January 12, 1981 12:00 PM

They were to all appearances the golden couple of American sport: Bruce Jenner, the boyishly handsome Olympic hero and Adonis of endorsements, and his stunning blond wife, Cbrystie, who supported Bruce as a stewardess while be trained for the 1976 decathlon in Montreal. When he was a warded the gold medal, Bruce triumphantly kissed Cbrystie and told the world, “We won.” Or did they? Shortly after the birth of their first child, Burt, in 1978, their marriage began to fall apart Bruce became increasingly restless, and Cbrystie felt guilty and frustrated professionally, since she bad stopped working to raise their son. After counseling and an attempt at reconciliation, they separated permanently a year ago. Chrystie was pregnant with their daughter, Casey, now 7 months old. As their divorce became final this week (and Bruce made plans to marry Elvis Presley’s former girlfriend Linda Thompson), Chrystie talked to Stephen Smuin for PEOPLE about the breakup, the painful publicity it has generated, and her self-discovery and growth as a 30-year-old independent woman.

I think Bruce probably takes more responsibility for our marriage failing than he needs to. He doesn’t really say it, but that’s my intuition. I am sorry because I don’t want him carrying that burden. His real moment of truth came when he told me he wanted out of the marriage. It was painful for him—and for me too. It was such a feeling of rejection. He told me it was not me, it was self-imposed. The pressures of his career, the public, his being away from his family. This led to guilt, especially about the family. So the best way to eliminate the guilt was to eliminate the source of the guilt. Had it not been for the demands of our new wealth and our concern over what people were thinking, our marriage might have had a better chance. But I am not totally convinced we’d still be together because we’re such different people. Bruce was the first to admit it. He’d say, “I am treating you terribly and I don’t know why.” So that was when we decided to live apart. Now he has achieved a certain public status and has a power with other people that is very alluring. You don’t get money and fame without paying for it, with time or with your soul.

We tried our hardest to patch it together with therapy during our reconciliation. I was very impressed with how open and honest Bruce was during therapy—much more than he had ever been with me. But there is no patching it together if someone is in love with somebody else. I told him I needed to know if he was in love with Linda Thompson. He said yes, and that he wanted a divorce. No ifs, ands or buts about it. I just fell apart. Expressing anger has not been one of my best skills. It just seemed like an explosion when he told me. I was devastated. I jumped in my car and drove 90 miles an hour to see my best friend. She was great. She pointed out to me things that she had never said to me before about how Bruce was growing apart from me. She didn’t minimize my rage, but she helped shift me into feeling less of a victim. I had grown familiar with the role of being a victim. If you become one, then you don’t have to feel guilty about it or responsible for what happens. I knew he was involved with Linda during our first separation, but I just didn’t think it was serious. Less than two weeks earlier we had spent our best Christmas ever together as a family at Tahoe. I kept asking, “How could he give me up that easily?”

Many women have had trouble with my being so devoted to Bruce’s winning the gold medal. Yes, I had to subjugate everything, but it was a goal I accepted. I wanted it as badly as Bruce. Now I see that it is everybody’s responsibility to set limits about what will be sacrificed in a marriage. To live vicariously through somebody else was very frustrating. It was a time when I needed to be growing and discovering who I was.

The power of money is so damned destructive. When people are making as much money as Bruce, they just think they can do what they want. I was making the money for a long time in our relationship, but I didn’t use money as a source of power against him. After Burt was born I used to tell Bruce how powerless and undignified I felt having no earning power. I hated that feeling. Prior to the Olympics it was “our money”; then afterwards it became “his” money.

When our marriage started crumbling around me I didn’t know why, and that contributed to my fear. I felt something must be wrong with me. I wasn’t able to support and love him as I wanted, and that contributed to more guilt. Then I saw a therapist and was able to focus on my unfulfilled needs, and that led me to a women’s group.

I really feel many of these problems would have come about in any marriage situation. It wasn’t just that Bruce was a famous athlete. It was the fact of my growing as a woman. You sell a package when you get married: I can cook, I can entertain, I can look good, I can be good in bed, I can do all these things. In a way I deceived Bruce about who I was during the marriage. I didn’t know who I was so I sold him what I thought he wanted. I became the image that I thought he wanted in a mate. Strip that package away and what have you got left? My own insecurity said, “If he finds out who I am, will he want me?” If I’d voiced my needs more, our marriage might have had a greater chance of working. But I didn’t. That is why I accept partial responsibility for the failure of the marriage.

When I found out I was pregnant Bruce raised the issue of an abortion, and I went along with him just as I always did. I had all the tests and had even paid for the operation. But one night I was out to dinner and my friend asked me why I wanted an abortion. I told him, “I don’t want the abortion.” He said, “Why are you having it?” And I said, “Because Bruce wants it.” He said, “You are having the abortion because the man that you are not going to be living with wants you to have it?” I thought, what an idiot I am. I wanted the child very, very much. But I was conditioned to make decisions that were best for him. It was totally my choice to have the baby. But since then Bruce has been very loving and accepting of Casey. We haven’t had any hassles over the kids.

After living through the divorce negotiations, I would advise other women to make their own decisions. A divorce is often the first time women ever take any control, the first time they ever talk to an attorney, or the first time they look at the books. Most women don’t know about insurance policies or stocks or whatever. I didn’t feel this way when the divorce began. I was originally very concerned that Bruce think well of me. I thought that if I stepped quietly out the back door he would always say what a nice girl I was. Then I began to realize that regardless of what I took or did not take, he wasn’t going to speak highly of me.

This has changed my relationship with men. I don’t give anything now, but I receive a lot. I look for somebody that puts no demands on me at all. The pressure of making somebody else happy is too much. That is one of the reasons I would hesitate to remarry. I am too emotionally bankrupt in my life right now to give. My fulfillment 10 years ago was totally through a man. Today the important things in my life are my kids, my design work, my friends and my running, and I feel fulfilled by those. My future is very bright. I am optimistic. I have a much clearer perspective of who I am. I’m not this sad, helpless, weak martyr that has been depicted in the press. I feel independent and I have a lot of energy. I am extremely motivated right now. I know that I will succeed: It is just a matter of time.

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