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Elizabeth Edwards: Resilience or Revenge?

Elizabeth Edwards: Resilience or Revenge?

May 13, 2009

Medical Research, Social Sciences & Humanities

The questions that are raised by the Elizabeth Edwards’ publicity tour for her book Resilience have caused a lot of back and forth comments–from “leave the poor woman alone, after all she’s dying of cancer,” to all the people who supported John Edwards in his run for president who now feel betrayed by Elizabeth for not stopping the campaign when she learned about his affair.

But the one question no one seems to be asking in the midst of this whirlwind media blitz is: What can we learn from this?

As her book title indicates, Elizabeth thinks she’s demonstrating that when the wind blows rough, the tough adjust their sails. But the more important lesson may be all about how denial and revenge don’t work.

I have worked with many women with breast cancer. There are commonalities, including unprocessed trauma. Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel has indicated that adverse life events increase one’s susceptibility to breast cancer.

The study showed that women who had experienced two or more traumatic events in their lives had a 62% higher risk of developing breast cancer.

Look at the traumas in Elizabeth’s life. Her son Wade died at the age of 16 in a car crash. Then she undergoes the physical and emotional stresses that accompany bearing two more children at the ages of 48 and 50, followed by the trauma of being diagnosed with breast cancer and battling the disease into remission.

All the while, she’s in a hugely stressful situation of helping to orchestrate and run her husband’s political career, with her ambition solidly joined to his.

Then, in the midst of the campaign, she learns that this same husband of over thirty years has betrayed her with another woman, and the cancer metastasizes, as does the illicit relationship. Somewhere in that process, she finds out that it was more than a one-night stand, and that he possibly fathered a child with Rielle Hunter.

Another commonality with breast cancer that I see is women who take on too many responsibilities. In Elizabeth’s case, that would include taking care of her man/child husband. She mothered him which he apparently both wanted and resented; the affair may well have been an expression of rebellion.

Think of the toxic stew of rage, grief, revenge and depression Elizabeth has churning inside her. So how does she deal with it? Through a lot of denial, for one.

Not wanting to hear “that woman’s” name spoken in her presence. Not wanting to know if that woman’s child is her husband’s.

Deflecting nearly all of the blame from John and herself to that woman and punishing her by showing off her big “dream home” on Oprah; the home with its solid walls becomes a metaphor for the walls that she hopes will protect her and her family from this interloper.

Making John “stand-by” during the Oprah interview, waiting his turn to be grilled.

Denying our emotions is never healthy; they frequently come back to haunt us, psychologically and physically. I often urge people to find healthy ways to express and process their emotions. The only thing worse than denial is revenge.

Isn’t writing a tell-all and hitting the TV talk show circuit all about getting in touch with your emotions? I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Rather than some healthy journaling, it seems much more about control and revenge.

Elizabeth may not have succeeded in getting the 100% fidelity she bargained for initially, but by George, I doubt he’d stray now.

Writing and then putting the manuscript in a drawer might have been the wiser choice– for her own health and the well-being of her children and whatever remains of her relationship with her husband.