There's a pervasive cultural myth that strong women leave cheaters and weak women stay. Staying is for suckers, for chumps, for women too pathetic to demand respect.
Thing is, I don't know a single woman who has stayed in a marriage after infidelity who fits that description. Quite the contrary. The women I know who've stayed do so for a lot of reasons, none of which are that they're too weak to leave.
At first I stayed because I was exhausted and knew that I couldn't create the calm and stability that my three children would have needed to deal with their parents' separation. Being able to consider my children's needs isn't weakness. It's a mother's strength.
I stayed in part because I had made a vow to my husband – "in good and in bad". This fell firmly under the "bad" category. It isn't weakness to stay true to wedding vows, even when a partner has failed to. I took those vows seriously. And I knew that, at points in our marriage, we'd be tested. To honour those vows takes strength.
And I continued to stay because I could see my husband working hard to figure out why he'd risked everything that mattered to him, to find a way through this mess to redeem himself, to learn how to be a better man when he was lost. To be patient, to allow trust to regain a foothold takes strength.
But perhaps, most of all, I used that time to begin to heal. To do the hard work myself of figuring out why I had lost myself to some extent in my marriage, why I had failed myself. With no healthy marriage as my blueprint (my parents' marriage was marred with addiction and infidelity), I had thought that my job was to be supportive, to compromise, to accommodate myself, to, I dare say, abandon "me" in pursuit of "us". To untangle my healthy ideas of love and marriage and carve out a place for myself in this "new" marriage took determination and patience. And a whole lot of strength.
Thing is, those on the outside have no idea what's going on within the marriage. I hear it a lot from Other Women, bitter because the guy whose words they believed goes back to his wife and his marriage and, they're convinced, suffers no real consequences for his behaviour.
I hear it from people who know the rumours about someone's infidelity and yet see the couple at social gatherings, sitting together, laughing together. Together. "Why does she put up with that?" they've whispered to me with no knowledge that I've "put up with that" too.
What people don't see is the work it takes to get there. What the Other Women don't understand is the effort that goes into rebuilding a marriage that has been shattered by infidelity.
I don't know a single marriage in which a guy who cheated (where his wife knows he's cheated) returns to the fold and is welcomed with no questions asked.
Recently, a man who cheated on his wife posted on this site, suggesting that it would be "better" for his wife if he simply walked away so she's not reminded of the pain he put her through. This guy wasn't interested in doing the work of helping her heal. He just wanted her to be over it already and, since she wasn't, he thought it would be helpful to exit stage left so she didn't have to think about it. Doesn't that strike you as cowardice? A guy who would rather not have to face his own moral failing every day when he sees the pain in her eyes? Sure sounds like that to me. She's not asking him to spare her the pain of his betrayal (a bit late for that, buddy), she's asking him to walk through it with her. She's strong enough to face it. Is he?
And that's the truth of a marriage after betrayal. It's about facing that pain, every single moment of the day. It's about working hard to keep your heart open when every ounce of your being wants to close it off to further pain. It's about showing up at events with your husband, possibly even laughing together, and then going home and sobbing into your pillow because everything hurts.
Don't tell me it doesn't take strength to get up each morning and fight your way through the day while he's at work, sometimes where the OW works too. Don't tell me it isn't strength that gets us to our own jobs, to parent-teacher meetings, to the grocery store. Or that it isn't Herculean not to openly flinch when every bloody song in the mall where you're shopping for rainboots for your kid reminds you of what he did.
And this, of course, isn't to say that leaving is weakness. Rather it is to say that doing what feels right for us – especially when the world has strong opinions about what we should do – takes incredible strength. To battle that inner narrative that tells us we've betrayed ourselves for staying, to fight a culture that insists that the only acceptable response to a cheater is to kick him to the curb, to ignore the cries of the "once a cheater, always a cheater" brigade, takes a strength that most of us never knew we had.
And until we realize that, statistically, most women choose to stay, we didn't know how much strength the women around us have. Strength we don't always see because women are so good at hiding our pain.
In the end, we have nothing to prove to anyone but ourselves. And what he have to prove to ourselves is that we followed the path that was right for us. Our reasons for taking one path over another are our own. But they are legitimate. They matter.
Weakness is letting others dictate our life choices. It's abandoning ourselves to be who others want us to be.
Strength? It's what you see every day in the mirror when you straighten your shoulders and turn to face a world that thinks it knows what you should do and decide instead to do what's right for you. Whatever that is.