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posted: 8/7/2013 5:00 AM

Only the cheated on can understand such betrayal

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Linda cheated on me. It happened the night before we were planning to go away for the weekend. In the morning I called her place but there was no answer. I called again -- and then again and again. Worried, I rushed over to her apartment and finding an open window, I climbed in. No one was home. Suddenly, her phone rang. It was my roommate, Neil. Linda had just called, he told me. She said she had overslept. She said she was at home.

All this happened a long time ago, but it sticks with me -- not on account of the betrayal, although that was bad enough, but on account of my own reaction to it. I listened to her confession, a tearful air-gulping account of confusion and weakness, punctuated by pledges of unwavering fidelity -- and I bought it. To my considerable dismay, we continued as if nothing had happened.

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What brings Linda to mind, as if you could not guess, is Huma Abedin, the much-criticized wife of the quite mad Anthony Weiner. She not only stood by him when he was exposed the first time as a serial exposer but did it all over again more recently. Here was this woman, the real "Good Wife," standing by her man -- and not to put too fine a point on it, other women did not like it. They wanted Weiner wasted and Abedin gone.

You can call the roll of betrayed women, and so many of them are accused of being shoddy role models. Hillary Clinton stayed, peeved for a while, clearly wounded, but she stuck in there -- woman after woman after woman. Silda Spitzer, the wife of the former New York governor, also stayed and -- just to go back a bit -- so did Eleanor Roosevelt after she opened a packet of letters and discovered her husband's affair with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. It lasted until he died.

I could tell you of others, men as well as women, but they are not public or historical figures and they own the rights to their own lives. Still, the story is the same. Something happened, something painful and sometimes mortifying, but the spouse stays, a smile affixed to her face. For the kids. For the place in the country. Out of love. Out of lethargy. Who knows? That's the whole point. Who knows?

The only people who claim to know are those who demand that Abedin be a surrogate for abused and humiliated wives everywhere. It was not so much that she should teach Weiner a lesson, it was that her lesson should not be lost on other wandering husbands and boyfriends. These critics want a public execution: See, this is what will happen if you stray. I will not do a Tammy Wynette for you, darling. I will render you a capon!

Here's where Linda intervenes. Nothing happened the way I had expected. Linda's escapade did not come as a total shock. She was a beautiful, impetuous creature and -- adding to her allure -- she played the guitar and knew the lyrics to all the folk songs of that time. She introduced me to "The Prophet," coffeehouses and foreign films. If you know Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," written in the exact era I am talking about, then you know Linda: "For you've touched her perfect body with your mind." Yes.

I had always known precisely how I would react if she cheated on me. The relationship would end, swiftly, coldly, even sneeringly. My goodbye lines would be scathing, worthy of someone intending to make his living with words. But when she cried, when she begged, when she -- let's be honest here -- looked so good, I wanted only to remain with this woman. Her betrayal was in the past. A whole future lay ahead. It could be wonderful. It turned out I valued Linda more than I was appalled by her infidelity.

This was a lesson to me. I did not behave as I had expected, and I do not -- I cannot -- ask anything more from others. I cannot gauge their love and I do not know their needs and I do not know what they value most. In the end, it was not Linda's folk songs that taught me a lesson or her mushy philosophy or her cloying search for beauty, but her infidelity. I have the wisdom of the uncertain. I now know what I do not know.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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