Anatomy of an Infidelity

I was shocked to read of the death of Elizabeth Edwards this week.  I was also dismayed, but not surprised, by the prominent mention of the infidelity, the “sex scandal”, that ended her marriage in all of these reports.  Amongst the heartfelt condolences to her friends and family, I also read many messages of scorn for her husband’s behavior.  Let me state flat out, before I get my head taken off, that infidelity is never a productive response to problems in a marriage.  While there are many reasons for cheating, there is never an adequate excuse.  But the infidelity that brought down the Edwards’ marriage, like the marriage itself, was complicated.

John Edwards first came to my attention when the Raleigh News and Observer did an in-depth profile of a lawsuit he won on behalf of a young girl permanently disabled by a defective swimming pool drain/filter.  I next heard about him when his teenage son Wade was killed in a car accident and he and Elizabeth set up a foundation and computer center in his memory.  I had the opportunity to meet and speak with John Edwards at a campaign event when he ran for the U.S. Senate.  I never had the privilege to meet Elizabeth, except through her media events and public appearances. By all accounts she was a woman of warmth, generosity, and class.

I remember seeing pictures and video footage of John and Elizabeth together.  Their love for each other was visible.  I used their ritual of celebrating their wedding anniversary at Wendy’s as an example to my clients of how to stay connected through the years and keep their marriages strong.  Unfortunately, choices made at critical times in their relationship set the stage for what happened later.

The birth of a child puts a tremendous strain on a marriage.  The death of one frequently deals the relationship a fatal blow.  It is a testament to the strength of the Edwards’ marriage that it took so many years for it to finally succumb to that initial tragedy.

Marriage is always a delicate balancing act between the needs of the individual and the needs of the relationship.  Grieving the loss of a child puts pressure on that balance like nothing else.  With other deaths, one person is usually more affected than the other-it is one partner’s parent, friend, colleague, etc.  But with a child, each person is equally affected.  Each person is grieving in their own way.  Each is also intensely aware of their spouse’s pain.  How this mine field of mutual pain and grieving is handled will determine the survival of the relationship.

It is well documented that their son’s death paralyzed both John and Elizabeth for at least six months.  A frequent, and accurate, recommendation after the death of a close loved one is to make no major life changes for at least a year.  Wade died in April, 1996.  Their daughter, Emma Claire, was born in April, 1998.  Figure in forty weeks for the pregnancy and the fact that help was needed for conception, the decision to have another child had to have been made during this year period.

I do not believe the Edwards’ had their daughter to replace their son.  Every parent can tell you that no child can be “replaced”.  But to discount the idea that Wade’s death had nothing to do with their decision to have another child is not credible. The fact they hadn’t had more children in the fourteen years since their daughter Cate was born lends credence to the connection.  Their choice was most likely a decision to bring happiness in to temper their pain.  On the surface this may not seem a harmful choice, but the hormone shots Elizabeth took to conceive both the younger children, and the attention required by their infancies, impacted the relationship.  John’s entry into politics, and the time required to campaign across the state and then the nation, also added distance to the marriage.  All this while still grieving the loss of their son.

The final nail in the marriage was undoubtedly the cancer diagnosis Elizabeth received.  The focus on her treatment meant the rightful emphasis on her physical needs.  An unfortunate side effect of this focus was the loss of attention to the relationship.  It also raised the ugly fear of death.  People don’t always respond to fear in productive ways.  The Edwards’ once strong marriage, weakened by events not of their choosing and by choices with unforseen consequences, became vulnerable to the temptation Rielle Hunter presented.

Should John Edwards have resisted this temptation?  Of course.  Could he resist?  Obviously, he didn’t.  It’s easy to stand outside and judge.  It’s easy to say what you would do in those circumstances.  But until we are tested, we really don’t know.  As I said, infidelity is often complicated.

Elizabeth Edwards wrote, “the days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered.  We know that.  And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like.  It’s called being human.”  The love she and John shared was real and, I believe, lasted until the very end.  It just got battered by life’s events and the choices made in trying to cope with those events.  They were both human.

The legacy I believe Elizabeth Edwards would want to leave is for us is to focus on the entirety of her life and her love, not just one very difficult episode.  It is also important to remember to take the time to protect our marriages.  It is too easy for them to become vulnerable, even the strongest ones.

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