'Homewreckers' face New York's fury at a very public wedding

It is the world's window on the love lives of Manhattan's social elite, the directory of high-society marriages that seals any Upper East Sider's status as a true member of the establishment. But now the serene grandeur of The New York Times's weekly "Vows" wedding section has been rudely disrupted by a celebration of a relationship that tore two families apart.

The wedding in question was that of Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla, she a television newscaster in New York City, he a powerful marketing executive at the entertainment giant Time Warner.

Their story – "What happens when love comes at the wrong time?" – has unleashed a torrent of online invective that even the holiday weekend has not quelled. Now Mr Partilla is cursing their eagerness to have their marriage celebrated in the society pages, and Ms Riddell's furious ex-husband has lashed out at the Times for allowing the happy couple to "whitewash" the past. It is all terribly unbecoming.

Even the writer of the Vows section piece admitted it was a "messy" one. The couple met and fell in love while still married to other people. Each had children. In fact, the families were neighbours and good friends. But their tale, illustrated with glamorous photos from their marriage ceremony at an exclusive hotel and featuring several of their children, was presented as the very model of the modern divorce. "The part that's hard for people to believe is we didn't have an affair," Ms Riddell told the newspaper. "I did a terrible thing as honourably as I could," Mr Partilla said.

The tale provoked instant criticism in the comments section of the newspaper's website, with reader after reader condemning the couple as selfish – if not actually for leaving their spouses, then at least for advertising the fact to the world. "If the couple had a sense of decency and wished to truly respect the feelings of their ex-spouses, they would have denied themselves the pleasure of having their 15 minutes of fame in The New York Times," said one typical poster.

Others asked when did the Times "hire Perez Hilton" and start to "glorify homewrecking"? And an ordained marriage officiant wrote: "Why publish this, a story that cuckolds not only the institution of marriage but the unceremoniously discarded spouses?"

Within days, the story had become a full-on internet phenomenon, while the Today show on NBC television dedicated a whole section to the couple, complete with a psychologist calling the Vows piece the "confessional" of a couple wracked with guilt, and comparisons to the wife-swap gossip of pop star Shania Twain's love life. Then a bombshell: the angry intervention of Bob Ennis, Ms Riddell's first husband – whose marriage to the TV presenter had itself been featured in the Times 15 years earlier.

"The primary story here is not that interesting," Mr Ennis told Jeff Bercovici, a media blogger on the Forbes.com website. "People lie and cheat and steal all the time. That's a fact of life. But rarely does a national news organisation give them an unverified megaphone to whitewash it.

"You could easily try to brush this off as a kind of self-evidence, a self-serving act by a couple of narcissistic people who for whatever reason have a need to try to persuade people, except for the fact that there are lots of children involved."

For all the invective, though, not everyone has come out against the couple in the swirling debate about modern marriage that Vows has triggered. "This is a situation that happens every single day around the world," said one comment on the Times site. "It's devastating, painful and quite frankly, there's just no easy answer no matter how you look at it. The saving grace to this is that Carol and John did not actually cheat on their spouses or lie to them. They told them the truth. They were adults who acted like adults. I wish them a long and happy marriage."