When Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson told a caller on his TV show that a married man dating another woman because his wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s “should divorce and start all over,” it caused a predictable reaction. Even his co-host reminded Robertson that couples vow to remain together “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer.” But Robertson did not back off: “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because, here is a loved one, this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly, that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone.” Alzheimer’s, he said, “is a kind of death.” And he said he would not put a “guilt trip on someone who divorced for such a reason.”
What to make of this? Conservative Christian leaders were swift to condemn Robertson’s remarks. But as the New York Times reported, many doctors and patient advocates had a more complex response – some suggesting that he had broached an important subject, how spouses and other family members of dying patients can prevent their lives from being engulfed and start to move on.
How do we reconcile the practical and moral conflicts in Robertson’s advice?
Here’s this week’s question: Is it ever right to divorce a spouse suffering from Alzheimer’s? What is the morally acceptable thing for people who develop new relationships while caring for a spouse in the last stages of Alzheimer’s?
The New Testament prescribes two justifications for divorce: adultery (Matthew 5:31-32) and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15). I believe that abuse constitutes a third reason for divorce, as life must be protected (Exodus 20:13).
Clearly, a spouse in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s is incapable of adultery, abandoning the marriage, or initiating abuse. Pat Robertson apparently views such a person as functionally or relationally dead, so that the healthy spouse is essentially a widow or widower and is free to marry again.
I understand this logic, but must ask two questions. First, short of physical death, when is a person “relationally dead”? Who makes this determination? Does this approach allow us to abandon ill spouses whenever they are unable to meet our needs?
Second, does Robertson’s position change the way we view the marriage relationship? We live in a contractual culture, where relationships are conditionally based on meeting expectations and can be ended as we wish. A covenant, by contrast, is unconditional. Marriage has traditionally been viewed by the Christian faith as an eternal covenant sanctified by God. To end this covenant short of physical death is to treat it as a contract we can void when the partner no longer fulfills his or her obligations.
Does this view sentence the healthy spouse to years of unrequited toil and pain? I believe that God redeems all he allows. As a pastor I watched spouses in the very situation we’re discussing this week. Those who remained faithful to their afflicted husband or wife inevitably grew stronger in their faith, character, and witness.
Robertson is right: Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease. But I believe God gives us grace to love even those who can no longer love us in return. When death finally comes, we will have grief but not guilt. And grief is the price of love.