Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Should He Divorce His Dying Wife?

Reginald has a problem. He wants to divorce his wife. He does not even understand why he ever married her. They have a daughter who is apparently a teenager. He and his wife do not get along. They had agreed to divorce. But now, his wife is seriously ill. She has a heart condition, a side-effect of her pregnancy. She has changed her mind about divorce. He has not changed his. He writes to therapist Lori Gottlieb to ask whether he can dump his dying wife… or some such.

He fears that his actions will make him look like a jerk. The chances are very good that such actions will make him look worse than that. We know little about how the child feels, about how family and friends feel, about how his community will see him. What about work colleagues and the wives of male friends.  If we are allowed to speculate about the minds of other people, we would suggest that his daughter, his family and his community will hold it seriously against him. His fishing buddies might not much care, but I am confident that their wives will. And his daughter will certainly care. She will be assailed on a daily basis by the plaints of a dying mother whose husband has abandoned her. 

In short, and without too much suspense, he should not divorce his sick and dying wife. Without knowing anything about his social network, we will err on the side of caution and declare that people should never abandon dying spouses… regardless. The damage to his reputation will not be repairable. His relationship with his daughter will not be repairable. Even if her parents do not get along very well, his daughter will almost certainly take her mother’s side.

For now, here are some salient excerpts from the letter:

We both could make a case for why we should have never gotten married. We broke up and got back together several times prior to marrying. I even married someone else (the marriage lasted approximately one year, and I could write a separate letter about that one!), and I was engaged to someone else before our paths crossed again and we married.

Two years later, after the birth of our only daughter together (I have an older child with another woman), my wife was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the heart), which doctors believe happened during her pregnancy. It caused some valve damage that she needed surgery to repair, and she later had additional surgery to implant a pacemaker.

Her health stabilized, but the issues we had prior to getting married worsened. I told myself going into 2019 that I would ask for a divorce for the sake of both our happiness. But toward the end of 2018, her heart issues started to get worse. So when I asked for a divorce, she accused me of leaving because she's sick. Fortunately, I had a bulleted list of all the things that were not getting better—and she didn’t disagree with the plethora of issues I laid out.

We mutually agreed that we should get a divorce, but a week or so later her health took a turn for the worse. Now her cardiologist says that she may have to have another heart surgery or even a transplant. As much as I’m concerned for her, I have been through thick and thin with her through prior surgeries and sometimes long bouts of her not being at 100 percent, and I know I can no longer stay. I will pick up the slack where I need to for my daughter, and my wife has a great support system with immediate family, but I don't want to come off as a jerk.

Am I wrong to leave her under the circumstances?


Since Gottlieb is a therapist, she sees this as a relationship problem. She cannot, from her therapist’s perspective tell him whether it’s right or wrong to leave his wife:

I can’t tell you whether you’re wrong to leave your wife, but I can help you understand your decision better by examining the story you’re telling yourself.

In truth, it’s far more wrong than right. Reginald would have done better to write to the New York Times Ethicist columnist.

Gottlieb meanders into some thought experiments. There she considers how other people might see his situation. Again, she has no real notion of the man’s social networks and things that all other people will either feel for him or not feel for him. She has no sense of community moral values. Hers is simply the wrong way to look at the problem:

Now, if you were hearing this story as an outsider, would you shake your head and say, “Oh, this poor, long-suffering man! Look at all the hardship he’s been through—all these women have wreaked havoc on his well-being, and I hope he can save himself and go find true love once and for all”? Or might you say, “Oh, this man sounds so confused. He’s clearly suffering, but he also seems to struggle with maintaining a stable, intimate relationship. I’m worried for his future well-being—no matter what he decides to do”?

And then, unfortunately, she decides that she must delve into his personal history. To be fair, he invited her to do so, but it’s still not relevant:

For starters, you say that you don’t want to come off as a jerk, but consider: This probably isn’t the first time a woman you were partnered with thought that you acted like a jerk. 

The problem is not whether or not he looks like a jerk. He is not dumping a girlfriend or even divorcing a woman… both of which are generally accepted forms of social behavior. He is talking about walking out on a sick and dying woman who also happens to be the mother of his child. The situation is unique, for him. We should not muddy the waters by confusing it with prior history.

Again, Gottlieb believes that it’s a relationship problem:

The part of your story that seems to stand out for its accuracy is that you aren’t leaving your wife because of her illness—at least, not completely. Given your history and the way you told your story, my guess is that you’ve found it hard to stay in any relationship, illness or not, and that you’ll continue to do so if you don’t figure out why relationships are so challenging for you.

So, Gottlieb falls into the trap that has caught so many therapists. She thinks that it’s about empathy. And, of course, about constructing a narrative, that is, turning your real life into fiction.

… shift from seeing the story solely within the confines of a first-person perspective (I’m not happy; I’ve put up with a lot) to being able to see it as a more balanced, third-person narrator (This mother is undergoing something life-altering, and has been for more than a decade, and probably hasn’t gotten much help for the trauma that resulted from her pregnancy. This daughter’s life has been affected by having a sick mother and parents who don’t get along. This husband and father has some personal issues to work out so that he can have healthier relationships). As you rework your story, you’ll develop more empathy for the other characters in the narrative, and be able to see the plot from their points of view as well.

Life is not a story. Telling it like a story will not help you to understand anything. The issue here is moral values, something that this man has an inkling of. Asking a therapist for advice about moral issues is obviously a big mistake, but not as big a mistake as abandoning a dying woman, the mother of your child.


ASM826 said...

As long as the writer and the therapist are working out of the idea that personal happiness is the greatest good, anything can be justified. It is a morality, just not a traditional one. It is that core principle that they need to reexamine. If he could see a different moral value as a greater good, love for his child and compassion for his desperately ill wife, for example, and see that this is where life has lead to, his decision making would be different.

There's a reason the old standard vows had "in sickness and in health." There's also a reason the old standard vows don't give you an out clause. It says "As long as we both shall live", not "As long as we are both happy."

Sam L. said...

What this man has is a minuscule droplet of an inkling that he's about to do a bad thing.

UbuMaccabee said...

Duty isn’t meant to be comfortable. I hold out hope that right and wrong might stage a comeback soon. Good and evil can’t be far behind.

Anonymous said...

You know what showed him for what he is? When he said he was "willing" to "pick up the slack" with his daughter...in other words, not really his job, but since he's a good guy, he'll "help" his dying wife a little with HER job of raising THEIR daughter.

That right there showed who he was. And I think he just said that to prove to the people he tells this story to, that he's really A Good Guy; he's not leaving 'cos he's A Bad Guy -- after all, he's willing to....etc. etc.

He thought he was making himself look good and easing some of his guilt with that remark, but it showed us who he is really well.