If you follow political news and gossip, you probably know that Callista Gingrich’s affair with her then-married boyfriend Newt has been mentioned a few times, and that Karen Santorum, who’s married to the famously pro-life Rick, had an affair decades ago with an abortion provider. Sure, Callista (in photo) and Karen are politicians’ wives, so they have to expect that kind of thing. But a lot of women have skeletons of their own. And though we’re not going to see chronicles of our misdeeds in print, we could face some pretty tough times if our story becomes known. How do you handle it?
Entire businesses – crisis management, damage control – have sprung up to handle bad publicity. But there are a few things we can learn from them. That and common sense should see you through any embarrassing crisis you might have yourself. Here are some strategies:
Don’t say any more than you have to. No matter how much you think explaining your side of the story will make everything seem OK, it won’t. If the bottom-line truth is that you did have an affair with a coworker, it doesn’t matter whether he was getting divorced, you were going through a bad time in your marriage, or both of you were lonely. And in the course of an elaborate, awkward explanation, you’re likely to say something that gossips can use for yet another detail in the story. If anyone does bring it up to you, calmly say “I can’t believe you’re asking me this” or “That’s none of your business.” End of conversation. The less you fuel the fire, the sooner it’s likely to burn out. This is why public-relations specialists do everything they can to keep embattled clients from talking to the media.
Be honest with the person who matters most to you. Usually that’s your husband or partner. If he’s heard gossip that you’ve cheated since the two of you became involved, tell him the truth. Chances are the thought of that makes you cringe. But you’ve got to do it. “By not being honest with yourself and your partner, you're doing nothing but perpetuating the deception,” relationship counselor Dr. Phil McGraw has said. And, he adds, be enough of an adult to accept your responsibility: “Have the decency to tell your spouse in all honesty and candor that you own your choices.”
If what’s come to light happened before you got together with him, honesty is also the best policy. Even better, though, is to have already told him of any skeletons in your closet so he won’t be surprised if the worst happens. The same is true for any work-related skeletons. With the extensive background checks that companies make today, the chance of something being overlooked is nil. Human-resources specialists advise reviewing your background beforehand to see if there are any rough spots, whether it’s being fired for cause or being arrested for drunk driving, so you can be prepared with a response.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help – but ask the right people. In overwhelming situations, a counselor or therapist can help you get a perspective on the situation and give you techniques for handling the stress and for moving on. You can also talk to a trusted relative or friend, but remember the key word is trusted. Don’t talk to anyone who’s likely to use what you say as more gossip. Genuine buddies will stand by you. As Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most gossiped-about stars ever, said, “You find out who your real friends are when you're involved in a scandal.”
Move on. Easy to say, hard to do. It helps to remember that you’re not alone. Literally millions of people make big mistakes every day, and those people aren’t bad. They made bad choices. But forgiving yourself won’t happen overnight, and the people you’ve hurt aren’t likely to forgive you right away, either. A counselor can help you bear the discomfort of living with a spouse who’s still angry, or the two of you might want to consider couples therapy. Don’t just promise you’ll be good; take concrete steps, like going into a program for substance abuses. Don’t fall into the trap of obsessively thinking what a bad person you are; that mindset just might give you permission to misbehave again.
Remember that time is your best friend. The reality is that there will always be another scandal for people to talk about. If you don’t keep your own story uppermost in their minds, they’ll soon move on to something else. And you’ll probably have a fair amount of sympathy for the woman everyone’s talking about. After all, you’ve been there yourself.