I did not set out to spend a lot of time talking about marriage here, but it seems that everywhere I look lately there is something in the news that relates to this ongoing discussion of what marriage is, how it is defined, and how it might possibly be redefined. Unfortunately, most of that news is not good news. Yesterday’s posting about a young celebrity choosing to abandon a successful career as a lingerie model out of respect for her husband, her marriage and her faith is a rare gem in what is quickly becoming a garbage heap of stories about the efforts to destroy marriage as we have traditionally known it–and as God has designed it.
Another twist on the movement to make marriage more individually defined is the recent discussion on whether or not marriage vows should be binding when one member of the couple experiences severe illness–physical or mental. Traditional marriage vows, of course, have long included the statement that the marriage commitment was “in sickness and in health” and that the commitment would last “until death do us part.” Apparently, though, there are some who feel that perhaps that should not always be the case.
This issue first came to my attention last summer. Pat Robertson, former presidential candidate, founder and chancellor of Regent University, and well known religious broadcaster, said on his flagship show The 700 Club that Alzheimer’s disease is a form of death, and therefore is grounds for ending a marriage. His comments came in response to a caller. When asked what advice a man should give a friend who started seeing another woman after his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Robertson said, “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.” He went on to say that marriage vows are “until death do us part” and Alzheimer’s is a “kind of death.” (Robertson later said he was misunderstood, but it sounds pretty clear to me).
Last month The Washington Post Magazine ran a story about a woman whose husband had a heart attack and then suffered a serious brain injury. She eventually decided to divorce him, but she still takes care of him with her second husband.
There is a new movie being released tomorrow, called The Vow. The premise of the movie is a young couple getting in a car accident, and the wife suffering such serious injuries that she not only does not recognize her husband but does not believe she is married. Apparently the movie is based on a true story.
Darlene Fozard Weaver, an ethicist at Villanova University, suggests this when asked about marriage vows: “There’s always an obligation, I think, to keep faith with your spouse but the shape that that can take, morally speaking, can vary.” That, if you ask me, is code for “whatever works for you.” Again, relativism rules the day. After all, the woman in the story referenced above who divorced her husband, said this: “In the context of my faith, I am standing by him and with him. I am fortunate to have found someone who will share this with me.” So, in her mind, she is keeping faith with her spouse.
I haven’t seen The Vow, obviously, but my understanding of the story on which it is based is that the husband continued to love his wife, to care for her, and to help her through the challenges that resulted from the accident–and eventually he was again accepted by her as her husband. That, in my opinion, is as it should be. That is what love is. That is honoring a vow and a commitment.
I have never been in a position of having my spouse suffer an injury or a mental illness, and I pray I never will be, so I cannot relate to what it would be like to have a spouse who no longer knew me. I have no doubt that it is incredibly hard, frustrating and painful. What I do know, though, is that this entire discussion is simply further evidence of how we are slipping down that proverbial slope. When we start trying to find ways of redefining death in order to justify our wish to abandon one partner so we can have another–one who is more ideal, more able to meet our needs and doesn’t simply require us to care for him or her while receiving nothing in return–we are heading in a dangerous direction. It sounds very much like the idea of negotiating a personally-beneficial marriage contract, as some of the “experts” suggested in the discussion on open marriage. I can think of no support in the Scripture for the notion that once a marriage relationship is no longer what we hoped it would be due to a terrible tragedy that has robbed a spouse from the ability to know or respond to his/her mate that it would be fine to end that marriage.
The good news is that according to recent studies, the vast majority of married brain-injured patients remain wed even after the injury, according to a report in USA Today. My hope and prayer is that that will continue to be the case.