12/09/2010 05:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Elizabeth Edwards: Life Lessons on Need, Love, and Divorce

Elizabeth Edwards will be ever remembered as a woman who offered hope to the suffering, as well as one who stood up valiantly for economic well being and protection for those denied these rights. She was fierce, brilliant, and authentic in her reasoning and her pleas on their behalf. Even before the public humiliation that ultimately reversed John Edward's political fortunes, many said Elizabeth, not her husband, was the stronger Presidential candidate.

This said, however, the contradictions in the personal and public lives of Elizabeth and John Edwards are not only sad. They are also confusing. Yet, it is these very contradictions that offer vivid understanding of seemingly invisible forces that lead to estrangement and divorce.

How could a man who publicly demonstrated fierce love for his wife, who a month before abandoning his presidential race described her as "fearless," the one he trusted more than "anybody in the world" be having an extramarital affair which led to the birth of a child as he spoke these very words?

How could a woman who went through hell with him after the death of a son, who was determined to once again give him children, and who was a fiercely protective wife in all areas of their world be treated in this way? The pathetic picture of a woman begging her husband for some semblance of time and affection documented in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's book, Game Change, pointed to the utter turmoil and pathos, as well as the contradictions, in the public versus the personal lives of Elizabeth and John Edwards.

This dynamic, however, is acted out again and again on far less public stages. Sadly, it is, in fact, quite common. Such agony occurs when one marries another who needs the assets of this partner to move forward in life because of intense insecurity (often scrupulously and successfully hidden from others), and confuses this need for love. The resulting ultimately miserable dance, that at first can hold great passion, goes like this: One partner does not feel whole unless the other is filling him/her up constantly. The other does not feel secure unless he/she is needed constantly. In time, there is great pain, without understanding the reasons for an ultimately malignant dance: Terrified by distance and rejection the giver, in desperation, does more and more to be appreciated. But the receiver has long ago stopped expressing private appreciation and warmth. Instead he/she withdraws, resenting the giver more and more, viewing his/her acts as stifling, even choking, documentation of personal inadequacy. The distancing often involves turning to another for sex and escape, with no understanding of the forces at work.

Because she let us know and understand her through her writing and interviews, Elizabeth Edwards must have felt relief and peace in the brave, extraordinary legacy of hope and care that she left behind. Both of her books, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, which documents her fight for survival from cancer, and Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities, which shows a fierce devotion to her husband and the survival of her family, leave her blueprint for a meaningful life journey. Though surely Elizabeth Edwards wanted to live to see all of her children more secure in their journeys, she must have found calm and peace in the ways she protected and loved them, doing all in her power to ensure that they and their father will have some form of a trusting relationship. Though she wrote Resilience before her marital separation (when she could no longer deny her husband's lies), the book was her declaration that John was eternally hers; and she must have felt satisfaction that he was with her and their children in her final hours with their marriage legally intact.

That said, Elizabeth Edwards also left us life lessons not in her books that can be used as we do all possible to plan our lives and help our children to do the same: Before choosing a mate, be as whole a human being as possible. Do not commit to a partner whose primary passion is for you to help him/her feel whole and cover up insecurities, or even worse, self-hate. In other words, look for the following music and poetry expressed in and behind the words and actions of one you find yourself considering as a life partner: "I love you because you are the one I need to love and share with." And think again and again before committing to one who tells you, "I love you because I need you." The latter almost always leads to great personal pain, loneliness, and loss.