What do you think changed for Bill and Hillary after 1998 that helped him stop the philandering cycle? Had they done therapy before?
Well, the good news is, we can let them speak for themselves on this topic. I’m making a conscious choice to not use sources that don’t provide direct quotes from both of them, and sticking with three in particular: Living History, My Life, and Hillary’s Talk Magazine interview from 1999. There’s also a quick excerpt from May 2017′s New York Magazine interview. I wanted to add some bits from the Blair Papers in as well, but the length is already a bit out of control.
If you’re reading this and think the Clintons are lying about how they frame their marriage when discussing it publicly, then this post probably won’t do much for you.
Had they done therapy before?
I’ll start here, as it’s a pretty cut-and-dry one. Based on Hillary’s own words in the New York Magazine article from May 2017, the marital counselling after Lewinsky was the first and only time they did any kind of therapy together. Bill may have had therapy/counseling as an individual in the past, but the 90′s was the only time HRC went through any kind of counseling herself, and the only time they did as a couple:
Remembering Election Night and the inauguration, I can’t help but think that Clinton’s ability to set aside her own feelings might be useful but perhaps not entirely healthy. I ask her if she’s ever been in therapy, and she shakes her head. “Unh-uh. No. I have not.” When I express surprise, she allows, “Well, we had some marital counseling in the late ’90s, around our very difficult time, but that’s all.”
She shrugs. “That’s not how I roll. I’m all for it for anybody who’s at all interested in it. It’s just not how I deal with stuff.” [New York Magazine]
What do you think changed for Bill and Hillary after 1998 that helped him stop the philandering cycle?
A few things to start:
I need to preface that I do, indeed, believe that Bill stopped cheating after 1998. My posts here (regarding where I generally stand on interpreting the nature of their marriage) and here (regarding rumors about him cheating in the 2000s onward) cover that - so my answer will align with your phrasing of the question in that the cycle did indeed stop. Again, if you’re reading this and don’t believe that he stopped cheating, much of this won’t mean a lot to you.
So, to your question, what changed - and why did the cycle stop, this time?
(1) They attended marital counseling for the first time. It was extensive - for a full year, and weekly. Per both of them, they began discussing things about themselves, their marriage, their histories, etc. that they had never really dug into before. As HRC says in 2017, “That’s not how I roll.” She’s never been a soul-barer, and from what I outline below, WJC had never really faced the root of his own issues, either. So what changed this time was a willingness to start uncovering the core of the issues they faced in the 80s in their marriage, really surfacing them, and talking through them together with openness and honesty.
Hillary and I also began a serious counseling program, one day a week for about a year. For the first time in my life, I actually talked openly about feelings, experiences, and opinions about life, love, and the nature of relationships. I didn’t like everything I learned about myself or my past, and it pained me to face the fact that my childhood and the life I’d led since growing up had made some things difficult for me that seemed to come more naturally to other people. (Bill Clinton, My Life)
We continued with our regular counseling sessions, which forced us to ask and answer hard questions that years of non-stop campaigning had allowed us to postpone. By now, I wanted to save our marriage, if we could. (Hillary Clinton, Living History)
The simple act of talking - openly communicating - comes up a lot in their writing about the recovery of their marriage, in combination with an admission that it’s not something they had really done before that point in terms of discussing their own personal issues in great depth. If you’ve been married (or in a substantially long-term relationship), you’ll understand exactly how much this matters, and exactly how damaging it was that this hadn’t really happened up until the 90′s. That’s not to say they didn’t talk about their marital issues at all - it’s that they hadn’t taken time to be (1) deeply introspective enough to uncover everything (see: WJC’s note that some of what was discussed was for the first time), and (2) whatever issues they had uncovered in the past had never really been resolved (see HRC’s point above re: postponing answering the hard questions).
So, they pushed aside deep self-reflection up until they really faced it head-on together in the 90′s. That has so much to do with why the 90′s saw the end of the cycle. They asked and answered the hard questions, at last.
(2) Beyond just marital counseling sessions, they kept on communicating, and they got to know each other again as spouses, and as two people who loved each other, beyond just the fulfilling work they did together through public service. You’ll hear this common thread from a lot of folks who go through marital counselling - this idea of “getting to know each other again”.
In the long counseling sessions and our conversations about them afterward, Hillary and I also got to know each other again, beyond the work and ideas we shared and the child we adored. I had always loved her very much, but not always very well. I was grateful that she was brave enough to participate in the counseling. We were still each other’s best friend, and I hoped we could save our marriage. Meanwhile, I was still sleeping on a couch, this one in the small living room that adjoined our bedroom. I slept on that old couch for two months or more. I got a lot of reading, thinking, and work done, and the couch was pretty comfortable, but I hoped I wouldn’t be on it forever. (Bill Clinton, My Life)
I think I survived because of a combination of soul-searching and relying on friends, the support of people who give advice, religious faith, long and hard discussions. (Hillary Clinton, Talk Magazine 1999)
“Bill has been subjected to so much abuse … he doesn’t make any excuses for what he did. But the reaction was unprecedented and harmful to the country … People are mean. I think it’s a real disservice, the way we sort of strip away everybody’s sense of dignity, of privacy. People need support, not disdain. … And you know, we did have a very good stretch,” she adds later, referring to the period after Gennifer Flowers. “Years and years of nothing.” And how they repaired their connection this time? “We talk. We talk in the solarium, in the bedroom, in the kitchen – it’s just a constant conversation…” she gives a tired smile. “We like to lie in bed and watch old movies.” (Hillary Clinton, Talk Magazine 1999)
(3) Bill further received personal therapy/counseling independently, much of it from religious leaders, to discover and deal with his own issues. This may be ongoing, still.
…I would pursue counseling from pastors and others to find, with God’s help, “a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek, a renunciation of the pride and the anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain.” We would pray, read scripture, and discuss some things I had never really talked about before. The Reverend Bill Hybels from Chicago also continued to come to the White House regularly, to ask searching questions designed to check my “spiritual health.” Even though they were often tough on me, the pastors took me past the politics into soul-searching and the power of God’s love. (Bill Clinton, My Life)
I also came to understand that when I was exhausted, angry, or feeling isolated and alone, I was more vulnerable to making selfish and self-destructive personal mistakes about which I would later be ashamed. The current controversy was the latest casualty of my lifelong effort to lead parallel lives, to wall off my anger and grief and get on with my outer life, which I loved and lived well. During the government shutdowns I was engaged in two titanic struggles: a public one with Congress over the future of our country, and a private one to hold the old demons at bay. I had won the public fight and lost the private one. (Bill Clinton, My Life)
Some of this included uncovering and opening up about abuse he suffered as a child, and the impact that had on his adult life.
“Yes, he has weaknesses. Yes, he needs to be more responsible, more disciplined, but it is remarkable given his background that he turned out to be the kind of person he is, capable of such leadership …” I tell Hillary I read in his mother’s autobiography, in which she wrote about the atmosphere of alcohol, violence, and chaos that forced her son to be the man of the house while he was still a child. Hillary leans over and says softly, “That’s only the half of it. He was so young, barely four, when he was scarred by abuse that he can’t even take it out and look at it.” (Hillary Clinton, Talk Magazine 1999)
[Note: Some of the language in the Talk Magazine article on the topic of childhood abuse were walked back/softened afterwards, but I believe they are true. Topic for a different post.]
Now, I want to continue to answer the unasked question that I think is incredibly important - why did she bother at all? Why did she fight for him? Why even instigate the counseling in the first place, if Lewinsky was just part of the cycle? In order for any of this to be effective, and for the cycle to end, there had to be a drive and a willingness.
(1) They had a lot of shit to fight for (and against), and they were willing to work through whatever issues they uncovered to stay together and make sure that could continue to do so. Bill needed to address his own infidelity and weaknesses, but the “bigger picture” for both of them never went away. And that seems to have so much to do with why they (she, in particular) kept on fighting to make it work - she believed in what they were fighting for, and she believed him to be good and worthy. His infidelity did not overshadow that for her.
Bill and I had agreed to participate in regular marital counseling to determine whether or not we were going to salvage our marriage. On one level, I was emotionally shell-shocked and trying to deal with the raw wound I had suffered. On another level, I believed Bill was a good person and a great President. I viewed the independent counsel’s assault on the Presidency as an ever escalating political war, and I was on Bill’s side. (Hillary Clinton, Living History)
“Now she was arguing the other side, explaining to Democrats in Congress with legalistic dispassion why her husband’s actions, while deplorable, were not impeachable. ‘She was very effective and certainly won him the support of the Democratic caucus,’ says Congresswoman Nita Lowey. (Talk Magazine 1999)
She turns to me now with startling intensity. “I don’t believe in denying things. I believe in working through it. Is he ashamed? Yes. Is he sorry? Yes. But does this negate everything he has done as a husband, a father, a president? … And what is so amazing is that Bill has not been defeated by this. There has been enormous pain, enormous anger, but I have been with him half my life and he is a very, very good man. We just have a deep connection that transcends whatever happens.” (Hillary Clinton, Talk Magazine 1999)
(2) They have an absolute, deep, endless, abiding love.
And, well, the most important part of all, right?
And, most important, Hillary stood with me and loved me through it all. From the time we first met, I had loved her laugh. In the midst of all the absurdity, we were laughing again, brought back together by our weekly counseling and our shared determination to fight off the right-wing coup. I almost wound up being grateful to my tormentors: they were probably the only people who could have made me look good to Hillary again. I even got off the couch. (Bill Clinton, My Life)
“You know people have a lot of daily problems in relationships. Everybody has some dysfunction in their families. They have to deal with it. You don’t just walk away if you love someone - you help the person.” (Hillary Clinton, Talk Magazine 1999)
And, my favorite excerpt of all, from that 1999 Talk Magazine article.
Does she believe, I wonder, that you don’t leave someone you love under any circumstances? “You have to know the real quality of the person,” she says thoughtfully. “You have to be alert to it, vigilant in helping. I thought this was resolved 10 years ago. I thought he had conquered it, but he didn’t go deep enough or work hard enough.”
“What’s the part of the Bible that deals with this?” she had asked at one point.
“Corinthians?” I suggested.
“Love endures all things? No, I love that, but I was thinking of when Peter betrayed Jesus three times and Jesus knew it, but loved him anyway. Life is not a linear progression. It has many paths and challenges. And we need to help one another.”
“And it is love, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” she said. “We have love.”