MAXWELL:  When men cheat, why do women stay?

3/8/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


For several months, I, along with other Tampa Bay area residents, have marveled as Deborah Lyons has stuck by her husband, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

In addition to having been indicted for racketeering and grand theft, the Rev. Lyons is accused of having extramarital affairs, buying a waterfront mansion with one woman and showering her with expensive gifts.

When I see Deborah Lyons, I wonder what makes her stay with the good reverend. Why not split and be done with the whole thing? Surely, she cannot love him that much? Is she staying for the money? What money? After the state and the feds are through with him and he pays his defense team, he will not have a dime.

Deborah Lyons’ predicament brings to mind that of other women who have remained loyal to their adulterous, narcissistic men _ women who endure public humiliation, hide their own pain, subordinate their own sense of self.

Think of Hillary Clinton. Why does she hang in there with the president, a confessed philanderer? Apparently, she has recanted her 1992 remark that she is not the “Stand by Your Man” type, referring, of course, to a country-western hit by Tammy Wynette. Not only is the first lady standing by her man; she is fiercely defending him.


What about Kathie Lee Gifford? Hubby Frank has made his deeply religious, family-loving wife look like a fool. Why does she stick with him?

Can anyone forget Lee Hart, who stood by husband Gary, then the leading Democratic candidate for president, after he got caught in some monkey business with Donna Rice? Lee Hart is still married to Gary; she remains loyal.

The other day, I was intrigued to see Wilhemina McKinney reach forward and touch her husband’s back. She smiled warmly as he stood to take the stand. Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, once the Army’s top enlisted soldier, is being court-martialed on 19 charges of sexual misconduct with six female subordinates. What belief system keeps Wilhemina McKinney from going AWOL?

Wary of definitive answers as to why such women remain loyal to their cheating men, psychologists and other experts agree on certain general principles that shed light on the subject.

St. Petersburg clinical psychologist Patricia Shiflett, acknowledging that she is not being judgmental or is offering hard facts, said that just as society has strong cultural expectations about the way men should behave, we embrace equally strong expectations for women.

On the most basic level, society expects women to be accommodating and long-suffering, putting their own needs aside to be supportive of their spouses. These behavioral expectations, which young girls internalize, are often transmitted subliminally, Shiflett said.

“I don’t mean to imply personally that women, in any way, ought to be in any kind of subservient role,” Shiflett said. “I’m saying that society oftentimes has expected that women will, in fact, be this accommodating, this nurturing of the relationship to the point that they sacrifice self in order to make it work. In the end, it is impossible to know exactly what may be motivating people to do what they do.”

Martha Paradis, a psychotherapist practicing in Tenafly, N.J., said that family situations and the kind of parents involved also determine if women stay loyal. For example, women who grow up in dysfunctional families may have a higher threshold for abuse and, therefore, may tend to accept abusive or adulterous relationships more readily. They have learned to stay put because they see no other options.

Another possible reason for such loyalty, Shiflett said, is that a woman may often “over-identify” with her spouse’s life. These women assume what Shiflett calls the “biblical helpmate role,” becoming “very wrapped up in that identity and lifestyle” and failing to give “sufficient voice to their own needs, their own identities, their own growth and development.”

Shiflett cautioned that the helpmate role may not apply to Hillary Clinton, a successful lawyer in her own right.

Paradis agreed that women with fragile self-esteem derive “personal meaning” from being attached to a powerful figure. “They get their sense of cohesion from being connected to power,” she said.

Attempting to avoid over-generalization, Paradis said that Hillary Clinton, too, enjoys the power that comes with being the first lady and gains self-esteem from this lofty position. Why would she not stand by her man? After all, if Slick Willie is impeached, she becomes the ex-first lady.

“Many women prefer to be in a bad relationship if leaving it means losing prestige,” Paradis said.

Denial is another reason that many women hang on to their unfaithful husbands. “Being in the fantasy feels better than facing the reality,” Shiflett said.

A close cousin of denial is the abused spouse syndrome. “Abuse doesn’t necessarily have to be that a person is getting physically beaten,” she said. “It can be verbal abuse. And women, more so than men, are likely to feel helpless to be able to affect any particular change, less likely to feel powerful enough to do anything about it. Here again, that correlates with the tendency of women to link their lives with men and whatever is happening in their men’s lives. That tends to define what their status in society is or their role.”

Then, we have the most obvious reason that Hillary Clinton, Lee Hart and others stand may by their Big Creeps: love.

“It could be … that some women just love these men so much that they’re willing to go to the ends of the earth with them, come what may,” Shiflett said. “Love can be blind. Love overlooks flaws. Love sees that which is good, which is positive about the person and puts aside all the negatives that are present despite the suffering of the spouse. … Women will stick it out most of the time. There are more marriages that end in divorce when women have been unfaithful than when men have been unfaithful.”

The reasons? Women are the healers, the compromisers, the forgivers. Men, on the other hand, are conditioned to see things as either black or white and are more willing than women to toss out the whole shebang.

“These men,” Shiflett said, “may not know how lucky they are to have a person who loves them in that kind of unconditional, loving way.”