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Jill Brooke

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How Long Should A Spouse Be Celibate If Their Mate Is Ill?

Posted: 08/13/08 12:39 PM ET

Lately people are throwing poison darts at Elizabeth Edwards for supporting her husband's bid for the Presidency even though she knew he was unfaithful. Excuse me?

If a doctor's wife finds out her husband has been unfaithful, should she stop him from performing surgery, something he has done for 20 years. After all, you are supposed to trust your doctor.

Politics is a business too.

Elizabeth Edwards may not have believed in him as a perfect husband after learning about his affair with Rielle Hunter, but I'm willing to bet she believed in him as a candidate. They shared a world view, a sense of justice, and a commitment to public service.

Similarly, John McCain's first wife, Carol, probably knew he was already keeping company with the heiress Cindy Lou Hensley when he and Carol were still married, in 1979. She was said to be "in shock" when he asked for a divorce. But Carol McCain believed in her husband as a good man, and later supported his political career. She said later that the breakup wasn't due to his imprisonment in Vietnam, or a car accident while he was in Vietnam that left her on crutches and four inches shorter than she had been when she was a swimsuit model. She said, "I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else." "Wanting to be 25 again" could almost be wife code for "going out with a younger woman," in this case also a beautiful and rich one.

And so Elizabeth Edwards was backing the good man who was running for president, not the flawed human being who made a mistake. The people who throw around the words "staunch family values" must know that staunch family values means keeping a marriage together.

"'Til death," right? Not "'til one of us makes a mistake."

The Edwardses have spent years together, and many of those years running campaigns. It's what they enjoyed doing, what they shared. Or maybe it was what he enjoyed, and she loved him.
After getting a cancer diagnosis in the last month of her husband's 2004 campaign for vice president, a shock to both of them, maybe she felt that she owed him another campaign. John Edwards's second run for president was supposed to be a legacy for her children.

Maybe she thought that this campaign would have a happier ending.

It didn't.

He withdrew from the race in January. She found out her cancer had returned in March, and was incurable, if not untreatable. And this month, all of the rumors about his affair were confirmed.
And there is something else that may apply. From personal experience I know that, when you are ill, the loved one suffers too. Especially if he has a lot of testosterone running through his veins. When you're going through medical treatment, or even worse, chemotherapy, you are fatigued and stressed. Even in remission, especially after surgery and radiation, the last thing a woman might think about is sex. If you have no desire for it, your mate may still want it.

Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil, the author of "Adultery: The Forgivable Sin," says that "sometimes men stray to have their needs met, but it doesn't mean that they didn't love their wife." A wife, she says, often may even give tacit approval.

This by no means justifies what John Edwards seems to have done, but it's another theory of explaining why his wife might have tolerated it.

At Firstwivesworld.com,, a question did surface that is worth exploring. If your mate is ill, how long should the spouse be celibate?

For me, I know with certainty that I would never cheat on my husband. That's because of one word: commitment.

It is why my husband's Uncle Sol is still so revered in Rochester, New York. His wife of 50 years has Alzheimer's. Did he abandon her? Make a home with someone else? No. Every day for the past seven years he has arrived at her nursing home at 10 am and stayed there until 4 pm. He has bathed her, talked to her, fed her, put her clothes on, all to insure that she is well taken care of.

When asked by nurses, friends, and colleagues why he does this without complaint, and at the expense of doing other, more "fun" things, he simply explains, "I made a commitment in sickness and health." Yet even my husband, rooted to these values and role models, says he understands how a man may need to relieve the stress through sex.

In a perfect world, everyone would honor that commitment. Our worlds are rarely perfect.

From a political point of view: Where does it say that someone's marital transgressions make him, or her, less effective as a leader, or less capable of making good judgments?

Steve Kalb of The New Haven Independent, wrote: "George Bush has, by his own account, a terrific marriage. Yet this is the same individual who has approved the wholesale gutting of the constitution, paying particular attention to rights of privacy, habeas corpus, separation of powers and the separation of church and state. While he has remained ever faithful to his wife, he has succeeded in alienating just about every other leader in the free and not-so-free world."

Elizabeth Edwards, however, can be blamed for one act of foolishness. No, not that she is sticking with her husband and wants to keep her family intact.

She was foolish to think that rumors about her husband's affair, rumors that surfaced six months after he began his most recent run for president, wouldn't eventually come out, and be proven true, as Huffingtonpost blogger Bonnie Fuller cited. All she needed to do was look at the press clippings on Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer.

But anyone who has had cancer sometimes substitutes hope for facts. Maybe this was one of those cases.

This article was first published in firstwivesworld.com, a website that helps women who are contemplating, navigating or moving on from divorce.

 

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