Jenny Sanford: The Smart Wife

Amid the recent rash of cheating-man scandals (Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, David Letterman), the wife of philandering Republican Governor Mark Sanford has emerged as a hero to wronged women.

jenny sanford book staying true
(Image credit: Ballantine)

When Jenny Sanford found a love letter from her husband — South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford — to a woman in Argentina early last year, she was devastated. Still, she thought her 20-year marriage, which had produced four sons, could be saved. That was before her husband audaciously jetted off to Argentina for a secret meet-up with his mistress, while telling his staff and family that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. When he fessed up at a weepy press conference last June, guess who was not by his side: his wife. She filed for divorce in December, and now has written a book about surviving difficult experiences, Staying True. We talked to her about going public with a very private battle.

Q. You could've stayed mum during this nightmare, but chose to talk. Why?

A. I have long considered myself a private person, so the notion of having the nation watch as my husband revealed his infidelity and the unraveling of our marriage is certainly not something I ever could have envisioned. The response I received after sending out my public statement following his press conference, however, was overwhelming and incredibly gratifying. It was this response that led me to write a book in hopes that I could help other women to gracefully find their inner strength as they face difficult situations in their own lives or marriages.

Q. Everyone from Gloria Allred to Newsweek has called you a role model, a poster child for women who don't stand by their cheating men. How do you feel about this role?

A. Each marriage and relationship is unique, so I am not sure that there is any one right or wrong way to deal with a spouse who cheats. In many cases, for example, a marriage that survives infidelity can become stronger and better. Having said that, to the extent that my actions help give other women the strength needed to stand up with dignity to a spouse — for whatever the reason — I welcome that role.

Q. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd tsk-tsked you for not maintaining a "dignified silence" like Silda Spitzer, the wife of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was busted with a hooker. What do you say to that?

A. I rarely agree with Maureen Dowd, though I completely respect her right to hold and to share her opinion. 

Q. You've said that when you first discovered your husband's affair, he kept asking if he could see his lover in Argentina. Why would he ask you for permission?

A. At first he wanted to see her to "say good-bye," but in time, he wanted to see her presumably to decide if he should be with her or with me.

Q. You vetoed the Argentina visit but suggested a trial separation, thinking your husband would come to his senses, yes?

A. I had asked him to leave and was hopeful that he would use the time to come to his senses and see the family he was about to lose. He was to have no contact with his lover. Even after he returned from Argentina, I was still willing to give him another chance to reconcile, if he had a true and humble spirit of repentance, because I believe a 20-year marriage is not to be discarded lightly.

Q. When your husband said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, you'd hoped he was doing some soul-searching about his family. Did any part of you think he might be seeing his mistress?

A. Of course I hoped he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but I had my doubts.

Q. Soon after your husband's illicit trip to Argentina, he publicly called his lover his soul mate. Did you hope that was part of a fleeting obsession? How did you finally decide to file for divorce?

A. The dissolution of any marriage is a difficult process, and I made sure to take my time and prayerfully consider my options and the ramifications of any decision. Certainly his obsessive behavior and the description of his mistress as his "soul mate" did not help the chances for reconciliation. The ultimate decision to divorce came after a lengthy process when I felt I had reached a real peace and happiness about the decision.

Q. How do you help your sons cope with all the negative publicity about their dad, who actually disappeared during Father's Day to slip off to Argentina?

A. The boys and I are doing our best to deal honestly and openly with the publicity about their dad and about the changes in our family. Thankfully we don't watch much television, and I make them aware of big stories or headlines if I think they might hear of them on the street. Having spent most of their lives in the public eye, they have come to learn, I hope, that their own worth is not determined or influenced by anything in the press.

Q. You've described the beginning of your relationship with your husband as a friendship that developed into love, not a burning, love-at-first-sight romance. Do you think this had something to do with his eventual obsession with his mistress? Maybe he felt like he had missed out on a fiery romance in his youth?

A. There is some truth to the notion that he felt he had missed out on romance and other things in his youth.

Q. You've said that you've Googled your husband's mistress. Have you read the e-mails between her and your husband that ran in the press? Have your sons read them?

A. Sadly, we have all read them.

Q. Your husband survived a recent call for his impeachment for using state funds to fly to Argentina. Do you think that was the appropriate outcome?

A. I believe the process was thorough and fair, though I remained focused on my children and not on the intricacies of the politics involved.

Q. Why do you think high-profile men like Spitzer and Woods don't realize they'll get caught cheating? Are they too disconnected from reality at the top? After all, your husband was seen as a possible presidential candidate for 2012…

A. When I worked on Wall Street, I saw plenty of men whose egos grew as their income rose, and they strayed from the families and values they had once held dear. Nothing I saw there, however, compares to the immediate and transformational stroking that comes as soon as one is elected to a high public office, as with a congressman. It is easy for our nation's political leaders to become insulated from the realities of everyday life and its attendant responsibilities, and my guess is that this same phenomenon holds true for our sports stars and media personalities as well.

Q. Do you think Hillary did the right thing in sticking with Bill?

A. Each marriage and each situation is completely unique, and I cannot presume to know the depth of emotions, actions, and issues involved in their specific situations. I do know that we all share a certain level of pain as well as the added burden of having the details of the infidelity played out in the public eye.

Q. You've said you feel sorry for your husband's mistress amid the media glare. Do you still feel that way?

A. I am not sure anyone deserves to have their personal communications spread through the public, but I do question this woman's judgment and discretion.

Q. You've said that men deal with aging differently than women — they worry about careers, money, legacy. But your legacy is your four boys, yes?

A. I believe men and women alike want to leave this world with some kind of a positive legacy through the work they do, the relationships they have, their generosity to others, and, if so blessed, through their children. I happen to personally feel that it is very important to work to instill character and positive values in our children while they are impressionable so they can, in turn, give exponentially to society after we are gone.

I am not saying this is an easy job or that I have the answers to raising good children, but that I feel it is incumbent upon us to do our best in this area when we can. I hope I will have a positive impact in many ways throughout my life, but I do also hope and believe that my greatest legacy will be my children.

As for the aging process I do believe that women, generally, are more in tune with the different seasons of their lives than are men. So many men become focused on the more standard measurements of success, whereas women juggle in different ways through the childbearing and rearing stages, finding joys and successes in less exact or measurable ways. In a way, for many women, this allows for them to look forward to and blossom in the later years.

Q. You were an investment banker before you became a wife and mother, and started running your husband's political campaigns. Would you ever return to Wall Street?

A. There will be employment of some kind in my future, and I look forward to that, though I doubt I will ever return to Wall Street.

Q. You recently applied to trademark your name. Are you considering starting your own business?

A. I applied for a trademark to protect my name. It is not my intention to sell anything with my name on it.

Q. Do you have plans to run for office?

A. I do not intend to ever run for political office — I feel I have done my time!

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.