Ex-Spouses Air Dirty Marital Laundry Online
By: Leslie Kaufman
The potential of the Internet to expose and disgrace when marriages fall apart came into stark relief this week as Tricia Walsh Smith, who is being divorced by Philip Smith, a theater executive, put a video on YouTube announcing that they had never had sex, and yet she found him hoarding Viagra, pornography and condoms.
Not surprisingly, Philip Smith’s lawyer, David Aronson, called the video “appalling” and said: “Mr. Smith is a very private person. This is obviously embarrassing.”
But in an era when more than one in 10 adult Internet users in the United States have blogs, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, many people are using the Web to tell their side of a marital saga – and of course, in separation, one person’s truth can be another’s lie. Despite the legal end of a marriage, the confessions can stretch toward eternity in a steady stream of enraged or despondent postings.
Sometimes the postings are furtive. But even when the former spouse is aware that he or she is starring in an angry blog and sues to stop it, recent rulings in New York and Vermont have showed the courts reluctant to intervene.
For the blogger, the writing can be therapeutic.
Until the morning her husband, David Sals, told her he was “done” with their marriage, Jennifer Neal had portrayed him so lovingly on her blog that he was called DearSweetDave.
By the afternoon of that October day last year, Neal had shared what she portrayed as his perfidy with the 55,000 regular readers she says visit NakedJen.com. Soon after, readers came to know him by a far less flattering name, and as the guy whose insensitivity made Neal so sick that she was throwing up every day – and so poor that she lost her house in Santa Cruz, California.
And when a despairing Neal discovered in February that her former husband had put his information up on Match.com, an Internet dating service, she linked to it from her blog, giving her readers a chance to share their thoughts.
Sals protested, but Neal held firm: “If he wants to tell his side of the story, he should get his own blog.”
It is impossible to say just how many people are blogging about divorce, but the number of personal blogs has quadrupled in five years, according to the Pew Internet project. Mary Madden, a senior researcher with the project who specializes in online relationships, said that during emotionally charged times, some people go to the Web. “It is a blank slate to unload all the frustrations and emotions of a personal crisis,” Madden said.
“People tend to think that they are blogging for a small group of friends or that they are anonymous,” she said. But that is not really the case, she added, because “all it takes is one friend posting a link to your blog to out you.”
Laurie, a Manhattan mother, started podcasting DivorcingDaze.com during her divorce in 2006. Each week Laurie and a divorced friend have a glass of wine and tape their discussions of the day’s topics – spas, their boyfriends, the disgraced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer – and then post their session on the Web.
Laurie never told her former husband she was doing the programs. She does not use her last name or her ex-husband’s in her talks, and asked that both names be withheld for this article.
Still, Laurie maintains no pretense of impartiality: “I am 100 percent aware that if he told his version of the marriage, it would be completely different.”
So different in fact, that when her husband did find out about the podcasts last year, he sued her. He argued that they included statements that were “obnoxious, derogatory or offensive” and that it violated the terms of the divorce settlement that she not “harass” or “malign” him.
In a decision only weeks ago, however, a New York State Supreme Court justice said the husband’s complaints were not grounds for blocking the podcast. While Laurie’s statements may be “ill-advised and do not promote co-parenting,” the court wrote, they were covered by the First Amendment.
Obviously, divorce lawyers are taking note. Deborah Lans, of Cohen Lans, a Manhattan firm with a thriving matrimonial practice, said, “The last thing you want to see is angry people making uncontrolled statements.”
She said her divorce agreements include a confidentiality provision that forbids either party from publishing even fictionalized accounts of the marriage. But not every lawyer insists on that, and the judge in Laurie’s case explicitly noted that their agreement did not have such a provision.
For some bitter ex-spouses, the delight of revenge is not the only reward. Writing about divorce can be good for business.
“The bloggers who are doing the best are those who are injecting their personal lives,” said Penelope Trunk, the author of the Brazen Careerist blog, who has written frequently in the past year about the collapse of her 15-year marriage.
Trunk wrote about going to what she thought was their first marriage counseling session only to discover it was a divorce lawyer’s office. That was one of her most popular posts.
More painfully, she has written about the problems of a son with Asperger’s syndrome and said that both she and her husband believed the challenges of raising him helped cause their divorce.
But this kind of brutal honesty is not a good idea for children, especially since most harbor feelings of guilt about their parents’ divorce anyway, said Dr. Irene Goldenberg, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It is not good for children to get personal information in that way,” Goldenberg said.
“And people have to consider doing things in the heat of the moment. The way they feel now will not be how they feel in two years, and there is no way it can be retrieved.”
Trunk, the Brazen Careerist blogger, disagrees.
“It is a generational issue,” she said. “We think it will be a big deal, but it won’t be to them.
“By the time they are old enough to read it, they will have spent their entire life online. It will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I expected that.’ “
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.