Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why do wives remain loyal?


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The Independent Online

Anne Sinclair was born into a prosperous family and went on to become a star TV interviewer in France, widely admired for her considerable intellect and also her beauty. But she wasn't a global celebrity.

Now she is, big time, and not in a good way: the subject of newspaper profiles and unending media speculation about her emotions, motives and behaviour.

The spotlight is on her because she has unwaveringly supported her husband, the ex-head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), who was accused by a chambermaid in Manhattan of sexual assault in his hotel bedroom. The charges have now been dismissed, but in France he has been described as a "rutting chimpanzee" by a woman who has accused him of attempted rape.

The story is, for some, a latter-day Thomas Hardy tragedy of a gifted man undermined by his own flawed nature. Others see him as an unsavoury character exemplifying sexism in France. But all sides are intrigued by his wife, neither a doormat, nor a dependent – quite the opposite: without her money and ambitions DSK would not have climbed to the top of the political and economic establishments.

Why do wives stick with treacherous spouses? More enigmatically, what makes betrayed women, who themselves are professional winners, hang in there, wearing humiliation as if it is a designer dress? Maybe the wives of horny footballers stay because the lifestyle is worth it. But that can't explain why Hillary Clinton is still with Bill, or why the remarkable reformer Eleanor Roosevelt never parted from her husband Franklin, who had many affairs and mistresses, or Maria Shriver, a best-selling author and award-winning journalist, who chose to marry Arnold Schwarzenegger and defended him when his many infidelities were revealed. (Though this year she finally filed for divorce.) Boris Johnson's wife Marina is a respected lawyer who has not walked away from the Mayor in spite of his exploits. I know another top barrister, a self-made millionairess, an actress and at least two female journalists who all are still with husbands who have betrayed them – often with au pairs or nannies. What's that about?

It's a question I frequently ask myself, having been in a similar position many years ago. I let my first husband occasionally play around to "get it out of his system". It was incredibly painful and degrading. Twice I tried to hurt him back in kind. Utterly stupid. I try to understand myself as I was then. Some of it must have been stubbornness and an inability to admit failure or bad judgement. Then there was that instinct of a woman to try to preserve her family. He persuaded me that whatever little treats he gave himself, I was the real thing, his best friend, intellectual partner, wife and mother. A part of me must have believed that was a huge compliment.

Playing in my head was also an idea of men as frail creatures unable to help themselves. And then there was love, deep everlasting love, I thought, that would survive the storms and come out again like the sun. He left me in the end. None of this was about masochism or an inability to survive on my own. It was extreme idealism.

I have often been savagely critical of wives who don't throw out their adulterous husbands, maybe because I can't forgive myself. But now I do see that some such wives find strength and dignity in their marriage vows. Though their gods be false, they, like Anne Sinclair, are pure devotees in the temple of love. They deserve our understanding, not scorn.

The unexpected kindness of strangers

Madeline Mulloy, one of my dearest mates, died this month of cancer. We were both teachers at a school for foreign students learning English. She went on to write English language textbooks which were used across the world. Success never changed her.

Feisty Madeline had gorgeous, flaming red hair, a beautiful face, a laugh that would make a whole busload of people join in, limitless kindness, a close family and an enviable way with people. Staff at the hospital wept when they realised there was nothing more to be done and had to be comforted by Martin, her husband, himself in shock and grieving.

Her oncologist arranged for Alan Bennett, her favourite writer, to visit her in the hospital. He stayed for an hour. At the funeral her children described the amazing encounter. Their mum, they said, came to, was animated and delighted once more and for the last time as she chatted to the author, both of them ruminating and laughing about life up north, where Madeline was born and raised.

Mr Bennett gave a last, priceless gift to an incomparable, much-missed woman. This quiet, gentle generosity from a literary luminary is such a rare thing in our noisy age.

After 17 years, all is forgiven, France

Readers may recall that I wrote about my holiday in France this year, the first after a boycott of 17 years. Too many of the locals back then treated us terribly because they thought I was an Arab. My kids were abused and it was a holiday from hell. Twice before we had had uncomfortable times in Brittany and Limoges. Enough we thought. Until now. I admit I was tense and sulky, expecting the same again. We went to a house near Bordeaux, then to a bijoux hotel in Sarlat, whimsical and eclectic. The owners were a delightful couple, proud that they weren't like some of their more stuffy compatriots. Finally to Arcachon by the sea. Mixed-race families were everywhere, ambling along the beach, easy, the way they are in London. Not once did we meet any nasty racism. Amazing. France has learnt to embrace foreigners, even Brits and "Arabs". We shall be back, again and again.