Famous Wives. Public Embarrassment.

Any wife who has been cheated on knows the visceral effect of embarrassment in her social circle. The gossips in the peripheral of her every move sing muffled chants about her role in the affair or why she bothers to stay in the marriage. But when that everyday wife appears in person, the tongues quiet and public smiles replace the wagging tongues.

A famous wife knows an entirely different kind of public embarrassment. She looks no further than her super-market aisles, the local radio, or the national news for the openly wagging tongues. Our hearts bleed for Sandra Bullock, Elizabeth Edwards and Elin Woods, and so we moralize, we bemuse, and we give advice as if these women were our own sisters. The media and general public feel safe in gossiping about famous people because they seem so far removed. We are reminded that their problems are much like ours, although often on a grander scale.

But what must the experience be like for an innocent wife who lives a public life? How can she tolerate the negative limelight now shinning on her family? Embarrassment often plays a role in people’s moral sense. It helps them “do the right thing,” but what if the scandal was not their fault? And what if their decision to save the marriage goes against the jury of public opinion?

The best answer to these questions, is to avoid. To emotionally survive the public humiliation, famous women must cloister themselves in the world of most intimate family members and wait for the media tide to change. Elin and Sandra are certainly doing that. And when they do eventually move forward they must defend against feelings of embarrassment by maintaining the fantasy that few people read those tabloid rags, anyway.

Case in point, a couple years back I was introduced to Christie Brinkley at a charity event. Our introduction came a few years after a media blitz concerning the infidelity of her husband with their young babysitter. When our mutual friend introduced us she attempted to find common ground for us by telling Christie that I had recently gone through a painful break up with the father of my children. Christie, immediately, clasped my hands and exclaimed, ‘Oh Honey so did I! And you wouldn’t believe what happened to me!” Then she proceeded to give me details of her husband’s bad behaviors as if I had never been in a supermarket in my life. Clearly her very efficient coping strategy was to maintain the illusion that few people knew. I commend her for that. It’s a high level survival mechanism. Compartmenting is the way our brain avoids being flooded with painful thoughts than can cause destructive behavior.And, by the way, I played along with her fantasy and acted astounded by her news.

Celebrity problems make our own pain feel, somehow, normal. Our very real human emotion of empathy helps us have a shared emotional experience when we witness a celebrity’s love life. Suddenly we are not alone in our own journey. And we are comforted by the knowledge that money and fame do not protect us from relationship problems. So, my advice, down the road if you are ever introduced to Sandra, Elin, or Elizabeth, pretend you know nothing.

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