- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006


So now that there’s been a seismic shift in our nation’s landscape, what lessons have we learned?

No, not that seismic shift. We’re referring to the Earth-shattering news about Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, who have joined a line of showbiz power couples who split when the successful woman leaves the underperforming spouse behind.

Just last week came the news about Reese Witherspoon, Hollywood’s highest-paid actress, and husband Ryan Phillippe. Three weeks ago it was Whitney Houston saying goodbye to Bobby Brown. Before that it was double Oscar winner Hilary Swank and her TV actor husband, Chad Lowe.

None of this will change the direction of our country like Tuesday’s election, but is there something universal to be gleaned from this minitrend in the celebrity sphere?

Actually, yes, some matrimonial experts say. They note that we can and should learn from these celebrity breakups, in which the woman, traditionally the financially dependent spouse, leaps beyond the man in terms of money and power, creating inevitable fissures in the union. More practically, they say, professional women need to learn to protect their assets — as in demanding a prenuptial agreement — before they head to the altar.

If they don’t, says New York lawyer Bonnie Rabin, they risk the situation reportedly facing Miss Witherspoon, who is said to be getting $29 million for her next film: no prenup (unlike Miss Spears) and a fortune that in California gets split 50-50 with her much less bankable husband.

“The world is getting educated by these celebrity separations,” says Miss Rabin, whose firm has handled high-profile divorce cases. “The dependent spouse has traditionally been the woman. Now you have cases where the woman is the anchor, the provider, the supporter.

“The interesting question is, how is society going to look at these men that are left behind? Are they going to be seen as the victims now?”

Of course, every relationship is different, and nobody knows what makes them work or fail. Still, common factors — and pressures — can be found in any under-the-spotlight showbiz relationship, says Janice Min, editor of the celebrity magazine US Weekly.

“In any relationship, it’s hard, even for the most enlightened couples, to break out of traditional roles,” Miss Min says. In Hollywood, it’s worse, she adds. “It’s an industry built on ego, and we glorify the heroic male. When the dynamic is reversed, it’s tough.”

Miss Spears wed Mr. Federline, an aspiring rapper, in fall 2004. From the beginning, they were mocked (and they helped the process along with their own reality show). He was depicted as a loafer living off his wife, and she often was portrayed, fairly or not, as a flustered and mistake-prone mother.

Miss Spears had wealth and fame before marrying Mr. Federline — likely one reason she has a prenup — but other couples came together before the women reached real stardom. That was the case with Miss Witherspoon and Mr. Phillippe, Miss Swank and Mr. Lowe, and Jennifer Lopez and her first husband, Ojani Noa.

“It’s very easy to be supportive when you’re both in the trenches,” says Miss Rabin, “but when one of you is propelled into atmospheric celebrity, the other one is left in the trenches.”

That’s before you even begin to talk about other huge problems that can afflict marriages: infidelity (perhaps a factor in the Witherspoon-Phillippe split) or substance abuse. (Miss Swank has said Mr. Lowe’s substance use contributed to their split.)

Ironically, people who are successful can have more relationship challenges than those who aren’t, Miss Rabin says. “The travel, the hours, the pressure. And they don’t have to stay together. The more money you have, the easier it is to leave.”

Of course, the easier it is to lose that money, too. That’s why Theresa DiMasi, editor in chief of Brides.com, says the prudent thing for almost anyone is to plan ahead with a prenup, even if it seems terribly unromantic.

“I actually don’t think it’s unromantic,” she says. “I think it’s respectful. It’s being honest.

“Look, we all hope for the best. But I don’t care how amicable a split is — people get bitter. The smartest thing Britney Spears did is get a prenup.”

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