.

Dear Carolyn: All my good friends are friends with my recent ex, whose mention is still pretty painful for me. I’ve tried telling them I’m not ready to talk about him yet, but they can’t help mentioning him in passing when he’s so relevant to everyone’s lives still. I know he sees them when I don’t, and I don’t want to be possessive, but I feel uncomfortable with that.

Time for new friends? Or am I being unreasonable to think my close friends could join me in pretending this heartbreaker doesn’t exist for a while, till I get over him?

— D.C.

D.C.: It’s perfectly reasonable to ask friends to spare you detailed reports on your painfully recent ex. They owe you that.

To ask them not to mention him “in passing,” though, when he’s still their friend, is to make your problem into everyone else’s.

Life is really painful sometimes. Sometimes you have to watch other people enjoy something you recently lost. Sometimes you have to accept there are limits to what your community can do, and there are things you must face on your own, even when you’re in agony.

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