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Is Misleading Your Spouse Fraud or Tact? : Marriage: Award for damages in case where the wife said she was not sexually attracted to her mate shows incongruities in love, American style, experts say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If marriage were a contract, most lawyers probably would advise potential newlyweds not to sign it.

After all, matrimony is considered one of life’s greatest commitments, but it contains absolutely no provisions or guarantees about what husbands and wives are entitled to. Six children? A big paycheck? A golf partner? Great sex? One newlywed might be perfectly happy with someone who can afford to buy half a house in the suburbs, while another demands unbridled passion.

All these ambiguities about the embattled American institution of marriage erupted last week in the unsettling case of Ronald Askew vs. Bonnette Askew.

When their 11-year marriage ended in divorce, Anaheim banker Ronald Askew sued his ex-wife for fraud because she admittedly concealed the fact that she had never felt sexually attracted to him. On Wednesday, an Orange County jury agreed, and ordered Bonnette Askew to pay her ex-husband $242,000 in damages.

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Such sexual tug of wars between couples are not uncommon, therapists and psychologists say. But the Askews’ most intimate troubles were not confined to a private bedroom, they were divulged in a public courtroom, where they were analyzed by a jury rather than a marriage counselor.

Psychologists and anthropologists say the fraud case reflects the incongruities of love, American style. Clashes inevitably arise, especially in a culture that puts so much emphasis on romantic love, because everyone’s idea of an idyllic marriage varies.

Experts say brides and bridegrooms often utter “I do” while deceiving their mate, or themselves--sometimes unwittingly--about what they expect after the honeymoon. But, they ask, is this fraudulent behavior or just human behavior?

“I’m astonished by this verdict and I’ve looked at divorce in 62 societies,” said Helen Fisher, an American Museum of Natural History anthropologist who authored the recent book “Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery and Divorce.”

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“Since when do people demand passionate love?” she asked. “It’s not a commodity that you can buy, or will, out of someone else. You either have it or you don’t. . . . In America, we are demanding everything from our marriage. This court confirms that is the American way.”

Bonnette Askew, 45, acknowledged in court that she had never been sexually attracted to her husband. But she said she always loved him and noted that their marriage was not sexless and that they had two children together.

She first admitted her lack of sexual desire for him during a joint therapy session in 1991. “I guess he confused sex with love,” Bonnette Askew said, adding that she concealed her lack of desire because she “didn’t want to hurt his male ego.”

But Ronald Askew, 50, said his lawsuit had more to do with honesty and integrity than sex. He felt deceived, especially because he said he repeatedly asked her before their marriage to be honest with him and reveal any important secrets.

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If Ronald Askew believes total honesty is the foundation of good marriages, Fisher has a message for him: “Grow up.”

“Since when is anyone truly honest with anyone?” Fisher said. “Did this man really want her to say: ‘You’re short, fat and you’re terrible in bed?’ Much of the world is amazed at what they see as brutal honesty in America. She was operating on an entirely different set of social values, which much of the world operates on--delicacy as opposed to brutal honesty.”

Although the jury saw it as betrayal, “it is more likely she married him for other reasons, that she saw there were much more valuable things in the marriage,” Fisher said. “She undoubtedly married him because she loved him enough, and felt he was the right man for her.”

Failing to admit a lack of sexual desire does not necessary mean a person is being intentionally deceptive, said Lonnie Barbach, a psychologist and sex therapist in Mill Valley, near San Francisco.

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“People enter into marriages under false pretenses,” Barbach said. “They may not be absolutely clear at the time why they do it. She may not feel that she was deceiving him. We fool ourselves in so many ways to get something we need.”

However, New York psychologist and author John Ross said men and women should be able to expect mutual sexual attraction, and entering into marriage without telling your partner otherwise is deceptive.

“Often people get married for neurotic reasons and not out of passionate love. I don’t know if it’s a crime or not. That’s up to the lawyers. But it’s dishonest to be deceptive about your feelings,” Ross said.

Even the experts disagree about how important sex is to sustaining a marriage.

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“The best relationships are ones that are founded on a good romantic, healthy physical relationship,” Ross said. “That’s a part of a loving relationship between two people.”

Not necessarily, others say.

“There are lots of marriages that work well even though there is no sex,” Barbach said.

“Relationships are not perfect,” she said. “You have to pick the areas that are most satisfying to you. To some people, having no sex is inconceivable. But somebody else is using totally different criteria.”

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In fact, when women and men in their early 20s were asked in a survey to list the acts they find most romantic, 7 out of 10 answers were the same for both sexes. But one difference was especially intriguing: The men included making love in their top 10, while the women did not, according to the survey conducted by interpersonal communications researchers at Bowling Green University.

The Askews’ plight, however, does not necessarily confirm the old stereotype that men equate sex with love, while women do not, some psychologists warn.

“It is an unfair stereotype,” Barbach said. “Men and women may just have different ways of getting to the same thing. Women may think it’s more important to be loving and nurturing, and that will lead to sex. To men, sex may be their route to the loving and caring. But that doesn’t mean women don’t think sex is important.”

Andrew Christensen, a UCLA psychology professor who specializes in marriage and courtship issues, said: “It is absolutely the case, and it has been published in scientific journals, that a surprisingly high rate of happily married couples have various sexual problems. . . . I wouldn’t want to call people dysfunctional just because sex is not important to them, or just because it is very important to them.”

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“The trick is finding someone who has the same expectations that you do,” Barbach said.

Barbach, Christensen and Ross all emphasized that they have no details or personal knowledge of the Askews’ relationship and could not diagnose it. But they said it sounds at least superficially like an extreme manifestation of a problem--clashing sexual needs--that frequently triggers severe marital discord.

“There is a lot of arguing in marriages over sexual attraction issues. People are very sensitive about this and people get angry and get into an escalating situation,” said Ross, who wrote “The Male Paradox,” a book on men’s struggle between their aggressive and passive sides. “But I couldn’t imagine most men doing that (filing suit). It would come as a real blow to their ego.”

Some clashes, Barbach said, can be averted and it does not take a prenuptial contract, which is usually restricted to matters such as property settlements in the event of divorce.

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“It would be good for couples to talk about these things before they marry. So few couples go in with any intelligent thinking about the fundamental issues that go wrong,” said Barbach, who co-authored the self-help book “Going the Distance: Finding and Keeping Lifelong Love.”

Fisher’s research showed that it is mostly an American trait for people to marry for physical or romantic love. Coupling in many other cultures has a purely biological function: Breeding and raising children. In others, it is a social interaction, a matter of choosing a person--or having him or her chosen for you--for lifestyle reasons.

“So she (Bonnette Askew) certainly has not committed any heinous crime from an anthropological perspective,” Fisher said.

Fisher said she found the Askews’ story a fascinating epic of anger, love, sex and allegations of betrayal. “It would be a wonderful opera.”

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