Ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell takes the stand, talks about strained marriage

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell walks to his corruption trial at U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, August 18, 2014 in Richmond, Virginia.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Last Updated Aug 21, 2014 2:30 PM EDT

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's public service took a toll on his marriage and his wife developed something of a separate life as she raised their five children, McDonnell said Thursday during the second day of his testimony.

McDonnell's rocky relationship with the former first lady, Maureen, is a key part of their defense at their public corruption trial. Their attorneys have said they couldn't have conspired together because they were hardly talking.

McDonnell said early in his career he devoted time to being a state legislator, Army Reservist and lawyer in private practice.

"We spent more time talking about the business of living as opposed to our relationship," said McDonnell, whose testimony was often punctuated with long, heavy pauses before a packed courtroom.

McDonnell said his wife resented his long stretches away from the family and the tension of their marriage escalated as McDonnell's political career took off. He said things were made worse when he moved his family from their long-time home in Virginia Beach to Richmond when he became attorney general in 2006.

Before McDonnell became governor, his wife learned her father had terminal cancer, which McDonnell said added further stress to their relationship. That was compounded by financial concerns, he testified. As the Washington Post notes, McDonnell's testimony could help his case or bolster the claims of prosecutors that the McDonnells had a financial incentive to improperly accept gifts.

The former governor and his wife are charged with accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from former Star Scientific Inc. CEO Jonnie Williams in exchange for promoting his company's dietary supplements.

During his testimony, McDonnell said that while his wife enjoyed some parts of the political world, she grew anxious in the spotlight.

"She was a mom and she did it very well. The public life was one that caused her more stress," McDonnell said.

Other witnesses, including several former Maureen McDonnell aides, have testified that she was miserable as first lady. She hated public speaking and the loss of privacy, and she was prone to angry outbursts.

Bob McDonnell choked up at various times, speaking in a melancholy tone and taking long pauses before answering questions from his lawyer. He became particularly emotional as he described what led him to write his wife on Labor Day 2011, after she had rejected his efforts to spend the weekend with her.

"I was heartbroken," he said, and worried "that this was maybe the end of my marriage."

He began the email "I love you" but said the weekend "was one of the lowest points of my life."

He apologized for being absent, but said "I am completely at a loss as to how to handle the fiery anger and hate from you that has become more and more frequent," he wrote.

Maureen McDonnell never responded, he testified. Meanwhile, he said he learned while preparing for the trial that she had been in contact with Williams four different times that day.

At first, he thought they shared a natural bond over dietary supplements - Maureen McDonnell had sold nutritional supplement for decades as a part-time business. She was crushed when he told her it would be inappropriate to continue selling vitamins as first lady, he said.

McDonnell testified that he doesn't believe his wife had an affair with Williams, but that they had developed an intense, emotional connection to which he had been oblivious.

His defense lawyers have suggested that McDonnell was unaware of many aspects of Maureen McDonnell's relationship with Williams, including some of the gifts she received.

When asked about the current state of his marriage, McDonnell revealed that he moved out of his Richmond home about a week before the trial started, the Washington Post reports. He has been staying with his parish priest in the St. Patrick's Church rectory.

"I knew there was no way I could go home after a day in court and have to rehash the day's events with my wife," the former governor testified. "The last 18 months have been incredibly difficult. The strain of the investigation, indictment has just been a crushing event in our lives."