WASHINGTON -- A political wife with a cheating husband generally has two choices. She can stand on the stage alongside him and suffer forever the derision and condescension of feminists ("poor" Silda Spitzer). Or she can decline to take the stage and write a vengeful memoir (Jenny Sanford) and be a heroine forevermore. Neither of these options is ideal, because they seem more like responses to public expectations than anything that a real, live wife living through a gruelling marital moment might actually choose to do.
In her joint press conference with Anthony Weiner last week, Huma Abedin pioneered a third option that seemed, especially in comparison to her curiously detached husband, sincere. She just explained herself, and did it without shame, apology or all that much regret. She is probably the first cheater's wife who managed the impossible feat of choosing to stay without taking on the stench of victim.
I made the decision that it was worth staying in this marriage and that was a decision I made for me, for our son and for our family. I didn't know how it would work out, but I did know that I wanted to give it a try... I do very strongly believe that that is between us, and our marriage.
During his turn at the podium, Weiner was thoroughly unconvincing. He sounded rote, impatient, almost bored. He made the mistake politicians often make in this circumstance, which is to use the apology to the wife as a campaign opportunity. ("I'm pleased and blessed that she has given me a second chance. For the past several months I have been asking New Yorkers to also give me another chance to show them that I had a vision for the middle class struggling to make it and that I want to move forward.") Abedin by contrast claimed she was nervous, like any woman would be, but as soon as she started to speak she was calm, composed and utterly natural, even as she told a room full of reporters what a "whole lot of therapy" it took to keep her marriage together.
The couple is being criticized because around the same time that he was apparently sexting as Carlos Danger, Weiner was also posing for happy-family photos in People magazine. But what exactly did Huma say in that People interview? "It took a lot of work to get to where we are today, but I want people to know we're a normal family." Maybe "normal" is a stretch (although according to Slate's Amanda Hess, Weiner's sexts are so ordinary as to be boring.) But she says it took work, which is pretty close to what she said at the press conference this week. And here she is in the long New York Times magazine profile, saying it again:
"There was a deep love there, but it was coupled with a tremendous feeling of betrayal. It took a lot of work, both mentally and in the way we engage with each other, for me to get to a place where I said: 'OK, I'm in. I'm staying in this marriage.' Here was a man I respected, I loved, was the father of this child inside of me, and he was asking me for a second chance. And I'm not going to say that was an easy or fast decision that I made. It's been almost two years now. I did spend a lot of time saying and thinking: 'I. Don't. Understand.' And it took a long time to be able to sit on a couch next to Anthony and say, 'OK, I understand and I forgive.' It was the right choice for me. I didn't make it lightly."
The idea that a woman has to leave her husband in order to be considered brave is left over from a 1980s Dolly Parton movie. Since she went public, Abedin has made a consistent and convincing explanation of why she stayed. She respected him, he was the father of her child, so she decided to give him a second chance, even though she had no idea how it would work out. In that Times interview, Weiner even admits the issue still "bubbles" up -- this is where he starts crying -- and his wife forgives him anyway. Who can argue with that?
Watching the press conference, one got a pretty good sense of who was in charge, not in that way Abedin's boss and mentor, Hillary Clinton, was granted temporary deference when her husband was in the doghouse, but in a more permanent way.
Hanna Rosin is the author of The End of Men