Does Adultery Matter When the Kids Are Grown?

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A year ago, Cynthia Shackelford, a 62-year-old North Carolina wife won an "alienation of affection" case against her husband's mistress. The case is ironic on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. The facts: Shackelford charged that the other woman, Anne Lundquist, 49, broke up her marriage of 33 years by setting out to deliberately seduce her husband in 2004. A jury awarded her $5 million in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages to be paid by Lundquist. Lundquist has appealed.

The first irony is that Shackelford used centuries old North Carolina case law under which women were considered the property of their husbands. If another man was accused of stealing his "property"--i.e. fiancée or wife--a husband could sue him for damages. Now that both sexes are using the law I can just see all those old confederate lawyers turning over in their graves. Not only did the slaves demand freedom and civil rights, but "wimmin" are declaring their husbands "property." What can this world be coming to?

Another irony is that Shackelford says she wants to make the point that infidelity can do real harm. Why is this ironic? Because we live in a society that treats infidelity as a juicy scandal without any lasting consequences. The real harm infidelity does is rarely acknowledged. ABC News reported Shackelford as claiming her distress over her husband's alleged affair caused her health problems, including severe weight loss. She worries about how her children, now 23 and 27, are coping with the mess. Despite the casual attitude of our society towards adultery, the consequences are real, and dire. Being dumped after 30 years of marriage can destroy both your health and sanity. Most people bounce back, some never do.

The suffering of grown children is ignored. Young adult children like Shackelford's may be traumatized to the extent of suffering severe depression, or being unable to form committed relationships of their own. At the least they lose one of their parents when they take sides. One of Shackelford's children, Amy Shackelford, has made her thoughts on the subject public: In a message posted on a News & Record blog, Amy Shackelford called her father a "dirtbag" and "delusional narcissist" who "emotionally and financially abandoned his entire family for the last five years."

Adult children suffer a series of intense losses as a result of parental divorce. They lose their family as it has been and will never be again. "Divorce means watching the two people we love most turn against each other and sometimes try to destroy each other--and because we are adults we are privy to every excruciating detail," explains Brooke Lea Foster, author of The Way They Were; Dealing with Your Parents' Divorce After a Lifetime of Marriage.

Finally it's pretty damned ironic that it takes a suit for alienation of affection to spotlight how bankrupt the divorce laws are. Most states once had "at-fault" divorce laws, where you couldn't get a divorce without proving the other side had committed adultery. These laws were thrown out in the 1970s and replaced by no-fault divorce, which means basically a spouse can say, "I divorce thee," and be out of there. The irony is that feminists once supported the switch to no-fault divorce, although it's turned out that women and children are the ones who suffer. Unless the couple is wealthy, there's never enough cash to support both the ex wife and new mistress in the style to which both have been accustomed. The mistress usually wins and the cast off old wife and her children get shafted. In Shackelford's case she's making the point that her husband is worth something, i.e. money, and she'd like what he's worth. Whether or not she actually gets anything from Lundquist is moot--Lundquist may not have that kind of cash--but she's proven that she deserves to be reimbursed for her losses.

Whether or not Shackelford actually collects, I applaud her chutzpah in bringing the suit. It helps to bring up some of the issues around older couples and divorce--issues that bear a lot more discussion and public debate.