The news of Elizabeth Edwards' death on Tuesday saddened me on many levels, not only the way in which her 32-year marriage to John came to an end, but also that two of her children are still so young.
People talk about good divorces and bad divorces, but what most of us consider a bad divorce typically has to do with money or nastiness and manipulations. I'll agree that those can be pretty ugly, but there are some divorces that are beyond bad divorces, the "who would do that?" divorces, the Mother of All Divorces divorces. Those would be when splitting causes an additional incomprehensible pain to a spouse and the children.
For instance, the Edwards'. They separated and Elizabeth filed for divorce within days after John admitted, yeah, I did father a baby with Rielle Hunter -- at the same time that Elizabeth was battling the incurable cancer that ultimately killed her. How painful is that?
John McCain's divorce was no better. His was schtupping a younger babe while wife No. 1, Carol, was barely recuperated from a devastating and disfiguring car accident. Then he dumped her to marry his mistress, now Mrs. Cindy McCain. Nice.
It seems especially callous to cheat on and divorce a partner who's sick or suffering. And yet, it isn't all that unusual. Not too long ago some doctors noticed an odd pattern in their oncology practices -- too many of their patients, female patients that is, were suddenly getting divorced. A study last year, "Gender Disparity in the Rate of Partner Abandonment in Patients with Serious Medical Illness," backed their observations.
The odd thing about the aptly named "partner abandonment" is how big a role gender plays in it. Women who are diagnosed with cancer or multiple sclerosis are six times more likely to find themselves separated or divorced shortly after their diagnosis than if they were a man, according to the study.
As if that wasn't enough, the older the woman, the more likely she was headed for splitsville, resulting, not surprisingly, in some serious impacts on her health and quality of life.
What would drive a man to abandon his wife at the time she needed him most? The study's authors don't quite answer that -- who can really know? -- but they cite other studies that indicate men are "less able to undertake a caregiving role and assume the burdens of home and family maintenance compared with women. Thus a woman becomes willing sooner in the marriage to commit to the burdens of having a sick spouse."
As a twice-married and twice-divorced woman, I know what the researchers are talking about. One of my fantasies is that my partner wouldn't mind -- dare I say enjoy -- pampering me just a little when I'm sick as I so willingly do when he's feeling crappy.
What gives, guys?
Another beyond-bad divorce scenario is when a cheating spouse ends up shacking up with or marrying his or her lover and there are kids involved, as in McCain's case. I can't even imagine how to begin that conversation with your kids let alone spin it to be a good thing, especially if they now have to live with the woman or man who helped destroy their family. A few of my friends have been those kids, and the anger and resentment even decades later haven't totally gone away.
Not that I think explaining why you dumped Mom when she was sick would be any easier.
Then there are the double betrayals -- think Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn. Losing your spouse to a good friend -- or your own child -- would pretty much suck.
All of which makes me so thankful that my divorce falls into the "good" category. Sure, there are many times that we're frustrated and disappointed with each other; if we weren't, I'm guessing we'd still be married.
But in some weird stroke of luck, I ended up following Nora Ephron's sage advice: Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from.