Humans May Be Hard-Wired to Stay in Bad Relationships

When a public figure, such as former senator and presidential hopeful John Edwards, commits infidelity, all eyes turn to the spouse – how will she react? Will she stand by him?

Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, who is battling cancer, made her decision clear in a blog entry on "Our family has been through a lot. Some caused by nature, some caused by human weakness. ... But we have stood with one another through them all."

Women outside the limelight whose husbands have cheated say they experienced the same pain and turmoil when deciding whether to leave their marriage or stay.

Pam McConathy, whose husband cheated after 15 years of marriage, said that news of Edwards' affair brought back painful memories.

John and Elizabeth EdwardsPlay

"I mean you know, your heart is just crushed. Your soul is crushed. … I don't know what it is about women, that trust factor is so huge in a relationship," said McConathy.

But women who have experienced infidelity say that it's more difficult to leave a marriage than many people think.

"It's not that easy. And people who think that you can make a split decision are really people who have never, in my opinion, personally experienced infidelity. Because there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to dealing with infidelity," said Ruth Houston, who wrote a book about her experience called "Is He Cheating on You?"

Anthropologist Helen Fisher agrees, saying that infidelity does not negate the history of a marriage.

"You've been working for that dream for years and years," Fisher said. "They've made all kinds of compromises. They've got networks in the community, children, memories, much more than the adultery."

Hard-Wired to Form Attachments

Jamie, who asked that her last name not be used, said she initially tried to stay and work things out with her husband, who admitted he was having an affair.

"My husband was the last person on earth anybody would ever think would do something like this," said Jamie, who has a 7-year-old son and 2-year-old triplets.

"I don't think it's a sign of weakness. But I think sometimes you do have self-doubt because you've been, in a way, put down by what has happened," she said.

"And it's built the self-doubt in you, because if I'm not good enough for my husband, am I not good enough as a person? And you have that rejection."

Anthropologist Helen Fisher says it's not weakness that compels a woman to stay in a relationship after a huge betrayal. Humans may be biologically wired to maintain close ties to others.

"We are a creature that forms bonds, forms attachments. This circuitry for attachment is very strong, it doesn't stop pumping out its chemicals just because there's a big problem in the relationship," Fisher said.

Pam McConathy's daughter was the one who discovered the affair, when she picked up the phone and heard her dad talking to his mistress.

"All of our friends thought we had a perfect marriage. I think that's kind of a common thread in a lot of these situations," McConathy said.

Houston said her husband was involved with three women "right under my nose."

"It's like having your heart ripped out of your chest," Houston said. "Like, how could this happen? It's not something that any woman expects to happen to her at all. I mean, when you get married, you're thinking, OK, happily ever after. … Very rarely would any woman even think that infidelity would be a factor in her marriage."