Should Spouses Be Allowed to Sue Their Ex-Partner’s Lover?

Newsweek has a piece up about a few leftover laws allowing partner’s to sue their ex-husband or ex-wife for emotional humiliation, lack of morality and what they call, “alienation of affection.” And while historically, the law has been used by men to sue their wife’s lover, it has most recently been used by women, to sue their husband’s lover.

While the alienation-of-affection laws have been used by men to sue their wife’s male lover, today they’re more often used by women to go after mistresses. That’s how Cynthia Shackelford, 60, a former teacher, recently won a mind-boggling $9 million judgment against Anne Lundquist, her husband’s lover, whom she accused of “alienation of affection” that resulted in the end of her 33-year marriage.
Denying that this was a case of revenge, Shackelford insisted March 23 on CBS’s The Early Show that her intent was to deter so-called home wreckers. “My main message is to all those women out there who might have their eyes on some guy that is married, to not come between anybody,” she said. Perhaps for Shackelford it truly wasn’t about the money, but the motherly-looking Anne Lundquist isn’t likely to come up with millions of dollars on her salary as a dean of students for a small college. But nonetheless, a moral case was made and the jury ruled in favor of the wife. Lundquist is appealing the judgment.

Wow, to deter home-wreckers? I have always felt that the concept of home-wreckers is sexist because it is based on the idea that a) single women are villains, b) men are prizes that women have to fight over and c) single women’s unfettered sexuality is a threat to the lily-white perfection of heterosexual coupledom. Home-wrecker is a pejorative and it ignores the ways that men benefit from women fighting over them and the role they play in cheating and ending relationships.
Something I have never understood about cheating is why blame the person their partner is cheating with as opposed to, I don’t know, their partner? Suing your partner’s partner (just typing that made me dizzy) ignores the fact that it is your partner that did the cheating, your partner is the person that should be accountable to you, not some stranger. Suing your partner’s partner won’t change what your partner did, which is the actual offensive violation, in my opinion, assuming you were in a consenting relationship where the expectation was monogamy.
Depending on the circumstances perhaps you should be allowed to sue your partner for hardships, abuse, alienation, but suing their other partner makes no sense to me. It appears that the initial law was a function of sexism, since it dates back to when women were considered property and blamed for all the misgivings of men and it seems that it continues to be sexist, because it perpetuates the myth that women are to blame for men’s sexual “transgressions.”

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33 Comments

  1. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I agree with you, Samhita. the concept of “homewrecker” always makes me laugh because these women, who are not married, did NOT make a promise or lifetime commitment to anyone, while these cheating HUSBANDS have broken their vows so THE HUSBANDS SHOULD BE BLAMED FOR WRECKING MARRIAGE. the men were married, they damn well knew they were married and they still decided to have affairs. blame them, not the woman !!
    I’m so tired of women tearing down other women.

  2. BackOfBusEleven
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I agree fully. Cheating is wrong, of course, and people obviously shouldn’t be with someone who they know is married. But Lindquist wasn’t the one who broke a legal binding contract. It was the husband, what’s-his-name. And I really don’t understand how the figure of $9 million was calculated. I doubt that’s how much her husband spent on his lover, in which case he should be sued for that much.

  3. Ginger
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Absolutely. This kind of litigation furthers the idea that women are the gatekeepers of sexuality and if something sexual happens between a (married) man and a woman, THE woman is the one who is responsible for putting on the breaks.
    Because, you know, a man just can’t control his sexual urges when it’s made “available” to him, right?

  4. Gretel
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Or how about accepting that relationships often end with someone leaving for someone else, and while it is of course upsetting, maybe suing is not the answer. (Unless your partner leaving you is causing serious financial hardship or your partner is not paying child support, of course.) It just seems like a further extension of capitalism into personal relationships–how do you monetize a relationship? If it was a supposedly good relationship before you were left would you get more money? The entire thing seems preposterous to me. And would courts even recognize such a lawsuit in the case of a same-sex relationship?
    p.s. What is the use of “motherly looking” in that Newsweek article? What does that even mean?

  5. bntk
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Why do you think that this somehow excludes the cheating partner in any culpability.
    Someone fucking another persons spouse with knowledge that other person is unaware and hasn’t consented is not a ethically neutral position.
    The person who was cheated on already gets legal relief through the following divorce proceedings or out of court settlements.

  6. EndersGames
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The lawsuit is silly.
    But we shouldn’t just give the “homewrecker”, male or female, a pass. They bear some guilt.
    Breaking a person’s trust and cheating on them is immoral. Aiding someone in their attempts to do an immoral act is immoral as well. Helping someone do something immoral is also immoral.
    You know your partner sometimes has temptations to cheat. All partners do. And you would be justifiably livid if some other person relentlessly tried to seduce your partner into breaking the agreement they made with you. Of course your anger would be mostly for your partner, but I’d save some for the interloper as well.

  7. Destra
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Agreed on the “homewrecker” front. The term is always applied to women and never to the men who sleep with a married woman. Not to mention other non-hetero pairings.
    However, I would like to talk about suing your spouse’s mister/mistress. We’re talking about civil marriage here. Civil marriage is a contract between the spouses and a license from the government. If someone else intentionally facilitates one spouse in breaking that contract/license, or even encourages the spouse to break it, I can see a legal case for interference of contract (an actual legal claim).
    Of course, whatever you can sue the mister/mistress for, you should be able to sue the cheating spouse for, and in many states you can.

  8. Sigmund
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. The point is not whether or not the “other woman” is in an ethically neutral position– she is in a legally neutral one. The husband and the wife are the only parties in a legal contract.

  9. Chelsa
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry. Maybe it’s because this is less than a month fresh, but she knew about me and that my mother had just died and got into MY bed anyway.
    So yeah. I think she’s a low-down dirty piece of homewrecking trash and I don’t feel bad about having those feelings.
    But just because I think she’s dirt, doesn’t mean I don’t think the exact same about him. I just don’t think she should escape my scorn because “women should stop tearing down women”. No, women shouldn’t sleep with other people’s SOs. It’s a heartless and cruel thing to do.
    That being said, I’d be in a different state of mind if he’d kept me secret from her.

  10. Tracey T
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    The case gets even more twisted when you read the husband’s respomse. Apparently he admits to having cheated before and explains that the marriage had been sour for a number of years and they had been seperated or on the verge of seperation before this incident even occured. The wife is accusing the other woman of “stealing” affection that was no longer there and had not been there for a number of years. The husband’s response makes it quite clear that the wife is practically lying to herself with regards to the status of their marriage for the past few years.
    And I think this is a part of the problem with recognizing marriage at all. Not only should the government not be in the business of validating certain personal ties, but people’s emotions can not and should not be considered property which is what the ability to file for alienation of affection means (someone stole the affection of a person from someone else).
    In addition, even looking at the marriage license recognized by the government, fidelity and monogamy are not on the license. From the civil perspective they are not promised. All you need for a marriage license is a non-relative of the opposite sex, that’s it. When you sign the civil contract there are no other promises that need be made. You do not have to live together, sleep together, or even see each other ever again. You can literally sing the contract and have that bee it. So why exactly is the government regulating this again?
    As for suing the cheater’s partner, head hunting is not a crime, even if the contract included fidelity, which it does not, only the people in the contract would be responsible for upholding that contract. Also, people have been sued because they made the conditions for cheating to take place possible: John Edward’s staffmember for helping cover up the affair, a manager because the affair started at work, hotels, etc.
    Lawsuits like these suggest that people and their emotions can become property. Even if you enter into a marriage contract that person and their emotions do not belong to you.

  11. xxxevilgrinxxx
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Something I have never understood about cheating is why blame the person their partner is cheating with as opposed to, I don’t know, their partner?

    huh, creepy, a little.
    considering it’s historical use in suing male lovers, it’s infantalizing women (you know, it just couldn’t be that silly little woman’s fault; it’s her lover’s fault). I don’t see it gaining much cachet now that it’s turned around.
    If you really must sue someone, put the “blame” where it belongs, if there is blame. [And blame is such a wonderfully broad word]. Your husband cheated, sue the husband. It doesn’t make much sense to me that way either, but at least you’re blaming the right person.
    there’s so many things wrong with this, it’s not funny. People need to move the hell on and stop trying to punish/hang on to the people that have hurt them.

  12. s mandisa
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I agree with all the comments. hetero-patriarchy is DEEP. not only does the media perpetuate these notions of single women and married men that is based on soceital and institutional gender norms, but the wife who was cheated on has internalized it. she’s willing to fight for her life b/c, in many ways, she has been socialized that he IS the prize. so it becomes about her having to fight the other woman. also, it makes her feel dependent and like she need this relationship. i would wonder the amount of women who sue or fight or seek revenge on the “other women” are doing it b/c they feel they need him/that relationship, but also what it means to be in that relationship. there is such status and privilege with being married, though its still an oppressive institution, that she’s willing to do what she can to keep it.
    and this isnt just married couples of course. i know unmarried staight couples and queer relationships where people have physically fought over their lovers/partners. im also interested in how queer folks have internalized this and how it plays out for us.

  13. genericjanedoe
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    I agree with what some of you are saying; the “other” person does bear some responsibility if they knowingly engaged in cheating.
    However, the problem is that so much hate is often spewed at that person (usually woman) WITHOUT acknowledging the role that the actual spouse (usually husband) played in the situation, and that’s the real problem I see here. It makes sense to be mad at both of them, but because you usually only love one of the cheating parties in the equation, it’s easy to blame the “other” person solely for the transgression. Easy, but illogical when you really think about it.
    Also, I think it’s very interesting how marriage is suddenly supposed to make commitment so much more “real” and cheating on a boyfriend/girlfriend somehow isn’t as bad. I have been with my partner for 7 years, married for one…and I yet to feel more committed to him than I was before. I think that sometimes people want to think that marriage will make their relationship more “real” and that’s when they’ll be fully committed…I’ve never taken legal status as a reason to take a relationship more seriously. (Besides, I don’t really respect a legal status that excludes so many people.)

  14. heyitsmartine
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    While I think that suing them is a little ridiculous, I can understand anger towards somebody who is involved with a cheating partner, if they are aware of the person’s partnered status. Yes, it is the cheating partner’s fault, and they should carry the blame of breaking the commitment that they made. However, if the mister/mistress of the cheating partner is aware of the situation, yes, it is still fucked up for them to have helped them break that commitment. If they were decent people, they would refuse to sleep with someone until their other relationship was terminated. Just because the person they are deceiving is not somebody they know or care about does not mean they are not still being deceitful.
    While it does happen regardless of a cheater’s gender or sexual orientation, I will use the example given in the article of a man cheating on his wife. In the case of a woman knowingly having a relationship with a married man, that is downright unfeminist. It is saying to the man’s wife (and women in general), “No, I do not respect you or your relationship and I am going to do what I want to get what I want.” While you should be really angry at your partner for breaking your trust (and angry only at them if it turns out their other partner didn’t know), why can’t you also be angry at the person who knowingly slept with your partner? It doesn’t make them a “homewrecker” — that’s definitely the cheater — but it does make them a less than nice or respectful person, and someone should have every right to be angry at them for that, no matter what their gender.

  15. MLEmac28
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m with you there.
    My boyfriend has attracted a couple of women who are trying to hook-up with him, regardless of his relationship status. There is one girl in particular (and I say girl because she’s barely 18) who got the symbol for his baseball team tattooed on her ass, and she knows absolutely nothing about baseball.
    I trust my boyfriend and know he would never cheat on me, but I still feel like the way these women pursue him is a slap in the face. They know he’s in a relationship coming on two years now, and insist on trying to get with him anyway.
    I’ve seen many men do this too, and I would be happy to see “homewrecker” applied to men too.

  16. Gretel
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    All you need for a marriage license is a non-relative of the opposite sex, that’s it. When you sign the civil contract there are no other promises that need be made. You do not have to live together, sleep together, or even see each other ever again.

    Are you sure about that? I’m not married, but I’m in a domestic partnership in NY State, and I had to swear that I am in a “close and committed relationship.” I imagine the government would demand the same for marriage, but who knows?

  17. Tracey T
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    The problem is:
    1). Fidelity is not a requirement in the license, as I said,a couple composed of a lesbian woman and a gay man who wish to have nothing to do with each other (this actually happened) can apply for and get a marriage license. The only requirements for a civil marriage license are two people of opposite sex, not-related, and of age (or with parents’/judge’s consent if underage). If anything else where requirement the “contracts” of all people in open marriages would be null and void.
    2). Not only does the “contract” include absolutely nothing (it is only upon breaking a marriage contract that their are ramifications), even if it did these lawsuits would suggest that “affection” and people are property that can be owned and therefore stolen. Hopefully, any contract that declared people and emotions property would be considered unlawful to begin with.
    In no way should a person’s sexual and emotional choices be legally regulated (btwn consenting adults).
    If someone wants to cover cheating, they can do so in a pre/post-nup but only with the other partner.

  18. bntk
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Its not a criminal offense, it is a “civil wrong”.
    This is Tort law. “a body of law that addresses and provides remedies for civil wrongs not arising out of contractual obligations”

  19. borrow_tunnel
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you and I have to disagree with Samhita. Even though I’m sure the term homewrecker originated as a term to describe mostly women, I can think of men as being homewreckers as well. I think a woman should be allowed to sue the mistress and I think a man should be allowed to sue his wife’s mister. Suing one’s spouse in these cases should also be allowed. It should really be decided on a case-by-case basis. It depends on who sought whom. For example, if a married couple are perfectly happy (ex: proof they were about to renew their vows, etc.) and a woman or man actively seeks the married person, they should be to blame. These homewreckers, and yes I will call them homewreckers because that’s what they do, can cause severe emotional problems for the person cheated on. It’s not called a relationship-wrecker, it’s a home wrecker. In many married couples, there is not only love and trust that’s ruined, it is everything that has been built up: a home that is considered their sanctuary from the outside has been breached, children that may suffer emotional disturbances, property and finances that have to be split should they seek divorce. I’m not even married and never plan to be, but I know I would be pissed enough to sue another woman, or my would-be husband if it was his fault. It would be a challenge to prove who is at fault (spouse or homewrecker), but it could be done. If I was cheated on, I would still feel sorry for the homewrecker, but I would want some repayment if I suffered. I also disagree that the term homewrecker casts single women as a threat to coupledom. CHEATING WITH A MARRIED MAN OR WOMAN is the threat to “lily-white” coupledom. Trust me I’ve been single for many years until recently and I always managed to be a comfortable 3rd or 5th wheel without women being uneasy around me.

  20. Brianna G
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Eh. The wife can already punish her husband in civil court, unless she lives in a state with no-fault divorce; it’s not like he gets off scot-free, after all. She should of course hold him responsible, but if the mistress knew about it and made no effort to stop the relationship or tell the wife, the mistress shouldn’t be thought to be some innocent third party. She knew what she was doing. She knew that she would be interfering in a legal contract (as Destra said, interference of contract– there is precedent).
    Now, to do so, the wife should have to prove that a) the mistress knew the husband was married, and b) the mistress knew it was not an open relationship. If they were separated, the mistress could have assumed they were in an open relationship due to the separation, and she shouldn’t be blamed then (as seems to be the case here). But if she knew full well she was interfering in a legal contract, she should be held liable.
    Of course, 9 million is absurd. I could maybe see a couple thousand max, depending on her income, but I doubt the wife would have gotten than much from her HUSBAND over his LIFETIME. If this is to be legal, there would have to be reasonable caps on payment; most significantly it should be less than the cheating spouse lost, to acknowledge the cheater’s greater fault.
    Of course, this should apply in the reverse as well. As long as marriage remains a legal contract, it should be considered just that– a legal contract.

  21. kandela
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    So, accessory to adultery? It wouldn’t have been possible for the husband to cheat if not for his new partner. If you aid someone in wronging another why shouldn’t you bare part of the responsibility?
    The two of them together did wrong, but sure the husband (in this case) is more responsible.

  22. Sex Toy James
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    I think that these kinds of laws do treat spouses as commodities who can be traded for monetary compensation. I do think that spouses can be objectified as income sources, social status markers, lifestyle enablers, child rearing systems, and just someone to fill a slot in one’s life. Heck, they can even come with an entire family support system. Given all of that it seems like people can forget about the person in the middle of that package of benefits and features. I really don’t want to be treated that way.
    My first thought in the event of cheating is “What’s wrong with the relationship?” not “Should I blame the cheater or the one he/she cheated with?” If a relationship ends because my partner cheated with someone else and we couldn’t get past it, then it wasn’t a relationship we needed to be in. Why is blame even an issue?

  23. supremepizza
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Know anyone who’s been the victim of adultery? I think the spouse does get plenty of blame…The men who do it may not get called “homewrecker” but they get called “womanizer”, “philanderer”, and “pig”…Jus sayin’…

  24. Kate
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you posted this because everyone’s comments have really made me think more about the situation from different perspectives. Personally, I have always believed that it is NOT every single person’s responsibility to maintain the fidelity of those in committed relationships, case closed. But I can certainly understand when you put it in jargon that the husband signed a legal contract and that not only he violated it, but his mistress encouraged and aided him in violating it, so maybe she should be held responsible too. But that’s under the assumption that she “seduced” him, which may not be the case. I know the ex-wife has claimed this, but she is clearly (and rightfully) really angry, so her views on the affair may not be completely accurate. I also disagree with the person who said “You know your partner sometimes has temptations to cheat. All partners do.” I was in a committed relationship for 5 years and never once considered cheating on him. When things were unhappy between us, the choice for me was either, “Can I fix this?” or “Should we break up?” not “Maybe I can get my affection elsewhere.” Ultimately, the decision to cheat lies with the cheater. I may think cheating is immoral, and I may even disrespect or dislike a person who knowingly helps another cheat on his/her partner, but I still don’t think they bear any legal responsibility.

  25. Kate
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    I wondered the same thing about “motherly looking”. I was debating between whether they were trying to say, “She was unattractive, so she clearly had to seduce him for him to be interested in her” or “She’s so innocent and plain looking that she couldn’t possibly have seduced him. Now if she was a young, sexy thang, that would be a different story.” Either way, Newsweek probably could have omitted that description.

  26. Claudia_T
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I do believe that the third person is to blame.
    The spouse who is cheated on stands to lose their home, their children and pets, their financial security, their health insurance coverage.
    The cheater is knowingly destroying the spouse’s life, and divorce is, after all, one of the biggest risks for poverty and lack of health and nursing care in older women.
    Someone who knowingly contributes to another person’s misery and misfortune is not in an ethically neutral position and should not be in a legally neutral position.
    Women lose big time in a system where personal and familial responsibility is promoted as the sole guarantor of social support and security while we at the same time do nothing to protect the families that are to protect them.

  27. Steveo
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    I agree with almost everything Samhita has said. The spouse who cheats is to blame in all cases, whether or not they are pursued by the 3rd person. They have free will and are capable of saying yes or no to anything. To say they are not responsible because the 3rd person threw themselves at them shows how little the spouse was thought of anyways.
    However, I have to disagree with the last thing Samhita said
    “Depending on the circumstances perhaps you should be allowed to sue your partner for hardships, abuse, alienation, but suing their other partner makes no sense to me. It appears that the initial law was a function of sexism, since it dates back to when women were considered property and blamed for all the misgivings of men and it seems that it continues to be sexist, because it perpetuates the myth that women are to blame for men’s sexual “transgressions.”"
    because, although the old law might have been a function of sexism, it was originally used for a married man to sue the man who cheated with the first man’s wife. This is definitely not blaming the woman for all of the misgivings of men. I would argue the sexism here is that of not giving women enough credit over their own decision making.
    When I first heard this story it amazed me that any rational argument could convince a jury that suing the 3rd person should have to pay. But I forgot that its not reason, but emotion that fuels these things (as evidenced by the people here who think suing the 3rd person is acceptable)

  28. Av0gadro
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    As for suing the cheater’s partner, head hunting is not a crime, even if the contract included fidelity
    This, for me, is the crux of the legal matter. If it were, for example, an employment contract with a non-compete clause, you still wouldn’t be able to sue Company B for stealing your employee, although you could probably stop your employee from working for company B once you discovered it.
    As for the non-legal side, this is an area where I’m going to have to come down on the side of personal responsibility. I don’t care if a woman strips naked and dances on my husband’s bed. It’s his job to get out of there if someone’s trying to seduce him. I can’t imagine meeting the woman for drinks and fun afterward, but if my husband cheats on me, that’s his fault, no matter how seductive the other party is being.

  29. BackOfBusEleven
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. I’m not satisfied with that. I think being an “accessory” to an affair is different from being an accessory to murder or robbery, outside of adultery being a much less serious crime than murder and robbery. But I’m having trouble articulating my opinion here. I just know that reading what you said didn’t really sound right to me.

  30. Devoted_Toucan
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Sueing someone over that, what crap. Like money is the answer to fixing a broken heart. Why would you want to go through a legal battle like that after supposedly getting your heart broken?
    I’m not surprised at the amount the woman was sued for, though. Everything’s extreme in America. Ridiculous amount of unhealthy food pretty much any time of the day; jail sentences that no person could ever live through unless, I dunno, we evolved to be able to live for hundreds of years (

  31. nikki#2
    Posted March 30, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    “Breaking a person’s trust and cheating on them is immoral. Aiding someone in their attempts to do an immoral act is immoral as well. Helping someone do something immoral is also immoral.”
    I am stealing this.
    Thanks.

  32. Honeybee
    Posted March 31, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    While people cheat for different reasons, the main reason people think about cheating is NOT because they are in a bad relationship.
    It’s because there are alot of really attractive people in this world and thus assuming you are a sexual person you will be regularly attracted to people other then your partner. It’s not much of a stretch to go from being attracted to someone else to some part of you considering cheating with that person if given the opportunity.

  33. xxxevilgrinxxx
    Posted April 1, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    people’s emotions can not and should not be considered property which is what the ability to file for alienation of affection means (someone stole the affection of a person from someone else).

    perfectly put!
    I don’t like cheating, but raising it to the level of criminal (for someone that didn’t take that vow)? I can’t go there and I’m a little worried when it does start to go there. If you can sue for ‘lost affections/stolen affections’, does that mean that you’re owed them somehow? That you own them? That they’re you’re property to take or dispense with as you see fit? I have some trouble with that.

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