Why Breaking Up Is Harder Than You Think: The Plight Of Huma Abedin

Giving up on someone when you've invested so much isn't easy under any circumstances.

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Kathy Willens / AP

From left: New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner listens as his wife, Huma Abedin, speaks during a news conference at the Gay Men's Health Crisis headquarters in New York City, on July 23, 2013.

For a few minutes yesterday, the public got to laugh with Anthony Weiner instead of at him. At a mayoral forum in the Bronx, the contenders were asked whether they preferred Facebook or Twitter. After a collective intake of breath, it was Weiner’s turn to answer. He looked out at the crowd, bowed his head a little bit, then peeked out from under his brow in a bashful, aw shucks way. The crowd began to giggle with him at the absurdity of it all.

But his smirk just added to the impression that Weiner is oblivious to the profound damage that he’s done to his bid for a political comeback, much less his marriage.  It was, after all, less than 24 hours after he stood behind his elegant and accomplished wife who declared her love and support for him, visibly pained at having to speak in public as the sad, sordid details of his repeat behavior were exposed yet again. She was a ‘Huma shield,’ as the tabloids dubbed her. The next day, when Weiner was asked how he was doing after that brutal media encounter, Weiner responded almost boastfully, that he was doing just fine: “I’ve got an amazing wife and child upstairs. I’ve got a comfortable life. This is not about me.”

(MORE: Weiner and Spitzer Hope to Turn Misdeeds into Selling Points)

Putting aside that bit of theater from someone who is notoriously focused on himself, he’s almost right. Because really, the question we’re all asking is, how does he still have that amazing wife?  You can hear women all over country saying:  “If he were my husband, I’d be out of there so fast. Or, “I’d [revenge fantasy of choice].” Behavior like Weiner’s seems like it would put most people with financial means on the fast track to divorce court. But Abedin’s determination to keep trying despite the seemingly unforgivable behavior isn’t so unusual.

Here’s why: Divorce is rarer than you might think in more affluent demographics. There is gap in divorce rates between those who are highly-educated like Abedin and Weiner (with a B.A. or more) and those without college degrees, according to a 2010 study by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Among college educated couples, rates of divorce or separation within the first ten years of marriage are lower now then they were 40 years ago, dropping from 15 percent to 11, even as rates for other demographics rise. The same report concludes that for couples who have the economic benefits of a college degree or above, and who come from intact families, are religious, and marry after age 25 without having a baby first, the chances of divorce are even lower.

And as a 2011 article in the New York Times points out, divorce can still be stigmatizing in some social circles where parents are particularly ambitious about providing the absolute best environment for their children. One mother, a professor, quoted in the piece says that divorcing made her feel “like the ultimate bad mom.” So when Huma Abedin says that her answer to her husband’s horrific behavior is to keep trying, it’s not that surprising. Nobody wants their child to be one of only one or two kids on the kindergarten class list who have two separate parental homes. The language that Abedin used in People in 2012 is telling:  “It took a lot of work to get to where are today, but I want people to know we’re a normal family,” she said.

(MORE: In Defense of Huma Abedin’s Decision to Forgive Weiner)

That urge to get back to “normal” when you have a child a powerful one. Abedin’s statements on Tuesday stressing that she made her decision to stay for her son, for her family, are in keeping with the somewhat traditional views of highly educated women. According to a 2010 Pew report, college graduates are among the most likely to reject the notion that marriage is becoming obsolete: only 27% agree, while 71% disagree. (Opinions were split more evenly in the general population.)And when it comes to qualities we want in a mate, being a good parent trumps everything by huge margins in almost all demographics according to Pew. More than 90 percent of women thought that being a good father was a very important quality in a husband while around half thought that  being a good sexual partner was very important. Meanwhile, the question of when bad sexual behavior permanently damages the ability to be a good parent is sometimes hard to answer.

Then there’s love. Abedin declared that she loves this guy despite it all. Giving up on someone when you’ve invested so much, or just saying you’ve made a mistake by marrying them when you’ve taken vows and established yourself as a family before your entire community isn’t easy under any circumstances, never mind when a former president officiated at your nuptials, as was the case with Weiner and Abedin. Of course, if Weiner does have an unmanageable compulsion to engage in risky sexual exploits, it’s hard to see how they ever find normal again, or how the marriage will last.  But it’s not hard to see why Abedin isn’t ready to stop trying.