Suing the other woman

Suing the Other Woman

A recent lawsuit in North Carolina has called attention to the presence of “the other woman” as a cause of divorce.

There are only six states left where a woman (or man) can file this kind of lawsuit—the other five being Mississippi, South Dakota, Hawaii, New Mexico and Utah. The legal suit, termed “alienation of affection” and its precedent dates back to the 1800s when women were still considered property. Initially, only men could make such a claim. That right shifted later to married women as well, but most states have repealed the dated laws in part because they were vehicles for revenge, greed, and blackmail. There is also the slipperiness of trying to litigate what makes a good marriage. Even the most practiced lawyer might find that tying the ideals of partnership, commitment, respect, and trust to the pragmatic iron of money is a bit like trying to put the mercury back into the thermometer.

In the case of N.C. residents Elizabeth Clark vs. Adam Clark (U.S. Army Major, Special Forces) and Dr. Kimberly Barrett (U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and an ob-gyn at Womack Army Medical Center), the questions of infidelity and revenge include both the plaintiff and defendant. Both Clarks cheated on each other during their marriage, but later renewed their vows and went to marriage counseling. Regarding the issue of revenge, the former Mrs. Clark sought and won punitive damages against Barret for alienation of affection.

Details of The Clark v. Clark Case

The motivation for seeking these damages may have had more to do with child support than revenge, as Major Clark allegedly refused to pay most of it on behalf of the two children the couple had together. In retaliation, Clark posted nude pictures of his now-ex-wife on dating web sites, along with the claim that she had sexually transmitted diseases. Aside from being against the military code of conduct and behavior unbecoming of an officer, these were pictures that Clark had sent to her husband while they were married. He had been the only recipient—the only one, that is, before he made them public and publicly humiliating.

Revenge and punishment make up one aspect of the Clark v. Clark case.

Another is the question of property—begging the question addressed in some articles of whether it is possible to steal a spouse as a thief might steal a car or necklace. Marriage does involve property, but holding to the idea that such lawsuits are not valid from a humanist/feminist perspective because they sustain the antiquated, demeaning idea that the spouses themselves are property is one-dimensional. A more accurate interpretation is that this is far less about property than it is about a spouse violating a contract—that promise to love and cherish that are typically part of the marriage vows.

The Other Woman

It is not the “Other Woman” who made that vow; it is the spouse who is responsible for his (or her) end of that stick.

So why should a spurned wife go after the other woman for punitive damages—an action characterized as simply revenge, just a way to lash out at her for being his new choice?

The spouse breaks the vow; why should the other woman be on the hook for a promise he made? Because, in making the decision to get involved with and pursue a lasting relationship with a married man, the other woman is an agent of that contract violation.


If you are dealing with infidelity, consider reading What to Do With Your Cheating Spouse


She may not have made any promises to the wife of her lover, and she may not have signed a non-compete clause, and he may have cheated with someone else if he hadn’t with her.

But the fact remains: she helped him cheat.

There are grey areas, of course, and love does make things messy with some frequency. Occasionally, the spouse who is being betrayed is venal or toxic or has some other aspect of character that their mate finds unsustainable and unlivable. People are also organic; they change and grow, and the partners who once fit now don’t, and both of you may now fit and feel better with someone else. The other woman may have been one agent of a marriage’s demise, but there are almost certainly others, and it is not often appropriate or healthy to blame her. One could make intellectual and spiritual arguments about the role of the “other” in a marriage.

Professional Implications

Cheating may not be illegal in most cases or most states, but it is a question of ethics–particularly for a woman who took the Hippocratic Oath to “abstain from that which is deleterious or mischievous.” (Technically that does only pertain to patients, though). We may not marry the guy or the gal, but when we mess around with a married person, we help them cheat. Grey areas or not, who took the vow or not, that fact does remain.

In the case of Dr. Kimberly Barrett, not only has she made a high-powered, highly educated career out of facilitating the birth of other women’s families, she sat there in the courtroom and watched her lover denounce the love he told his wife he had for her all along. He said out loud on legal record that he lied to her, and Barrett watched with complicity, so that she could avoid responsibility for her participation in the corrosion of another woman’s marriage.

Apparently, the court agreed that she was culpable. On charges of alienation-of-affection, libel and revenge porn, Clark (a Fayetteville bartender) won $3.2 million from her ex-husband and his (new) wife.

Facing Facts

All grey areas, intellectual and spiritual perspectives and angles aside for the moment, it does make you want to ask, “How dare you?” to both parties, as Annette Benning’s character in the new movie Hope Gap says to that other woman, after her husband of 29 years tells her he is leaving her for his new love.

Not only did Clark cheat on his wife (as have hundreds of thousands of other spouses, male and female, across the globe), he stood up and testified in court that he never loved her, despite telling her throughout their marriage that he did. Barrett and Clark used the defense that Clark never loved his wife; ergo, Barrett wasn’t guilty of despoiling the sanctity of anything. The court disagreed.

To a sharper point than alienation of affection laws, then, perhaps one should give more focus to making illegal and subject to punitive damages the practice of marrying someone and maintaining that marriage under false emotional pretenses.

Notes:

Jennifer Bent is a freelance writer, former print journalist and feature writer living on the West Coast. Nicknamed Verbose at a young age, she loves word craft but has to keep a short leash on her fondness for the profane. Jennifer enjoys compelling content and the liberty to write about interesting contributors and innovative ideas. Connect with Jennifer at verbosej@hotmail.com 

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*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”

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