Pat Robertson, Alzheimer’s, and Divorce

USA Today reports that Pat says divorce is okay if one’s spouse has Alzheimer’s. When asked about vows such as “until death do us part” he opined that Alzheimer’s is “a kind of death.” He went on to say that the departing spouse should arrange proper care for the disease victim, but that to move on to another marriage is acceptable.

Without doubt, this and many other questions about whether or when to divorce an diminished spouse come wrapped in a plethora of emotions. Some see the caretaker spouse as chained, unable to proceed with life as the ill spouse slowly wastes away. Though Alzheimer’s carries with it a loss of memory, changes in personality, and other degenerative aspects, other illnesses are difficult as well. I could not begin to list them all – MS, debilitating arthritis, cancer, brain damage from an accident. Some illnesses affect parts of the body other than the brain, some primarily the brain, and some illnesses attack several things in the body including the brain. I suppose that if Pat were to think it through, he might conclude that claiming Alzheimer’s justifies divorce could easily be extrapolated to justifying divorce for anything affecting the brain that changes a person’s ability to think, remember, or reason.

If you read the USA web page linked to above, you saw that Pat took a verbal beating by those who commented. One responder wrote, “I find his advice shocking – I am an atheist and I take those vows to my spouse more seriously than Robertson does!” Another wrote, “My dad has metastatic lung cancer which has caused him to have a brain tumor.  For 4-6 months he has been mentally impaired–equivalent to end-stage dementia.  He will probably live another 4-6 months.  Are you saying that because he has lost his faculties, my mom can divorce him?  Well, she never would.  She has morals.  You should be ashamed. ”

It would be better, in my opinion, to deal with the question rather than to attack or defend Robertson. In Pat’s defense, it should be remembered that his statement came in response to a question asked of him on camera. My guess is that it wasn’t something he’s thought about carefully, but that he reacted to the immediacy of the question in that environment. Since then he has had nothing more to say on the subject, though it will not be surprising if he or his organization follows through with a more carefully crafted statement.

Having been on the firing line and asked unanticipated questions, I empathize with Pat’s situation. There are things I’ve said in interviews on national TV, radio, and otherwise that I wish I could erase from everyone’s memory banks…especially mine. Sometimes you answer with your emotions rather than with your logic. After a while to think it through, you find yourself seeing the flaws in your answer. I can’t say that Pat feels that way, but it certainly wouldn’t be shocking if he does.

My thoughts? Well, for whatever they’re worth, here goes.

On many occasions in life I’ve watched a friend – male or female – slowly lose a spouse to death. Some of those times the disease took the mind long before it took the life. I recall one of my friends whose wife took years to die saying, “It’s like being married to your grandmother. I bathe her, feed her, change her. I’m still young and viable but, obviously, I have no sex life. I’m still alive and still have needs. I love her very much, but you cannot begin to imagine how hard it is to live like this when there are women – mostly church women – who constantly let me know that I need a little ‘ministering to’ they are more than willing.” At first I was appalled by his selfishness. However, as I thought it through, I realized that because of his love for his dying wife, and his faith in God, he didn’t act on those needs. He wasn’t justifying leaving or cheating. He simply needed a non-judgmental friend who could understand his ordeal as well as the terrible ordeal of his wife. When I finally understood that, I was able to be that friend. I dropped my judgmental attitude, understood his humanity, and became a confidant as he loyally stood by his wife until her death.

BUT, stay he did.

My father died of pancreatic cancer. It is true that particular cancer works rapidly, but even if it had taken years for my father to die, my mother would never have abandoned him. If the situation had been reversed and Mom had been sick, Dad would have been right there. When people promise to live together as husband and wife, that oath HAS to include good times and bad. The worst thing I could think of would be for my wife Alice to leave me at the time I most needed someone to care. Yes, there is a different dimension when that difficulty includes mental or emotional problems. But I believe the vow is sacred, no matter what, and that we and all others in the world should view marriage as a lifetime commitment, not one made until it becomes uncomfortable to stay.

Are there situations where marriage should end? Yes. I’ve written about them before. However, they do not involve people having things happen to their bodies or brains that the cannot control. They involve someone sinning and refusing to stop. Otherwise, it is “until death do us part.”

I think we’ll hear that same thing from Pat in a few days. Even if we don’t, one off the mark statement doesn’t negate a lifetime of good.



1 Comment

  1. Danny Gill

    You’re right on target, Joe, although you may give Robertson more credit that I would. I’ve heard him say many things that are just loony. But my attitude toward him is more an indictment of my character than anything else.