A few months ago, Pat Robertson made headlines for saying that it was okay for a man to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s. “It’s a kind of death,” he claimed, thus the man was justified in breaking his marriage vows by divorce.
Granted, the story is more complicated than that and read in full context, his controversial remarks make more sense. Not more moral sense, but I can see his logic. The man in question was having an affair; Robertson seemed to reason that between infidelity and a divorce, the lesser of the two evils was a divorce.
But there’s a third choice, one that Robertson apparently overlooked. (I’ll cut him some slack for having to fumble for an answer to a question posed on live television; I couldn’t do it.) It involves death, just not the type of death he envisioned. For that marriage—or any other—to survive, there must be the death of our self-centeredness.
Mark Lukach writes about this in a poignant piece in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. His young wife developed a severe psychosis that lasted for several months. She had no history of mental illness, nothing to suggest that she would suddenly break from reality. During this time, her antipsychotic medications slowed her response time—and everything else—down. When she spoke, it was about suicide or love.
Lukach was left to care for a fragile woman, one who was very different from the woman he had married. All his worries and fears had to be hidden away. Everything revolved around the illness.
That’s the stuff of nightmares, not romantic fantasies. No one signs up for around the clock care of a psychotic wife when they say “I do.” It’s not glamorous to deal with delusions and paranoia and suicidal impulses, just like it’s not fun to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s. They aren’t the same person anymore. It’s like they died without really dying. It’s tempting, oh-so-tempting, to say that this “kind of” death is really death, and that it’s time to move on.
But what if this is a chance to die to selfishness?
That’s what Lukach did, and his words challenged me. I have a selfish desire to have everything my way, to have the ratio of relationship work be 50-50. I do the dishes, he takes out the trash, we take turns getting up for the 3 a.m. feedings or giving the kids’ baths. I never want to be the 100% to the other’s 0%. Ideally, marriage involves give and take in equal measure.
But the ideal and the reality don’t match, and sometimes we find ourselves being the caretaker when we’d rather be cared for. At that point, we have a choice. Do we continue to love our spouse and honor our vows, even when they cannot give us anything in return?
The noblest—and hardest—part of love is when it dies for the other person. And that death isn’t found in grand gestures. It’s found in the small, daily humilities that are the hallmark of selfless love.