Was Pat Robertson Right?


Last updated: September 18, 2011
Ewige Liebe

Few situations strain caregivers like the longtime, debilitating illness of a spouse while you're still vital yourself.

And that's exactly the issue that got a bit lost amid last week's furor over fundamentalist Christian leader Pat Robertson's comments that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's is morally feasible because the disease is "a kind of death." There was lots of talk but no frank discussion of the very real dilemmas of the unlived lives of longtime Alzheimer's caregivers.

On websites and at water coolers, commenters lambasted the very idea of breaking marital vows. Unclear, however, is how many of them were speaking from the shoes of an advanced Alzheimer's caregiver. Last year Caring.com's Family Advisor columnist Carol O'Dell ignited a similar furious debate when she urged the depressed wife of a disabled man to allow herself to live her own life in a post about the stress of a sexless, loveless marriage. And she wasn't even talking about sexual affairs.

All couples, in health as well as in sickness, have to negotiate a balance between the interests of partner, partnership, and self. Caregiving throws this balance out of whack. As caregivers struggle to act selflessly, the "self" part gets blurred -- and mental health, physical health, sexuality, career, other relationships, and more may be sacrificed. Advanced Alzheimer's caregiving is even trickier in this regard because the disability can extend to your loved one's very awareness of you and your marriage.

Many loving spouses would never dream of divorce or infidelity and find ways to live their lives as both Alzheimer's caregivers and fulfilled humans. Other loving spouses find the going much harder, and why shouldn't they? They're only human. Still others, I suspect, can't even begin to articulate their struggle to define the quality of life they deserve, because they feel (as the Robertson controversy indicates), that it's socially unacceptable to even have such thoughts.

Which is unfortunate. As geriatric psychiatrist Ken Robbins said in a recent Caring.com article about how your sex life may change when a partner has dementia, "There are a lot more questions than answers."

Like these:

  • If you're married to someone who doesn't recognize you as a mate, or can no longer comprehend what marriage is, is that a marriage?
  • If your relationship can't possibly be equal, is that still a marriage?
  • If your loved one can't have sex, is that a marriage?
  • If you don't want to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer's, is an affair ever viable?
  • Or does "in sickness and in health" apply no matter what, and even if your loved one has Alzheimer's for 5, 10, or 15 years?
  • Should more of us be discussing this with our partners before the first hints of mild cognitive impairment appear?

"It's a significant issue for couples, and one that will continue to grow," Dr. Robbins says.

That much, we can all agree on.

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30 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

about 1 year ago

I have to say I have been a Bible believing Christian for MANY years. I am not a theology student, however I do not agree with Pat Robertson... I think to divorce one's spouse because of Alzheimer's disease or dementia is cruel!!! My Bible says be kind to one another, not cruel. My husband has type 2 diabetes, he is tired a lot and many things are different.. However I will love and cherish him as long as he and I live!!!


Anonymous said about 2 years ago

May we each cherish and honor our own deeply held beliefs and live our lives accordingly. May we also honor others as sincere and loving beings trusting they too are making difficult decisions equally as heart wrenching. May God walk beside us all providing strength and insight for each day. Amen.


about 3 years ago

Life is full of reasons to walk away from difficult or hard situations. Don't worry I can gurantee if they walk about from this there is surely something waiting around the corner, to prove to be even more challenging. What is Pat talking about? God will take care of this person, no worries


about 3 years ago

Alz / Dementia definitely change the dynamics of a marriage, but so does the simple passage of time. Nobody is exactly the same today as they were 5, 10, 20 years ago. I stand firmly by the words I vowed to my dear husband, "in sickness and in health... til death do us part." However, I also know that it's the commitment that is important, not necessarily the piece of paper that makes it legal. I know of a very dear woman who divorced her husband so that he could get insurance and financial assistance, and not deplete their entire life's savings, leaving nothing for her to live on later. The piece of paper changed, but their commitment to each other endured right to the very end. If you weren't aware of the legalities, you wouldn't have known anything changed. As far as the legal system was concerned, they may have been divorced, but in God's eyes, they were still honoring their marriage. So I stand on the side of disagreeing with Pat Robertson and choosing to honor my marriage, no matter how Alz changes things for us.


about 3 years ago

I may have commented out of turn because my husband still knows me, talks to me, says he loves me, wants to be with me etc. So I don't want to judge somebody who wants to create a new intimate relationship with somebody else after their spouse is say institutionalized, doesn't know them at all, etc. Whether that's sexual or not isn't my business. But I DO know from my past experience that sexuality is a strong enough urge to make people think they want things that they may regret later, and in at least one instance in my own experience I was appalled at myself for what in retrospect was frankly USING another human being in this way, taking advantage of his crush on me when I had just been left by my husband. This man may have SAID he understood my situation and wasn't expecting anything, but in retrospect I know I hurt him deeply when I "dumped" him. With all these theories about having affairs, I don't think any of us wants to forget that by definition there is a THIRD living, breathing, emotional human being involved. Regarding the financial stuff--it might seem like I'm reversing myself, but if you are struggling financially and divorce would ease that situation for you (and anyone else affected), then who cares? Do it! It's a legal contract, a financial arrangement. It doesn't "create" commitment, it symbolizes commitment. If it doesn't work, fix it. But I still think these are all different matters and they don't necessarily connect with each other in a nice religiously defined way.


about 3 years ago

When will religion stop putting God into there own words to suit their belief. God knows us and loves us - knows our hearts and our integrity. Time and time again carers are told to take care of themselves. If the divorce is because the spouse can be cared for in a proper situation, and the carer can live a full and meaningful life surely that is a good solution. Where does it say the husband will abandon the wife? He can still go on loving her and visiting her, and with the help of a new partner to support him he could be stronger. The law is an Ass and often the church is an Ass we should look into our hearts and take responsibility for our own actions. Religion is there for guidance and human interpretation it is not an absolute. Our thoughts and actions are between us and our God. Pat Robertson his giving his thoughts from his Christian perspective that's all. He should be commended for opening his heart in compassion.


Anonymous said about 3 years ago

I believe clarification on the permanency of the caring process was needed from the Christian community. "Family" is forever, not just when things are going well.


about 3 years ago

I do not care for tele evangelists as a rule, but there is one evangelist, Billy Graham who is exemplary in his living and his example. He is a true disciple of Christ Jesus. He presents the gospel of Jesus Christ in a purely biblical and simple manner and has been very effective in winning souls. Though mainly we should not look at other people, we should merely look at Christ. There is a peace that passeth all understanding in the intimate knowledge of Christ.


about 3 years ago

Interesting to see that other folks felt the same way I did :-). And even if not, it was a great topic for this site!


about 3 years ago

Please people, never listen Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker,Jimmy Swaggart,Jery Fallwell,Billy Graham,Oral Roberts,Rex Hubbart, Ted Haggard, Peter Popof..... these people are the worst garbage in human society...brainwashing people with primitive superstition ONLY for money, and do not care about nobody but just for themselfs.They are real evil


about 3 years ago

After hearing Pat's statement I no longer respect him nor will I ever listen to a word he utters again. He needs to go back & re-read his Bible. There's no "out clause" in the vow "in sickness & in health until death do us part." I cared for my Dad during the last years of his life. His sister died from complications of Alzheimer's. I know from a first hand account how demanding caring for an impaired loved one can be. I would do it all over again. As for the sexual component, that was not an issue as I cared for a parent. Still I believe we marry for a lifetime. I have been married to the same person for over 38 years & there is NO WAY either one of us would ever abandon the other. Love & commitment go so much deeper than just the sexual aspects of the union. ..... I will pray that Pat again finds the Lord & re-opens the Bible, but I will never listen to him again.


Anonymous said about 3 years ago

UMCGirl makes several excellent points and as a former Christian, I'd like to add that if you can't turn to God for help when you're feeling lonely and tired, then the whole House of Cards pretty much comes down. IMO, this is why Pat Robertson is so mind-bogglingly wrong about this because as a minister, especially one running a very public Help Line, he should have taken the tack that UMCGirl picked up on; enduring a trial sent by God and trusting that God will provide the means for you to do so is what it's all about. Why do I, an atheist, care so much about this? Because I'm dealing with this same mentality in my own family, a "Christian" relative who makes pitiful attempts to pray for more patience, but really wants out. Even though I'm not a Christian, I'm pleased to see some of what's coming out of the discussions because I'm optimistic that maybe we'll see a rise in genuine Christianity as a by-product of the discussion.


about 3 years ago

How come everyone is reading from a different Bible from the one Mr Robertson follows?


about 3 years ago

The answer is clear: If as a christian you pledged your love and committment before GOD and family & friends, you have vowed to endure the good, bad, happy, indifferent, not so pleasant, and the euphoric. If you just got married on a humble, do as you feel your conscience will allow you to live with and your soul will afford [and please remove your name as benificiary from any proceeds that may come from your abandoned spouse].


about 3 years ago

Pat Robertson is wrong. WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. My wedding vows were for better or worse, in sickness or heath, till death do us part! I am a Christian, a minister in fact, and I'm not sure what Mr. Robertson was thinking, but he knows as well as I do that God promises never to leave us or forsake us and I believe God expects that we treat our sick or injured spouses the same. Is it hard? Sometimes. Is it frustrating? Often. Is it lonely? Quite. On Chris Fabry Live today a guest reminded us that it is not an obligation to serve my husband, but rather a priviledge. He has served his family and me for 40 years and now it's my turn to serve him for as long as possible. How foolish to put aside the husband of my youth because the prospect of caring for him is difficult for me. I love him; love who he was and who he is. I hate Alzheimer's with all my being and I will not let it rob me of the joy of serving my husband.


about 3 years ago

Pat Robertson is clueless. As a so called moral leader, he has missed the mark!!!


about 3 years ago

No, Pat Roberson was not right! My husband and I will celebrate 53 years of marriage on December 24, this year! He has Parkinson's disease with some dementia and possibly beginning Alzheimers. I have COPD with Asthma and I have been on Oxygen since 2004,also Fibromyalgia. He has helped me for so many years, and I am now his caregiver most of the time. He has never left me, and I will never leave him. We exchanged our vows before God and would never break them. Mr. Roberson hasn't walked in the shoes of those who are suffering this disease of Alzheimers or their spouses who care for them daily.


about 3 years ago

Here are my thoughts. Please bear in mind that I'm caring for my 79-yr-old husband with moderate vascular dementia on top of a 20-yr-old non-traumatic spinal cord injury. I also have a 24-hour caregiver--two men from an agency who alternate, each a few days at a time, so I do sleep at night, my husband does know me, although he is intellectually impaired, disabled, and angry and frightened and very demanding. Some of the questions posed don't fit me so well, but I still have strong feelings about this. Also I don't care about what religion anybody's trying to use to beat other people over the head or to hide behind. This doesn't seem like a religious question to me. So here goes: Q:If you're married to someone who doesn't recognize you as a mate, or can no longer comprehend what marriage is, is that a marriage? A:Well, marriage is a legal contract, so that's a moot point. To get out of it, you have to do it legally. But ethically, if you'd agreed on this ahead of time & amended your vows (assuming you made vows) to read "in sickness and in health, with the exception of dementia", you could say that it isn't a marriage and you had grounds for divorce. Otherwise, it seems to me a promise is a promise, and this is an ethical question about your definition of a promise and what grounds you are contemplating using to justify breaking a promise. Q: If your relationship can't possibly be equal, is that still a marriage? A: I'm uncertain of the meaning of this. Does it mean that you were equal to begin with, say, in strength? or intellect? or intuition? or height? or weight? or testosterone levels? or beauty? or...? Inequality doesn't seem to prevent marriage for most of us. Q: If your loved one can't have sex, is that a marriage? A: Depends on definition of marriage. In my state it's a legal contract. But yeah, I know, that's not what we're talking about. Q: If you don't want to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer's, is an affair ever viable? Or does "in sickness and in health" apply no matter what, and even if your loved one has Alzheimer's for 5, 10, or 15 years? A: Again, ethics. Did you mean it or not when you said (if you said) "in sickness and in health", etc., and did you mean it in the traditional sense, i.e. exclusivity? If you meant it when you said it, then again it's the question of whether you can live with yourself if you break your promise. Q: Should more of us be discussing this with our partners before the first hints of mild cognitive impairment appear? A: Certainly, if you intend to have conditions on your promise, they should be stated from the beginning. This gives the partners the chance to bow out before the promises are made if they don't like them. Obviously I'm concerned about the individual trying to justify breaking a promise based on the fact that they are horny. In my experience, one usually regrets this. Of course, all the other ideas about getting out there and continuing to live and grow as a human being are terribly important! But not easy to implement. I just think wanting to have sex is a pretty flimsy justification for having an affair under the circumstances. I wouldn't do it because I'm virtually certain it would make me think less of myself. And I don't need that right now!


Anonymous said about 3 years ago

I am relatively new to caregiving. I pray every day for the strength to care for my husband with love and dignity. I do not consider the possibility of ever leaving him. This is for selfish reasons. He has been my best friend for thirty-five years. Even a brief window back to this relationship is worth it for me. I still love him, no matter his condition, but I admit to having fear for the future. I can't get too far ahead of myself, or I'll scare myself out of my wits.


about 3 years ago

My mother had 2 breakdowns, and was in an Aged mental health facility for some time. whilst caring for my father. The stress of caring for him was very real. Her life was restricted when she was caring for my father, she was still very active and capable, full of life and fun. My mother died last May, my father's reaction, 'she was a good sort can I have ' (making a drink gesture).. He asks for my mother all the time - his time bridges are very short - and he is easily distracted. My father has mid/high Alzheimer's and lives at home, he recently had is stats done, and physically he is in great shape. His life goes on undisturbed.


about 3 years ago

The Caregivers Voice is more on target here. It is a complex issue with many facets. Attorneys are suggesting divorce so that the loved one can be cared for by government. But on the flip of that many spouses who dearly love their partner have no other choice. It is either that on go totally bankrupt themselves and have no resources left, which would put both of them on the toll. Better that one continue to work. I was married to Bob for 54 years and as hard as it got, I never would have made that choice. However, I also had good insurance and resources.


about 3 years ago

I read Pat Robertson's published comments in the NY Times and I can see 3 sides to this ethical dilemma. THE HUSBAND attending an all-male support group in the Midwest whose wife no longer recognizes him and who "sees another woman" while his wife lives in a care home. His seeing this woman gives him the strength to visit his wife daily. U.S. LAWS. that dictate the well-spouse must become impoverished before s/he can receive assistance in caring for his/her spouse. Reputable advisors and even attorneys look for ways around the law including suggesting divorce, after which many couples still live together while the well-spouse retains assets to live on. (This too presents an ethical dilemma of who is responsible for my loved one's care--fellow tax payers or me.) Finally, WHAT IF I HAVE DEMENTIA? I would want to know I was being well-cared for. Once I no longer know my husband, I think my focus would be narrower on my own comfort and care. Sometimes, we spend too many hours judging other people's comments made in ONE MINUTE. Yet, Robertson's comment gives us the chance to truly ponder what we might do.


Anonymous said about 3 years ago

Pat Robertson...kiss my ass...now shut up and sit down you dunder head. Enough said.


about 3 years ago

My Mother and Father are dealing with Dementia. My Mother is totally dependent on my father; she has Dementia, he does not. They have been married for 55 years; and my father WOULD NEVER divorce her because of her mental state of mind. He feels that it's his responsibility to look after her 'until death us do part.' I know its a hard job for him but, he does it with dignity and love. Pat Robertson you are wrong.


about 3 years ago

I am of the Jewish faith and believe in the Old Testament. But, first and foremost, I am a human being like everyone else. I have my own personal values, the values I was raised with, and that is how I lead my life. I don't live it as being Jewish or Christian. I will not allow religion to define who I am as a person. Therefore, as a human being, I was literally appalled at Mr. Robertson's statement and found it way out of line. He is speaking of something he has absolutely no knowledge of, AND the worst part is that some folks may believe him which is a scary thought. Between this alleged man of GOD having an affair and coming out with a horrid statement such as this, he should just go away and be quiet. This is my nice way of putting it :-). If would of heard what I ranted and raved about when I first saw the article last week, it wasn't as pleasant as this.


Anonymous said about 3 years ago

There is nothing I would rather do that simply walk away from from the spiraling descent into a void where everything and everyone is jumbled around and turned inside out...watchng the confusion and knowg that we are only about half way through the maze brings me to my knees. But to walk away would shatter my heart into a thousand pieces, and how could I eve put myself back together again. My personal opinion is that Mr. Robertson may not have first-hand experience, and to him I say that each person has to find their own way, but Dementia/Alheimer is not "a kind of death", it is a disease, it is devestating to everyone, but mostly and by far firstly to the ill. Knowing that my spouse would be with me through "everything" is how the unimaginable becomes bearable.


about 3 years ago

The gospel of Mark, chapter 10 verse 9 : What God has put together, let no man take apart. You shall cleave to your wife and become one flesh. This cleaving in the scriptures is a blood tie. This cleaving to a virgin brings forth blood from the broken hymen, and creates a blood tie.


about 3 years ago

First and foremost, I would like to say that this blog hits the issue square...if you haven't been there, then you have no way to evaluate the situation. There are lots of questions with regard to this issue of Alzheimers and how it affects not just the person, but everyone in that person's circle. As to the question of what Mr. Robertson is quoted as saying, let me say that no matter what others may think I believe that I have listened to Pat Robertson in years past. While I can't say I have agreed with everything he has said, I will say this, he is a man of integrity and that if someone was writing him for advice then he has the same right the rest of us do to speak his opinion. Can it be backed scripturally, possibly. What I know of scripture, God does not want any to divorce, but there are instances where it clearly states there are exceptions. In the big picture, we ALL have screwed up...no one is exempt from that one. Thankfully, God's grace thru Christ covers ALL the sin..


about 3 years ago

I couldn't have said it better myself. The reply is correct - it's because of Robertson's strident religious bombasticity that he is wrong. Any other person would evaluate their situation, might even consult the readers of a blog like this one which is excellent, BTW, and might also have had a discussion in advance about the subject with their spouse. The issue with Pat Robertson is that he preaches a certain interpretation of marriage that virtually depends on enduring adversity and promises heavenly rewards such as being reunited with the made-whole-again spouse (how does he figure THAT will work in a triangle?), but gave advice that sounds like situational ethics (something Christians give everyone else no end of $?# over). I'm sorry for the struggle and burden that must b endured by the faithful Christian spouse of an Alzheimer's patient, but if they really believe the Bible then they'll believe that their time on earth is just a blink of an eye in eternity and that God gives then these tests for His perfect reasons. Sigh. I gotta tell you that as an atheist, i get a little tired of having to explain religion to Christians.


about 3 years ago

I'll preface this by saying that Pat Robertson claims to be a Christian. From a Christian perspective, the mental state of your partner does not effect your marriage vows. Did your partner choose to become mentally ill? In the Bible, marriage is compared to Christ and the church. The church being the bride of Christ. Christ died for all people, regardless of their condition, because He loves us all... unconditionally. The love between spouses should be the same - unconditional. "does "in sickness and in health" apply no matter what" From a Christian perspective - YES! Marriage is a selfless institution. It's not about you, it's about the other person, and your unconditional love for that person. In other words, no, Pat Robertson certainly was NOT right.


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