Lady Stars Leaving Lesser Spouses Behind

By JOCELYN NOVECK
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; 5:39 PM

NEW YORK -- 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've joined a line of showbiz power couples where 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.

Not that any of this will change the direction of our country like Tuesday's election, but is there something universal to be gleaned from this mini-trend in the celebrity sphere?

Actually, yes, say some matrimonial experts. They note that we can and should learn from these celebrity bustups, where 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 that Witherspoon, who's said to be getting $29 million for her next film, reportedly finds herself in: no prenup (unlike 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 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, there are common factors _ and pressures _ 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," says Min. But in Hollywood, it's worse. "It's an industry built on ego," Min says. "And we glorify the heroic male. When the dynamic is reversed, it's tough."

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

Though Spears had wealth and fame before marrying Federline _ likely one reason she had a prenup _ couples like Witherspoon and Phillippe, Swank and Lowe, and Jennifer Lopez and her first husband came together before the women reached real stardom.

"It's very easy to be supportive when you're both in the trenches," says Rabin, the lawyer. "But when one of you is propelled into atmospheric celebrity, the other one is left in the trenches."

And 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 (Swank has said Lowe's substance use contributed to their split).

Ironically, successful people can have more relationship challenges than those who aren't, 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."

And, of course, the easier it is to lose that money. Which is 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."

© 2006 The Associated Press