Pat Robertson on divorce and Alzheimer's: Is it OK to leave your sick wife?

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 16 2011 8:55 AM

The After-Wife

Pat Robertson says Alzheimer's can justify divorce because your spouse is "gone." Is he right?

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Yeah, I know, if you respect that vow, but you say "till death do us part," this is a kind of death. So that's what he's saying, is that she's like—but this is an ethical question that is beyond my ken to tell you. But I certainly wouldn't put a guilt trip on you if you decided that you had to have companionship. You're lonely, and you're asking for some companionship, as opposed to—but what a grief. I know one man who went to see his wife every single day, and she didn't recognize him one single day, and she would complain that he never came to see her. And it's really hurtful, because they say crazy things. … It is a terribly difficult thing for somebody, and I can't fault them for wanting some kind of companionship. And if he says in a sense she is gone, he's right. It's like a walking death. But get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer, because I recognize the dilemma and the last thing I'd do is condemn you for taking that kind of action.

That's the whole text of the conversation. Robertson wasn't talking about terminal illness, much less sickness in general. He wasn't even talking broadly about Alzheimer's. He was talking about dementia so advanced that the afflicted spouse could no longer recognize her partner. This is different from other kinds of illness. It isn't just a loss of predicates such as mobility or strength. It's a loss of the subject herself. Four times, Robertson described her as "gone." Twice, he called it "death." You may disagree, but from the viewpoint he was articulating, this wasn't a question of abandonment. The loved one was already departed.

Second, Robertson wasn't talking about bugging out when the going gets tough. In the story he recounted, the diseased woman's husband had visited her every day, enduring her reproaches and the loneliness of being a perpetual stranger. The husband had given love and labor. The question was whether at some point, his obligations changed.

Third, Robertson didn't say divorce was better than staying with an afflicted spouse. He said divorce was better than adultery. In the situation presented to him, the husband was already seeing another woman.  Robertson's answer was that the man should get a divorce "if he's going to do something." Again, you may object. But the point of Robertson's answer was that the man shouldn't go on dating while married.

Fourth, Robertson didn't advocate divorce. He said he wouldn't "condemn" or "put a guilt trip" on someone who did it under the circumstances. And he stipulated that the obligation to provide custodial care couldn't be broken.

For these comments, Robertson has been denounced not just as a hypocrite by liberals, but as a heretic by Christians. The Gospel of Mark, as quoted on Robertson's Web site, forbids divorce:

Some Pharisees came and tried to trap [Jesus] with this question: "Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?" Jesus answered them with a question: "What did Moses say in the law about divorce?" "Well, he permitted it," they replied. "He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away." But Jesus responded, "He wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But `God made them male and female' from the beginning of creation. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.' Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together." Later, when [Jesus] was alone with his disciples in the house, they brought up the subject again. He told them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her."

Joel Hunter, a prominent evangelical pastor, sees no wiggle room in those words. "We can all rationalize" that it's "OK to divorce our spouse if circumstances become very different or inconvenient," Hunter told ABC News. But "we have to stop trying to mischaracterize what Scripture says for our own convenience." Hunter worried that "you could do this for anything." For example: "My husband watches and plays video games, and so he has left the marriage, and it's kind of like a death."


Come on. Advanced Alzheimer's is no video game. And the spouse who is no longer recognized faces an ordeal much more excruciating than inconvenience. What's striking in Robertson's answer is that he gets this. Instead of quoting the Bible, he thinks of someone he knows: the man whose wife lost her mind. He celebrates a love that endured for decades but, in the same breath, affirms the awful reality that the person who had lived in that body is gone. He grapples with the paradox of walking death. He struggles to reconcile duty, effort, and pain. He gropes for an interpretation of marriage vows that won't imprison the surviving partner. He offers sympathy and withholds condemnation. He says the dilemma's complexity exceeds his powers of ethical judgment.

This isn't how an ideologue thinks. It's how a liberal thinks. He faces the reality of human experience in all its contours and contradictions. And he's willing to let that experience complicate his principles.