Why does a person stay with a spouse who has had an affair?
By Peggy Vaughan
While I certainly can't speak for everyone who finds themselves in this situation, I can offer some perspective as a person who has "been there" and as a professional who has worked with this issue for eighteen years.
First of all, the question itself reflects a way of thinking that implies a person "shouldn't" stay. It indicates a judgmental, critical attitude that sounds something like, "Well, if MY partner had an affair, I'd..." No matter how you finish that sentence, you're only guessing. The fact is that nobody knows what they will do unless and until it DOES happen to them.
When you're only thinking about this issue in an abstract way—or regarding someone else—it seems simple to decide to leave. But when it happens to YOU, it's anything but simple. And the old knee-jerk response of "kick-the-bum-out" just doesn't hold up when faced with the reality of the situation.
The reality includes consideration of the impact on family, children, and economic issues. But there are many things to consider beyond these obvious concerns. It's not enough to look only at the reasons someone might feel they "ought" to stay. There are also some important reasons they might "want" to stay:
They may still love their spouse. Yes, despite the hurt and anger, love can still survive. This was an important point for me personally.
They may value their shared history. My husband and I had grown up together, been childhood sweethearts, and been married eighteen years when I learned of his affairs.
They may value their shared goals and commitment to larger issues in the world. My husband and I had worked together on many issues that we felt were important.
They may recognize that affairs are not just a reflection of a specific marriage but are also a reflection on broader forces in their environment that undermine monogamy. Having affairs has more to do with other factors than with who is a "good" or "bad" person.
They may consider the prospects for the future of the marriage if they stay. If I had left when my husband told me about his affairs 24 years ago, I would have missed all those years of having an honest, monogamous marriage—one that has now lasted 43 years.
They may look realistically at their spouse's other qualities and find that on balance they prefer their spouse to other potential partners. Although being alone is a perfectly legitimate choice, many people prefer to have a mate.
They may (especially if either is well-known) feel a bond with their partner in confronting the public outcry. Being faced with a situation where it's "you and me against the world" can strengthen a sense of togetherness.
There are, or course, many other reasons a person might choose to stay, but this list reflects the overall reason: "they have been able to think clearly about the whole complex situation instead of just reacting emotionally."
Those who disagree with a decision to stay seldom base it on a thoughtful consideration of the question. They're more likely to have an emotional reaction or to simply say the person should leave "on principle." This seems to me to reflect a self-serving attitude rather than one of concern for the person affected. If we look closely at people who are upset about someone staying with a partner who has had affairs, we're likely to find a lot of fear—fear that it could happen to them—and a feeling that "punishing" people for affairs will somehow "protect" them from being faced with this problem in their own lives or in the lives of those close to them.
While I've tried to explain why some people choose to stay with spouses who have affairs, I want to be very clear that I'm NOT saying anyone "should" stay. What I AM saying is that we should respect and support each person's individual choices about significant issues in their lives—even when we disagree or fail to understand.