In literary terms, it is a hackneyed trope: the political wife, smiling, demure, standing silently by her embattled man. Taking one for the team and presenting a united front.

However you phrase it, standing by your man in cases of infidelity, rumoured or actual, is a political cliche.

The "faithful wife" has found her way into our pop culture canon. She was dissected in American drama The Good Wife and parodied in comedy show Little Britain.

Colin Craig's press conference on Monday saw "the good wife" make her most recent public appearance.


As he awkwardly skirted around questions of sexual misconduct in his relationship with former press secretary Rachel MacGregor, wife Helen stood beside him, lending support.

Alternately smiling, pursing her lips and tilting her chin she finally declared she "chose to stand with my husband today in full love and support of him whom I believe to have been falsely accused".

From Len Brown's wife Shan Inglis to Victoria Beckham and Hillary Clinton, history is littered with such women. And even as the wife's loyalty to her spouse and his "brand" provides a potent means of damage control, its authenticity is often questioned.

Although some may ask: "If she has forgiven him, shouldn't I?" the less charitable will take a more cynical view.

Some commentators believe that Hillary Clinton stood by her husband for political reasons. Photo / AP
Some commentators believe that Hillary Clinton stood by her husband for political reasons. Photo / AP

In the US where the loving and supportive wife is wheeled out at will, Debbie Walsh from Rutgers University claims cheating partners who use their wife as backup "have put these women through so much already, it just seems to be a second level of humiliation".

But Averill Gordon, senior lecturer in public relations at Auckland University of Technology, says a wife's public support of her husband is likely to be heartfelt.

People advising Craig, and other men either caught in the act or at the centre of allegations, would never encourage wives to front up if they didn't genuinely support their husband. "It wouldn't be ethical PR to push someone to do this if they didn't believe what they were saying," she says.

Gordon says wives and partners of high-profile leaders can be influential when it comes to the art and science of opinion formation.

She says PR practitioners encourage a wife who's still "on board" to come forward and share this with the public. "It sets up the idea that she has forgiven her husband," she says.

This can help mitigate the worst effects of negative opinion. "It can definitely help to step away from the need for public lynching," she says. "The partner of a political leader acts as an important opinion leader."

She says it also stops the public from turning against the leader on the wife's behalf. If she is seen to stand alongside her partner, it's more likely the court of public opinion will be sympathetic.

"Having a wife or partner on board does seem to work. Just look at Bill Clinton," she says.

Clinton's fall from grace, in which he not only cheated on his wife, but lied about it in public, was softened by the constant support of Hillary. Commentators pontificated about her possible political ambitions, that she stood by her husband for his powerful contacts and support.

It's hard to know if this is true, but Clinton has been a cheerleader for his wife throughout her presidential campaign. Her loyalty may be proof of her political smarts.

But loyalty doesn't always pay off. According to Steven Dromgool, a relationship counsellor with years of experience in the field of interpersonal conflict, a relationship's longevity after a betrayal will depend on how both partners handle it.

"The partner who has been cheated on may stay, but they may have a detachment from the person who's betrayed them. They may leave years after the situation occurred," he says.

Even in the Craig case where a sexual affair has been denied, Dromgool says that high-level media scrutiny can bring partners together in crisis situations.

"Helen Craig referred to the media at the press conference," he says.

She stated: "I wanted to say how difficult the last few days have been with these wild and defamatory allegations being thrown around by the media both for ourselves and our wider family."

This scrutiny creates a shared enemy and the couple faces that adversary together.

Other factors will inform whether a partner will decide to remain loyal. "It can play out in two ways," says Dromgool. "If the person's security is in the relationship, they are more likely to stay. If their security is derived externally, from friends and family, their opinion will be very important."

A good external support network offers partners an "out". But if the partner's emotional support is primarily within the relationship, it can be harder to sever.

Wives of rich and powerful men inhabit a privileged position in society; some may see their persistence in the face of betrayal as an unwillingness to let go of the perks this offers. Dromgool says that in his experience, this is rarely the case.

"The exception is when there are children involved," he says. "The wife may decide to stay for X amount of years so the children have security and support."

But feelings of betrayal can erode the foundations of the marriage if trust and intimacy aren't restored.

"Couples can start to live parallel lives and the intimate connection is lost. Men aren't taught by society to pick up subtle emotional signs and they can be oblivious to the signals being put out by their wife.

"If the husband doesn't respond this can be read as lack of care about her feelings."

Life in the public eye can bring stress to any relationship; when it's in crisis the stress can be compounded exponentially. Dromgool says this will be a factor when such a marriage is in crisis, but it won't be the key stressor.

"The interpersonal relationship will always be the main cause of stress, even when the marriage is public," he says.

He points to most relationships these days being "public". Social media has opened up all our lives to the scrutiny of others.

And social media is unfiltered and brutal, whereas traditional media is prevented from real extremes of opinion, or abuse, by laws around libel.

Ultimately, the decision of high-profile women to stand by their man casts what was previously a private relationship into the realm of the public and political.

Gordon says most PR practitioners would recommend a united front in the face of a scandal, but they would also advise the couple that, from that point on, their marriage is up for grabs.

"Even though the relationship itself and public perception are not the same issue, the moment the marriage is put into the spotlight it becomes political and public property."