When Elizabeth Edwards married John Edwards in 1977, she says she asked him for one gift—fidelity. "I wanted him to be faithful to me," she says. "It was enormously important."
To many, the Edwardses' marriage seemed unbreakable. When their son Wade died in a car accident in 1996, John, Elizabeth and their daughter Cate mourned as a family. Years later, they celebrated the births of the youngest Edwards children, Emma Claire and Jack.
When John decided to go into politics, Elizabeth was a constant on the campaign trail. She stood by his side when he became a U.S. senator and again when he ran for president in 2004.
Shortly after John lost the 2004 election, the Edwards family was tested again. Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer, but with the support of her husband and family, she vowed to beat it.
Oprah says the title of Elizabeth's new book, Resilience, perfectly describes Elizabeth's life. After surviving the death of a child and overcoming her first bout with breast cancer, Elizabeth was hit with another devastating blow.
On December 28, 2006—two days after John announced that he was joining the 2008 presidential race—Elizabeth says her husband of 29 years told her he'd broken the promise he made on their wedding day. He had been unfaithful.
While sitting with Oprah in the dream home she and John built together, Elizabeth speaks publicly about that night for the first time.
Oprah: The first time you were told, I read in Resilience, you got physically sick.
Elizabeth: I did.
Oprah: You cried, you screamed, you cried.
Elizabeth: And then I threw up. That was a really tough night.
That night, Elizabeth says John told her the other woman, whom Oprah agrees not to mention by name, was out of his life. "[He said] he had regretted what he had done and this was only one time, which was still, you know, that still leveled me," she says.
Then, Elizabeth says she asked John to drop out of the presidential race.
"I knew there would be people who would be following him around. [People] would be trying to uncover things," she says. "So I thought for my family, for my children, for John, for me, that it would be best if he got out of the campaign. He said, and truthfully he was right, it was hard to argue with this, 'If you want to raise a lot of questions, what you do is get out of a campaign you got in two days before.'"
While John campaigned across the country, Elizabeth, the woman who'd stood by his side for so many years, took a step back.
At first, Elizabeth says she canceled speaking engagements because she simply couldn't go through with them.
"It would just be sort of overwhelming," she says. "I was still angry and hurt and had a lot of self-doubt about who I was and what I meant to him. You know, all those things that I think women in my position go through."
Despite their efforts to keep the affair a secret, rumors about John's relationship with a woman who worked on his campaign began swirling in the media. Publicly, John dismissed the reports and denied having an extramarital affair.
On January 30, 2008, he dropped out of the presidential race.
Months later, the truth finally came out. As millions watched, John admitted during a Nightline interview to cheating on Elizabeth. "Let me say this, and I want to say it absolutely clearly. I was wrong, and I am responsible," John said.
At this time, Elizabeth was struggling with another admission. A year and a half after John told Elizabeth about his one-time indiscretion, she says she learned the whole truth.
John told her he'd cheated more than once. In fact, the affair had lasted for months.
"It felt like a blow to me," Elizabeth says. "It was so hard for me to even imagine such a thing, and then, his telling me that it had happened more than once. That was probably the worst...they compete for the worst moment because [of] all the work we'd done, all the trust we'd tried to build."
To try to make sense of John's betrayal, Elizabeth says she's asked him how it started. By his account, the affair began with just four words—"You are so hot."
While on a business trip, John told Elizabeth he met the other woman at his hotel. "What John had said is that this woman had spotted him in the hotel," she says. "John had gone to dinner at a nearby restaurant, and then he had walked back to the hotel. When he had walked back, she was standing in front of the hotel and said to him, 'You are so hot.'"
In Resilience, Elizabeth says she would have wagered her home on the fact that John, her husband of 28 years at the time, would never have responded to this sort of come-on. "I don't think he knows to this day why he said yes," she says.
Like many women in her situation, Elizabeth says she wanted to know the details of her husband's affair. "I'm a puzzle-doer," she says. "I had pieces of the puzzle, and I felt like it was going to make sense if I had all the pieces."
Oprah: Is the first thing you wanted to know is, "Do you love her?"
Elizabeth: I'm sure that I asked that, but it seemed impossible to me, and I think, impossible to him. This is a person very, very different from me and really very different from him.
To this day, Elizabeth says she and John don't really know why he cheated. "He really has tried, I think, to figure it out, and to talk to people and try to work that out, but I don't think he really knows," she says. "I mean, it was opportunity and didn't seem like there were any consequences."
Elizabeth says she encountered the other woman once at a political rally in Chapel Hill. "I didn't meet her really. One time, we were in the same place," she says. "I was with my family and children and my brother and sister, and she walked by into another area. ... And that's the extent."
At first, Elizabeth says she wondered if she did something to cause the affair, but she's come to the conclusion that it was never about her. Now, she holds John and the other woman responsible.
"I blame John, but also, women need to have more respect for other women," she says. "It takes a lot of work to put together a marriage, to put together a family and a home. ... You have to have enough respect for other human beings to leave their lives alone. If you admire that life, build it for yourself. Don't just try to come in and take somebody else's life."
While John came clean about his affair, there's one matter that remains a mystery. In 2008, the other woman gave birth to a little girl. Oprah says there's great speculation that John is the father of that baby.
Though Elizabeth says she's seen a picture of the baby, she doesn't know if John is the biological father. "It doesn't look like my children," she says. "But I don't have any idea."
Oprah: You must have thought, "It is or is it not?"
Elizabeth: Actually, there's not much reason for me to. This is the part where you have to concentrate on your own life. Whatever the facts are doesn't change my life, in a sense.
Oprah: Number one, have you asked him, "Is it his child?"
Elizabeth: He has told me, you know, he's talked to me about questions that people ask and things like that, and he doesn't know any more than I know about this.
If a paternity test ever proves that John is, in fact, the father, Elizabeth says that would be part of her husband's life...not hers.
"I mean, I could try to make it change my life. I could beat myself up about it if I thought he was trying to start a family with this woman. Then, that would be one thing," she says. "Do I think that that's true? I do not in any stretch of the imagination think that was true."
Elizabeth says part of being resilient is deciding to make yourself miserable over something that matters...or making yourself miserable about something that doesn't matter.
These days, Elizabeth says she and John are still living under the same roof and trying to make their marriage work. In Resilience, she writes: "He can try to treat the wound, and he has tried. He can try to make me less afraid, and he has tried. But I am now a different person. The way we were is no longer the way we can be."
Before John's affair, Elizabeth says she was self-confident and comfortable with herself. "I had a pretty good idea of who I was, my limitations and my virtues," she says. "I didn't worry about speaking my mind. If somebody disagreed, it didn't bother me so much, and I looked like I looked. I'm always struggling with weight or something else."
Things changed after John cheated. Elizabeth says her sense of self was shaken. "Everything I did, I thought: 'Do I look awful at home, is that it? Or am I too strident about this?'" she says.
John and Elizabeth are now focused on rebuilding trust, which she says is a slow process. "It means that sometimes he has to have conversations he doesn't want to have," she says.
No matter what happens, Elizabeth says she will not let John's affair define her life or her marriage. "This is a really good man who really did a very, very bad thing. If you take that piece out, I do have a perfect marriage. I have a husband who adores me, who is unbelievable with my children," she says. "And in times where I been in enormous pain, with the death of Wade or with the cancer, he's been by my side."
Elizabeth says there are moments when she wishes John's pain could end too. "My first reaction was the reaction I think anybody would have about somebody that they've loved," she says. "I wanted to protect him. I wanted him, I wanted me...I wanted all of us to come out of it like we have been."
Elizabeth says she and John are taking their marriage day by day, month by month.
Oprah: Are you still in love with him?
Elizabeth: That's a complicated question because, when you're mad at somebody, it's really hard. I think that trust is a very important part of love, but I wouldn't be here if I didn't love him. I wouldn't be here if I didn't want it.
Instead of resisting the changes in her life, Elizabeth says she's learning to accept them. In her book, she writes, "The only way to find peace, the only way to be resilient when these landmines explode beneath your foundation is first to accept that there is a new reality."
The other members of the Edwards family are also learning to accept this new reality. Elizabeth says her 12-year-old daughter, Emma Claire, and 10-year-old son, Jack, are aware of their father's affair.
"To the extent that they understand these kinds of human interactions, they understand what happened," she says. "John told them he behaved inappropriately, and that they were the most important things, I was the most important thing and our family was the most important thing to him."
Elizabeth says John had a separate, private conversation with their 21-year-old daughter, Cate. "He could be more frank with her, [and] she could ask questions that he might not feel comfortable [answering] with me sitting right there," she says.
When she got this devastating diagnosis, Elizabeth says the first thing she did was cry. "[It's] sort of hard not to break down," she says. "Then, [we] said: 'We're going to keep going. We're going to keep pushing ahead.'"
Elizabeth is fighting the disease with chemotherapy and says she's not in pain. "I'm achy sometimes, but you know, I'm 60 this summer," she says. "I get to be achy sometimes with two little kids."
Cancer also has helped Elizabeth put her martial problems in perspective.
"Being sick meant a number of things to me. One is that my life was going to be less long, and I didn't want to spend it fighting," she says. "It also meant that I was reminded constantly of how supportive [John] had been."
Elizabeth says she doesn't know her prognosis, but doctors say she could live anywhere from one to 10 more years.
"If the walls could talk, sometimes I think about it. I think about it most when I feel a pain, and I'll think: 'Is this it? Is this the beginning of the end?'" she says. "Sometimes I get really, really down. ... You're just overwhelmed by what it is you've left undone and who it is you're going to leave behind."
Elizabeth says her youngest children, Jack and Emma Claire, know more about her diagnosis than she tells them.
"I tell them I have this disease, that this disease is what will probably kill me," she says. "[I say]: 'I happen to know what I'm going to die from. You all don't know yet, but everybody's going to die. Everybody's end is the same.'"
Since burying her firstborn, Wade, Elizabeth says death looks different. "It's not as frightening," she says. "It is a relief. I mean, that's my expectation, but I don't think it takes all the fear away."
Oprah: What is your impression of the book? We know that you read it.
John: I think that it is thoughtful and heartfelt. Yes, I read it as it was given birth, so I read pieces of it as it was going along.
Oprah: So when you read the completed book and finished the last chapter, you said what?
John: I think it's how she feels, what's inside her. I never suggested that she change anything.
Oprah: Do you feel like you all have gotten to a good place now?
John: I feel like we are getting to a good place. It's not over, but I think we are getting to a good place.
When John told Elizabeth about his affair, he says he didn't know if she would leave...but he was afraid she might.
"The honest truth was I didn't know what she would do. I don't think anybody knows," he says. "I mean, I love her, I care about her."
After reading Resilience, Oprah tells John and Elizabeth that the reason their marriage may work is because there's so much love between them. "You feel that," Oprah says. "This was real love. This is the real deal."