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Divorce and the Living Death

Several weeks ago, Pat Robertson made some comments on his show the 700 club that rocked the Christian blogosphere. Several weeks later people are still writing about it. I'm hardly a regular watcher of the 700 Club(!) but if you read any news site or blog that discusses theology, religion and politics, or other related issues from a Protestant perspective it's hard to have missed it. Since I'm not only a Protestant but also a grad student studying philosophy of religion (meaning: what people think about God and why is actually very interesting to me), so perhaps it's not so surprising I heard the story third- or fourth-hand.

The situation: A viewer of the 700 club asked Pat Robertson for advice about how to handle a situation where the (a) wife had Alzheimer's to the point she no longer recognized the husband, and (b) the husband wanted to take up with another woman he had fallen in love with. Contrary to the headlines (within the Christian-specific press and also mainstream [video warning]), Robertson did not say divorce was "Ok." He recognized that this was a very difficult situation and then made two observations. First, if he wanted a romantic relationship with another woman he needed to divorce his wife and still maintain his responsibilities for her care; and also, that he wouldn't judge someone who did this. I hear pity and empathy, not a doctrinal statement in that. When pressed on the issue, he explained that Alzheimer's was a kind of death. Essentially, I think he was saying that it was understandable how someone might feel this way, that it was beyond his ken to pass judgment there, but that if he was going to move out of that marriage he had to do it right - a clean separation so he could be fair to his new wife, and also not abandoning his financial obligation to his ex-wife.

It's very rare that I'll agree with what Robertson says, but I actually have a kind of begrudging respect for him. This isn't the first time Robertson has gotten in trouble with the Christian right. Back in 2001 he said of the Chinese one-child policy (often coupled with mandatory abortions) that the Chinese were just doing what they thought necessary. Just last year he criticized harsh jail penalties for people who used cannabis. And I've heard other comments from him where he was offering personal advice, where he didn't condemn the kind of thing that conservative Christians expect him to condemn. He's not a relativist, but he recognizes that behind those blanket rules there are real humans and real situations that are quite messier than the principles themselves. That's a kind of moral courage, and I respect him for it. In this brave new world of bioethics ponderables at both ends of life, Christianity - and every group - needs people like him if we are to stay relevant.

What about the thing with Alzheimer's and it being a kind of death? I've never known anyone with the disease, certainly not well enough to feel its full affects. But I have known people who actually died of a brain tumor. I remember the sensation of mourning them before they died, and how in some ways death felt almost like a formality. In many other gut-wrenching ways it was not, and in retrospect I think I underestimated just how final the actual death could be, even when the person who died no longer felt quite like I once knew. Alzheimer's seems slower, more excruciating, and with less physical illness to distract from that reality. Certainly it is one thing to survive that for a month and another to survive it for a decade. And so while I don't understand the illness well enough to know whether Robertson's characterization is accurate (is the person's mind/soul/whatever ever so truly gone that their identity is dead?), I have enough empathy to understand that it's not the kind of situation I should be passing judgment over.

Quite aside from that issue, I think this firestorm does offer some interesting food for thought on another issue. See, most Christians I know accept two points that I think make Robertson's position not so far out as it might initially seem. First, when a spouse dies they expect to be reunited in heaven (assuming the spouse is "saved"), and second, that it's okay to remarry after your spouse is biologically dead. At funerals Christians often emphasize that death is not permanent and that while it's sad it's not a real loss.

What that suggests to me is that most Christians expect the relationships to continue. After all, if you are resurrected but your spouse no longer seems like your spouse, if that relationship doesn't survive, that is a very real loss. (I remember being emotionally horrified at a classmate's paper about what it was like to be a disembodied soul, precisely because it suggested the possibility that our relationships wouldn't continue.) The bottom line is that on the one hand Christians expect to take up with their first spouse again someday; but in the meantime they also think we should be able to have another marriage - which will also persist past death. There's a reason that in the Tolkien legendarium Miriel had to agree to stay dead before Finwe could remarry: the other option has pretty radical implications for monogamy. And it's precisely this other option that Christians seem okay with. It's pretty extreme (and rare!) to say you can't remarry even after your spouse has actually died if you want to.

So we come back to this question of whether the wife with Alzheimer's is still the same woman the husband married. I keep hearing slippery-slope arguments - should less severe dementia be considered a kind of death? A stroke? Physical mobility problems? Blindness? But I find them unconvincing. Alzheimer's as characterized seems permanent. There's no coming back from it. And it also seems so radical that the person you married is no longer reachable to you. And relationships take two people. This isn't about getting out of a tough or inconvenient situation, it is about asking whether that other person still exists. Not in the sense of their same clump of cells is still breathing, but in the sense that who they were is still there to relate to. If they're not - and that's a pretty big if! - I'd say Robertson just might have a point.

I'm curious, what do other people think? What would you say to someone who was against divorce but had a spouse who was in a coma or a vegetative state? Or in an extreme illness that pretty much obliterated the relationship? (I may be wrong about whether Alzheimer's is such a relationship, btw - I'm hardly an expert.)

This entry was originally posted at http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/10773.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 7th, 2011 10:48 am (UTC)
One of the things to bear in mind about advanced Alzheimer's (based on family experience) is that not only may the person with it not recognise their spouse any more, they may well at times be very unpleasant, highly aggressive, even violent towards them. In many cases someone with advanced Alzheimer's really can't be safely cared for at home any more (especially since, given the nature of the disease, their spouse is themselves usually elderly and may be frail).

I have read articles by partners and carers of people with Alzheimer's describing a journey that was rather like that of bringing up a small child - but in reverse, with the person gradually regressing into making less and less sense, displaying toddler-like obsessions and tantrums, asking endless repetitive questions, and slowly losing all the child's hard-won capabilities of language, self-feeding, toileting and so on. (It's a cruel, cruel condition.) So in a sense, the former partner has become a child or dependent, and that remakes the relationship from a marriage of equals to something equivalent to a parent/child relationship.

At the same time, one of the frustrating things about it is that there can be occasional flashes of the "original" person - suddenly they will recognise loved ones and may have a few minutes of seemingly quite lucid conversation - but then they're gone again. And as you say, it's only ever going one way; at the moment there's no treatment that does any more than slow it, and no cure.

I would certainly not judge anyone who had a partner with advanced Alzheimer's, or in a PVS, entering into another romantic relationship. Divorce itself I'm not sure about the logistics of, because how can someone who isn't mentally competent agree to a divorce? (I suppose in most jurisdictions there are forms of divorce where as long as one party files for it, it will happen after a period of time regardless of the other party's wishes.) At the same time, I'd agree absolutely that the person who is still compos mentis retains the moral and financial responsibility to ensure the best quality of care they can for their former partner - who has, effectively, become a child within the relationship.

I think as Western society lives longer, and conditions like Alzheimer's affect more and more people, this is going to become a big issue for contemporary ethicists, theologians, etc. (Along with assisted dying, but that's another whole can of worms...)
Oct. 7th, 2011 01:35 pm (UTC)
I'm unaware of any jurisdiction in the United States that requires both parties to consent to a divorce. The basic principle of no-fault divorce is that one party merely has to cite "irreconcilable differences", and the divorce will be granted, regardless of the other party's wishes.

Division of marriage assets is another matter. I'd assume this guy has power of attorney for his wife by this point, but still. If I were the judge receiving this divorce petition, I'd feel icky about letting one party divide both parties' assets, even if that were a legal option and even if I were satisfied that this guy still cared for his ex-wife and still fully understood his moral obligation to her (which, frankly, I expect he does, considering that he had such a crisis of faith over it that he called Pat Robertson to ask for an okay about leaving his invalid wife for another woman). One possible solution that occurs to me is the court ordering the establishment of a trust that will see to the ex-wife's financial well-being.
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