By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
August 12, 2013 12:00 PM

Anthony Weiner’s scandal-stricken campaign staff – way down in the polls and minus its newly defected manager—gathered in the candidate’s Manhattan apartment on July 27 and, bringing pizza and a red velvet cake along, gamely tried to turn a team meeting on his New York City mayoral run into an early 38th birthday party for Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin. “She was very touched by the fact people remembered her birthday,” says a staffer. “They both were upbeat.” But if the “happy” in “Happy Birthday” seemed strained, it was because Abedin had spent recent days talking and crying to friends, since the news came out that her husband had broken the promise he made to her – and to the public – when he resigned from Congress in June 2011 to “never, ever” again send lewd photos of himself to women over the Internet.

“When we spoke, she broke down. This is deeply upsetting to her,” says a friend, who chatted with Abedin the prior afternoon. Because she had Jordan, her 19-month-old son, nearby, she tried to hide her tears in front of him. “He is the light in her life, and that’s what she was focused on. She needed to pull herself together.”

For all the world, that’s how Abedin, the poised aide-de-camp to Hillary Clinton, looked as she stood by Weiner at an awkward July 23 press conference: pulled together. First, Weiner apologized and owned up to the reports on of his post-resignation transgressions: frequent phone sex with one woman and sexting with at least two others – sometimes under the pseudonym Carlos Danger. Then his wife spoke. “I have forgiven him. I believe in him,” Abedin read from her notes with an unflinching calm. In fact, she supported his run for mayor even after September 2012, which is when he confessed to her that he was sexting again. As recently as July 2 she e-mailed friends for campaign contributions, assuring them that, “Anthony’s campaign is fueled by high ideals.”

But friends and relatives tell PEOPLE that getting to that podium and speaking supportively, even lovingly, of Weiner was a long road that began with her standing in their doorway, torn. “She was seriously thinking, ‘Maybe I can’t do this,'” says a family member. “There was a possibility of leaving on the table.” She and Weiner let close relatives know they might split. “It would have been perfectly logical if she said, ‘I’m out of here.’ Any woman could have understood that,” says Abedin’s businesswoman pal Rory Tahari. “Huma has a very strong moral character, and she made a commitment for better or worse. She never wanted Jordan to say to her, ‘Why didn’t you do everything you could to help Dad?'”

In the end it isn’t politics that kept her with him. It was their son. Raised in an observant Muslim family where divorce is unheard of, Abedin was determined to give her son an intact home and to not keep Weiner, whom she has frequently said is a great father, from seeing his son. “Anthony’s very attentive to Huma. He’s bright and funny,” explains a friend of the couple, who, instead of separating, went back into therapy together, which they had done from summer 2011 until Jordan’s birth that December. While Abedin’s mother and siblings (her father is deceased) support her decision, some friends do not. She is said to be anguished over people second-guessing her choice and by close friends – including the Clintons – forsaking Weiner. “No one wants to see Huma go through this,” says a Clinton source. “They are done with him. As part of caring about Huma, neither would shed a tear if he left the race and went away.”

By all accounts, he is not leaving the race, with five weeks until the first vote. Abedin, who is director of Hillary Clinton’s personal office, is taking leave from that job Aug. 1 through the Sept. 10 primary. But she’s unsure how publicly she will be involved. If she appears with Weiner on the trail, her presence may stir more scandal talk; if she doesn’t, it may look as if she’s not in favor of his run. Already her support of Weiner has damaged her own credibility, says a close friend. “Every day that she alluded to his problems and said he’s a better man, and it’s in the past—she was taking it too far. She knows that.”

But she was being honest, other friends insist, when, in a July 2, 2012 interview with People about how they rebounded from the first scandal, she cast his Internet exhibitionism as over and said they were “a normal family.” It wasn’t until a vacation the following month in the Hamptons that Weiner’s social isolation became painfully apparent and strained the marriage anew. “All the parties they had once been invited to, Huma was now invited, but Anthony wasn’t,” says the family member. “It was a difficult time.”

Home in Manhattan, Weiner confessed he was sexting again, with at least one woman—then 22-year-old Indiana political enthusiast Sydney Leathers, who eventually went public with his nude photos and graphic messages. Abedin realized that they hadn’t thoroughly dealt with the problem the first time; in part she blamed herself for being focused on their newborn and stopping regular couple’s counseling.

But, says the family member, thanks to intensive joint therapy begun last fall and continuing even today, “they really became a unit, and she feels much closer to Anthony now.” And Abedin – along with their therapist, who advised the couple to “live your life” – encouraged him to run for New York City mayor, his lifelong ambition, because being a work-from-home political consultant, while lucrative, wasn’t fulfilling him.

While Weiner told reporters at a campaign stop in Brooklyn last week that his therapist doesn’t call his sexting “an addiction,” Dr. Kenneth Rosenberg, who runs a Manhattan psychiatric practice specializing in addiction treatment, answers: Why does someone keep doing it if they know how much damage it causes? “That’s what defines it as an addiction,” Rosenberg says. “The executive functioning part of the brain is not functioning. The reward system of the brain is running the show.”

And what a show it is now. On the campaign trail, Weiner’s encountered a heckler in a cape and mask calling himself Carlos Danger. And prominent Democrats like David Axelrod are calling for his withdrawal from the race. But then there are city voters who cheer his talk of affordable housing and student loans. “We are looking for a can-do candidate, not a priest,” says New Yorker Ethel Chen. And that affirmation is enough to keep Weiner fueled, says a friend of Abedin’s. “He’s out there every day with people telling him how great he is – getting it more than he did sitting on their couch for two years.”

This same friend, who makes no bones about wanting Abedin to ditch Weiner, says it is, actually, good to hear her cry. “What worries me about her is this feeling that she has to be what everyone thinks she is – some steely superhuman – and if she’s anything else, she’s somehow disappointing people. She’s taking it one day at a time.”