Why We Stay

When Hillary Clinton learned that Bill was having an affair with a 22-year-old intern, many of us were confused—angry, even—when she didn’t throw his clothes onto the North Lawn. As First Lady, she had the power to send a clear message: Betrayal is a cruel violation, and just plain wrong.

I didn’t understand why she had stayed, until my own husband of twenty-two years betrayed me. As I write in Dancing on Our Fathers’ Feet:

A few months after I had confronted him about his infidelity, I lay awake one night, alone, watching television, a news program like 20/20. A reporter asked one of Hillary Clinton’s closest friends, “I know this goes back a few years, but I still have to ask: Why didn’t she leave Bill?” I sat up in bed, pointed at the screen, and said out loud, “It would be like walking away from herself.” One second later Hillary’s friend said, “Because it would be like walking away from herself.” Now I understood why Hillary hadn’t left.

The biggest mistake we women make is defining ourselves through our relationships, especially with men. No matter who you are or how you were raised—even if you deny this on an intellectual level—a message has wormed its way into your brain: Women are not as important as men. From a young age, we are taught to put everyone else first. That’s why our relationships determine the choices we make, while men’s choices determine the relationships they have.

It’s an important distinction. A relationship becomes part of a woman’s identity: We dress ourselves up in it. We become someone’s wife, someone’s mother—and forget why we are important, all on our own. That’s how we fall. We’re so busy helping everyone else fulfill their lives, we ignore or forget our own. So when a woman’s partner betrays her, her life—her identity—is gutted. To her, leaving means walking away from everything she is, into emptiness. That’s why we stay.

I believe in love, and second chances. Even after betrayal, I believe love can be saved. I fought hard for my marriage, but eventually I had to make a choice: I decided to love myself enough to put my life first. And when I did, I discovered that I didn’t walk into emptiness at all—I moved toward my truest Self.

©Ellen Antonelli 2016

(Next Week: Understanding Compromise.)

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