It's not the face of the man at the microphone your eyes are drawn to. Not the guy confessing or denying sins to a phalanx of cameras. It is the face of the woman beside him that fascinates.

As he drones on, either contrite or defensive, she stands just off his right shoulder, her thick veneer of shock and stoicism covering the knot of raw pain just beneath.

This week, it was Silda Spitzer's turn in the withering limelight, as her husband, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, resigned following the uproar over wiretap evidence that he had paid as much as $80,000 for dalliances with prostitutes. Other members of Silda Spitzer's elite club include Suzanne Craig, wife of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who has denied allegations of cruising for gay sex in a Minneapolis airport restroom; Dina Manot McGreevey, former wife of New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, who came out on live TV as "a gay American," and Wendy Vitter, who told reporters at a news conference that forgiving her Louisiana senator husband David for paying call girls was "the right choice for me."

Few would argue that whatever these women decide to do with the rest of their lives is up to them, and that they need time to sort that out. But many casual observers find the sight of these same wounded wives sharing their spouses' public humiliation offensive. Why not let the guy wallow in the mess he created? Why let it splatter on you for all the world to see?

The sight of Silda Spitzer, an attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School, facing the music with her husband has aroused a range of reactions in the blogosphere among political insiders and the public-- mockery, pity, disgust, empathy, anger. Would you stand by your man?

"These so called 'men' in the public eye know they are targets for scandal and if they can't respect their vows they need not take them," wrote Sheri Lamb of Minneapolis, responding to a query. "It seems they want to use a woman to give them the image of a secure and family-oriented man with values. If any man or woman feels they have to cheat, then they should be decent enough to end the relationship and have at it."

Lisa Gintner responded with a qualified "no." "Every situation is so different and when you're the person who must put those shoes on things tend not to look so clear," she said.

"I think society's expectations of the woman's reaction is skewed," wrote Kathie Dawiedczyk of Woodbury. "Let's allow her to be human, feel the pain in public and save face that she doesn't need to put up with this sort of betrayal -- she can stand on her own two feet. That's the message we should be sending to our young women."

Tanya Nordin of Blaine said she would have to evaluate the marriage to determine if it were worth saving. "I would also factor in my daughters, the impression this would leave on them and how it could affect their decision-making in relationships in the future. I would want to show them my own strength and integrity at a time when their father was apologizing for his lack of both."

By the old rules, a political wife played sacrificial lamb in hopes that public empathy would rub off on him: If she's sticking with him after this, he must have some pretty remarkable redeeming qualities. But in an age when women are supposed to be independent and powerful in their own right, not appendages, such an act seems beyond the pale.

It's easy to speculate on motivations from our sofas. We try to judge, by facial expressions, body language, under-reaction, over-reaction. But the only people who know what Silda Spitzer is going through are those who have also been through it.

The news brought back some unpleasant memories for Vicki Tigwell, who was married to Minnesota gubernatorial hopeful Jon Grunseth when allegations of sexual impropriety derailed his campaign. The two were divorced in 1998.

When she saw Silda Spitzer on TV, she said her first thoughts were, "You have your whole life to figure out your marriage and everything that goes with it, on your own timeline. The media has another timeline, and it's immediate. In that context, if you can set aside everything you're feeling and try to be wise for a moment, you can separate the issues -- you have to make an immediate decision about whether to stand with him, but you have a long time to consider what is best [for you]. A part of you would just like to strangle him. But in my case, I didn't know what the truth was."

Tigwell went on to a life of professional success, first as chairwoman of the Metropolitan Airport Commission, now as the director of Sen. Norm Coleman's St. Paul office. Permanent martyrdom need not be the life sentence for women in these circumstances.

"Being a victim isn't the only way to play this thing," said Sylvia Kaplan, a prominent Democratic activist. "Hillary Clinton made an art form out of being the wronged wife. Others should look to her for direction. She turned the tables by writing a book, which made her a player, not a victim."

Thomas Wright, a marriage and family therapist and adjunct instructor at St. Mary's University of Minnesota, sees loyalty as a strong motivator.

"It's not unusual for the spouses of high-profile people to feel an intense emotional loyalty that doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of the relationship," he said. "Children who are abused by their parents often are fiercely loyal, which is counterintuitive."

On the other hand: "A person in this situation may not feel humiliated, but smug and superior: 'My husband has these flaws -- he may be powerful to you but in our own relationship I treat him like this flawed tragic figure,'" Wright said.

As with scandals involving religious leaders Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard, the moral righteousness factor to the Spitzer case adds extra abrasion. As New York attorney general, Spitzer famously pursued and prosecuted the very types of people who ultimately brought him down. Once a crusader, now he is seen as a sanctimonious hypocrite.

"All of us have shadow sides, antisocial impulses," Wright said. "People who are emotionally healthy are aware of it so it doesn't have power over them. But if your image is one of righteousness, it's hard to acknowledge. People block it out rather than deal with it."

For Spitzer -- and, unfortunately, the rest of his family -- there will be no blocking allowed for some time. But the focus should remain on the sins of the husband, not the reaction of the wife.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046