Ethics on the Soap Box: Coronation Street, Dementia and the vows of Marriage

If you didn’t know already, my guilty pleasure in life is actually Coronation Street. I love it. It’s the funniest out of all the soaps on British TV and it has some great story lines. Yeah, OK, as with all soaps, there are major fires, disasters and murders at least every quarter, but I find Corrie really british, and I’ve grown up with it. But one storyline that a few people have been following recently is a love triangle between characters Eileen, Paul and Lesley.

Paul and Lesley have been married for a long time. Eileen has been single for a long time. Paul and Eileen meet and start to develop feelings for each other. When Eileen suspects that the whole thing seems too good to be true, she goes snooping round to Paul’s house only to see him with another woman; Lesley.

It soon turns out that Lesley has dementia. But this doesn’t stop Paul or Eileen from seeing each other, and eventually they fall in love. This week, Paul has been talking about getting a divorce from Lesley so that he can marry Eileen. He states that they don’t have a marriage anymore and that Lesley isn’t the person that he married. He’s tired and worn out and feels that he deserves to be happy.

The final episodes this week, aired on Friday changed the game completely. Lesley has a bad day and becomes aggressive, causing Eileen to run out the house upset, leaving Lesley on her own. She electrocutes herself and dies. No need for Paul to file divorce papers.

They’re both left devastated, upset and shocked by the situation. They both feel guilty and Paul feels as if he’s let the marriage down and neglected the marriage vows he made to Lesley.

What many people don’t understand is that these story lines are quite close to the harsh reality of many people in marriages where the partner has dementia or an illness that takes away the person the other married. And difficult choices have to be made. As I watched the programme, I wondered what I would say or suggest to a couple who came to me for advice and/or counselling about this sort of situation when I’m a vicar.

And to be honest, I don’t know what I’d say at the moment. I understand that many would say that marriage vows are for life, despite illness; the vows state “…in sickness and in health”, right? On the other hand, these sorts of illnesses take their toll on both the sufferer and the ‘carer’ in the relationship and often strip away personality and characteristics that helped cause love to blossom within the couple’s relationship.

Ethics are terribly complicated and pastor’s face these issues daily, as do all of us. What I want to know is what would you do or say in such a situation, and how would you justify what you would say or do?

I’d love a bit of discussion on this – they’re important issues and need to be thought about carefully!

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Dean Roberts

Dean is a Minister in the Anglican Church. Currently he is Curate in the parishes of Bedwas, Machen, Michaelston-y-Fedw and Rudry in South Wales. He was born and bred in Wales, is married to Megan, and has two dogs called Taliesin and Melyn, and two cats named Sinsir and Hâf. He graduated from Cardiff University with a BA Hons. in Theology & Religious Studies, and has studied for an MA in Theology, Ministry & Mission at Trinity College Bristol. He also holds a Cert.RSCM from the Royal School of Church Music. He loves playing music, walking, reading, blogging and horse riding as well as going to the cinema and theatre. Read More @ http://deanroberts.net/about

  • Kaf

    Dean I think there’s 2 separate ethical issues here:

    1) The altered role of the married couple from interdependent partners to dependent adult and carer due to mental or physical illness

    2) An extra-marital affair, developed due to unhappiness in marriage, resulting in divorce

    1 on its own would probably usually involve lots of family and professional support, a change in the way the married couple understand their marriage to be but not always divorce

    2 on its own causes lots of pain and guilt on all parties, but usually is not complicated by the abandoned partner unable to look after themselves

    I think Paul has allowed himself to look for a relationship outside of marriage before he’d really worked out what the changed nature of his marriage was so he is just in a pickle and not sure how ‘faithfulness’ applies to him any more. Faithfulness could mean sexual fidelity, or it could mean lifelong support for a wife whose dementia is too advanced to be a wife as they were before.

    Also, how does divorce work when one partner is medically unable to make the decision?

    A clergyman I deeply respect once gave advice, justifying a divorce (in a very different situation to this) that ’til death do us part’ can also refer to the death of the marriage, not just the death of either partner. This sort of makes sense but my worry with this is how easy it could be to allow a marriage to die… Not quite applicable here though.

    Some thoughts!

    • Kaf – I think you’ve got it quite spot on there. Marriage and what that means and how it defines a relationship is key here… and I think with so much talk about what marriage is and what it should/shouldn’t entail, it could be very problematic in the future if things change. I’m not sure how the law works in this sort of situation… but would be interesting to know.

  • Amy

    I don’t really have a specific point here, so I apologise for rambling slightly… My grandfather suffered from Alzheimers for at least the last 20 years of his life, and although it was tough and his personality gradually changed considerably, my gran stayed and looked after him, with help from my family and outside carers who came in to look after him. This extra help allowed my gran to still have a life outside of caring – she still went to church, flower club and social gatherings. But it was difficult, not least because she herself was bi-polar and suffered from depression, as she had done for her entire life. To me, growing up, it seemed very one-sided, since my granddad got progressively worse, and he was barely the granddad I used to know, and my gran always seemed so strong. But since she had suffered from her illness for a lot longer than he had, he must have looked after her and been there for her for their entire 68 year marriage. It could have been their marriage vows and their Christian beliefs which kept them together for so long, but essentially I believe that it boiled down to the simple fact that they loved each other. Even in his worst state, my granddad recognised my gran, and if she wasn’t there, he asked for her, even though at times he couldn’t speak. Without her, I doubt he would have survived half as long as he did. After he passed away, it was only a matter of months before my gran’s cancer came back after years of being dormant, and she passed away after 7 months of being without him. It may sound sentimental, but I believe that without him to love and care for, she didn’t really have a reason to go on for much longer.

    Sorry, I’ve just realised how long this is! But its just my personal experience of dementia and illness and how it affected marriage. It may be different if people are younger and married, since it may affect more aspects of life, but from watching my grandparents I believe that if you love and respect somebody, and you get some outside help, then its possible to live with these life-changes. Its by no means easy – its difficult for everyone involved – but if you remember the person you fell in love with then you can at least give it a shot.

    • Amy – thank you for sharing your personal story. I’m really encouraged by it and think it’s really amazing how your grandparents found a way through those struggles. I wish I could put my hope in our generation of being the same, but the future does look bleak…