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When marriage meets Alzheimer’s

Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 in Aging, Divorce, Happiness, Honesty, Kat, Marriage, Relationships

So last week, I was feeling kind of cynical about marriage, well, at least Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries’. OK, maybe marriage in general. But, maybe we’re going about marriage all wrong; maybe we can tweak marriage so that we’re happier in them so there won’t be as much divorce. Seems easy enough.

Like a lot of people, I was floored when uber-Christian Pat Robertson (he of the Christian Broadcasting network) announced that it’s OK to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s because the disease is “a kind of death.”

Robertson advised a man whose wife has Alzheimer’s:

“I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”

Really? Well so much for agreeing to stay together “for better or worse.” “in sickness and in health” and “till death do us part.” Why even vow to do that if we can ignore it when it’s convenient? But, of course, we do ignore our vows in ways just as surprising as what Robertson is proposing:

We cheat because our spouse has a life-threatening illness and we can’t deal.

We cheat because we’re in a sexless marriage.

We cheat because we can.

And, we cheat because we don’t even agree on what cheating is!

But, maybe we’re not allowing for what Robertson addresses; when the marital rules are changed by forces beyond what we can control. Yes, the “for better or worse” part; better or worse for whom? And does that have to be cheating?

Remember a few years ago when retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced that her now-deceased husband, John, who was living with Alzheimer’s, had found a new love at the nursing home where he lived? She was happy about it because he was happy; the essence of a good marriage. As we baby boomers age, a lot more of us will be facing something like that.

She was accepting of her husband’s choice — he had Alzeimer’s and therefore “didn’t know better,” and  many thought how sweet and kind that was of her. So, should we be so hard on someone who does “know better” even if his partner doesn’t know?

Isn’t loving someone “for better or worse” supporting each other’s happiness? What if your spouse didn’t have the mental capacity to decide what was “for better or worse”?

We promise to care for each other “for better or worse” and “in sickness and in health” and “till death do us part,” but not many of us mean it. That doesn’t mean the vows are flawed — we are.

Maybe we need to change those vows to something that we’ll actually follow — that we’ll love and care for each other as long our partner is an equal participant in the marriage.

Does having a spouse with Alzheimer’s or dementia — versus something like cancer or multiple sclerosis any other illness in which the mind is still willing but the body is not — change the marital vows?

  • Is Robertson wrong or right?
  • What about O’Connor?

Bring on the comments

  1. Jim
    Twitter: mobilene

    I don’t think Alzheimer’s or dementia should be an out on the vows — but if I’m ever married to someone with either, ask me again then.

  2. Kat Wilder says:

    We ignore our #vows in ways as #disturbing as #Robertson suggests about #divorce and #Alzheimer's

  3. Kat Wilder says:

    Jim — So it’s one of those situational things, then?

  4. The Observer says:

    “Being there” is a huge part of any relationship. When the mind is obscured by disease such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, then that’s a one way street, no one recovers. The Jesus folks would have us observe the “…what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Way to display the old double speak, Rev. Robertson.

    But committing for life, in the face of mental debilitation, is more about providing the physical infrastructure to the one who is adversely affected. You owe a life partner the support. But as to your needs not being met–as long as you don’t abandon your spouse, why not outsource them beyond the scope of the marriage. Ask yourself: “If I was the one unable to comprehend my surroundings, relationships, and memory–would I really mind if my spouse formed another bond with someone who could provide comfort (yes and sex) and companionship?”

    Caveat: that you continue to provide for their well-being, whether you divorce them or not. What goes around, comes around. Try the golden rule, “treat others as you would want to be treated”. Judging people would involve actually walking that mile in their moccasins before rendering your opinion. And each of us being a unique individual means different strokes for different folks. But honoring a life commitment can be divided in cases such as Alzheimer’s. Into their physical needs and continuing visitations and being involved in their maintenance. Abandonment is different than moving on and regaining control of your life. My experience with Alzheimer’s patients is that life is a fog, nasty, brutish and not short enough. My empathy overflows for those with friends/relatives/spouses dealing with this disease scenario. Not fair. Has to be dealt with. ttfn

  5. Jim
    Twitter: mobilene

    Kat – What I’m trying to say is that it’s easy for me to be on my high horse when I’ve not lived through the situation. I’ve lived through a few situations where my behavior did not match my pre-situation high-horse pronunciations. I like to think I have strong enough character to love a woman through any illness life may bring.

  6. Kat Wilder says:

    TO — True, abandonment would be unthinkable. So, Robertson is getting a lot of heat for his thinking. I’m not saying I agree with him, but I do have empathy for those in that situation.

    Jim — All of us find it easy to b on our high horse if we’re not dealing with it; I think we all change our tune when we’re forced to.

  7. Arlene says:

    I think this is a really personal choice, not a one rule fits all kind of situation…I think as long as the sick person is taken care of with love, and is left wanting for nothing, its ok for the other partner to keep on living.

    On another note – Kat – I tried to email you (using your email from the about page, but got it back) I would appreciate it if you contacted me via my blog or email..

  8. Kat Wilder says:

    Arlene — your comment went into spam (sorry) and I just now saw it. I do agree it’s a personal choice; couples should probably talk about that and have something in writing, Still, I imagine the judgment you’d get from others would make life very hard, indeed.